THE ROVING EYE The glitzy face of Eurabia
By Pepe Escobar
PARIS - Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, is a man, to
quote rock geopoliticos Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, "of wealth and taste".
Not to mention his second wife, the ravishing Sheikh Moza, one of the most
powerful women in the Middle East. It goes without saying that the Qatari royal
couple had to be bitten by the Francophilia bug, super-villa in Cannes included
(not to mention the duplex near Place de la Concorde).
But in terms of global power couples, few rival the complicity between the emir
of Qatar and adrenalin junkie and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. After all,
Sarko Le Premier (Sarko the First), as cynics call him in France, could not
find a better partner to anchor France's Arab foreign policy. At the Elysee
cozy relations with a key Persian Gulf actor are considered ultra-strategic.
Especially if the actor in question holds the third-largest proven gas reserves
in the world, only behind Russia and Iran.
The emir and Sarko are so close that whenever there's business to be done - and
that's a lot of business - the emir calls Sarko directly, bypassing the usual
diplomatic channels. Not for nothing the Qatari royal couple are regular guests
of honor in the traditional French parade of July 14.
The emir is indeed a fascinating character. Faithful to the (previous) empire,
he studied at the British military academy in Sandhurst. In June 1995 he
applied a bloodless palace coup and snatched power from his own father, who
happened to be living la dolce vita in Europe. Once again flirting with
iconoclasm, the emir then not only famously begged to differ from the House of
Saud in virtually all matters but got into no-holds-barred journalism by
launching a made in Arabia 24-hour news channel, al-Jazeera.
The emir holds no grudge against the West. Far from it; the best example may be
the muscular influence of the Rand Corporation in Qatar. He is now carefully
cultivating the profile of an international mediator - as in the Doha accords
that led to the 2008 Lebanese presidential election.
When in doubt, invest
The power love affair between the emir and Sarko was born when Sarko was still
France's minister of interior - or, critics say, "top cop", at a time when
agreements were basically reached under the "war on terror" framework. Now
everything is at play - especially Qatari investments in France, such as the
renovation of the ultra-chic Hotel Lambert, owned by the emir's brother, as
well as the inevitable multitude of villas in the Cote d'Azur. No wonder in
February the French parliament approved a bill exempting from taxes any
investments made by the emir or his public entities in the French real estate
Inevitably this is a matter of a monster, US$80 billion sovereign fund, the
Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), created in 2005 to diversify a monoculture
economy until then dominated by oil and gas. QIA simply eschews any
opportunities demanding less than 100 million euros (US$142.4 million). Europe
accounts for one-third of the investments of Qatari Diar, the company in charge
of the financial transactions for the fund.
QIA won't blink to place 7 billion euros to get 25% of Porsche. It already
controls 15% of the London Stock Exchange, 8% of Barclays, 2% of Credit Suisse
and 8% of the top bank in China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
Certainly more piles of cash are invested in London, but the emir's heart beats
for Paris. Qatar is literally taking over rows and rows of office buildings
between Opera and Madeleine in central Paris. Why real estate? It's because
what Qataris know best. Even the mayor of Paris, the colorful Bertrand Delanoe,
is now in full campaign to make the Qataris invest in other, less pricey,
Qatar's dream is not exactly to become a real estate powerhouse. The emirate
wants to be respected as a model of regional development. That's where Moza
Bent Nasser al-Misned, the emir's wife, jumps in.
The Qatar Foundation, over which she presides, finances a host of humanitarian
and cultural projects - such as the recent ecology awareness global blockbuster Home;
the movie's director, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, received 1 million euros from the
foundation. The emir's wife is now in the French Academy of Beaux-Arts.
She is also vice president of Qatar's Supreme Council for Education, and
directs a giant campus (the general plan was designed by superstar architect
Arata Isozaki) where six American universities are already shelling out
diplomas (60% of them to women). Sheikh Moza is an extremely active campaigner
for education as the path for feminine emancipation in the Middle East. Quite
striking, when one knows how the Qatar peninsula has been for a long time
heavily marked by intolerant Wahhabism.
As in all Gulf emirates that have been propelled in less than half a century
from a subsistence economy based on fishing to untold oil and gas wealth,
culture is not exactly a priority. "Culture" in the region could be defined as
the cement of a social cohesion that still has to be invented.
So yes, when they hear the world "culture", Qataris wave their checkbook. Qatar
didn't get the new Louvre - it was snatched by Abu Dhabi. But Qatar got the
architect of the Grand Louvre.
The architects come from the rich north, the laborers from the poor south. This
symbiotic apotheosis is more than evident at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha,
launched in November 2008. Cost: only $350 million. The architect had to be a
genius, Chinese-American I M Pei - who, as the emir well knew, built the Louvre
Pyramid. The museum is a sensational mix of cubes and curves erected over an
artificial island away from the Doha corniche, facing from a distance a
spectacular 21st-century skyline. The collection, as a former expert from the
Victoria and Albert Museum in London put it, is also spectacular, covering
1,300 years of history in three continents.
And "culture" does not stop here. Qatar is also building a Museum of National
History (the architect is another superstar, Jean Nouvel); a Museum of Natural
History; a National Library (by superstar architect Arata Isozaki); a
Photography Museum (architect Santiago Calatrava); and a Museum of Contemporary
The glass pyramid
Anyway, "culture" in Qatar remains predominantly business. And business is
definitely booming for Alcatel, Alstom, Areva, GDF Suez, Total - all the big
names of French big business. Vinci, for instance, is building no less than the
number one bridge in the world between Doha and Bahrain, 43 kilometers long.
GDF Suez is installing a desalinization plant in the middle of the desert.
Business is also booming in European territory. Qatar spent over $2 billion
this year on five A-380 Airbus jets, not to mention the $17 billion spent two
years ago for 80 A-350s. Add to it the 1.5 billion euros for 20 Tigre military
helicopters from Eurocopter (a branch of the giant European consortium EADS).
The French arms industry especially simply can't get enough of Qatar - betting
all its chips on a commercial war against the Americans already doing business
with Doha. EADS sold to Qatar their system of border surveillance as well as
radars; now the emir wants an anti-missile system.
Qatar is indeed Paradox Central. In the tiny emirate of only 11,000 square
kilometers, one finds only 900,000 people - 80% of them expatriates - as well
as al-Jazeera, a mega-American military base key for the US Central Command and
the wife and daughters of Saddam Hussein. On top of it, Qatar finances Hamas in
Palestine. Annual per capita gross national product is a ridiculously high
$74,000. Crisis? What crisis?
Qatar's love affair with all things French does not exactly include "liberty,
equality, fraternity". Everything in what is technically a constitutional
monarchy is in the hands of the al-Thani clan. Socially, it's a hardcore
pyramid. What's the place of "Western liberal democracy" in all this
ocean/desert of cash? The emir and his ultra-pro team have been skillfully
projecting Qatar's global image as an extremely modern country. In Qatar
everything seems to be diluted in the overwhelming liquid modernity flux of
services, banking and smooth efficiency. As much as Dubai in the United Arab
Emirates copied to the hilt the Singaporean model, Qatar is re-mixing the Dubai
copy. A haven of social justice it ain't.
France and the European Union for that matter - can live with it. Most of
Qatar's gas - the country is the number one exporter of LNG (liquefied natural
gas) - goes to Asia. Last year, France bought only 85 million euros in oil and
20 million euros in gas from Qatar. The possibilities of expansion, not only
for France but the EU as a whole, are limitless. Especially because Brussels'
dream is to escape from the Russian energy stranglehold. The holy grail is
North Pars, the largest gas field in the world, which Qatar shares with Iran.
Forget about villas in the Cote d'Azur; it's big - energy - business in this
node of Eurabia that will be booming for a long time to come.