Move over, Dubai

For years, the new Hong Kong was Dubai, one of seven United Arab Emirates and a one-time smuggling port on the Persian Gulf, now the latest casualty of «Wild East» casino capitalism. It was all fevered speculation, with little oil and no gas to back it up. An indoor ski slope where the outside temperature hovers above 100 all summer, the world’s tallest building – twice the height of the Empire State Building – and a downtown golf course couldn’t prevent the implosion of Dubai’s speculative bubble.

Thirty minutes away by air, you’re in the Arab El Dorado, no longer the imaginary place of great wealth and opportunity that eluded 16th-century explorers in South America. Qatar, with a population of 2.1 million, is the wealthiest country in the world, with a per capita income of $78,000. With just 35,000 people, Liechtenstein claims $118,000 but is in a separate league of stamp-size states.

The oil giants are pouring tens of billions of dollars into GTL – gas-to-liquid – ventures with Qatar Petroleum. Depending on different criteria, Qatar is the world’s first or second exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG). Last week, some of the 2,500 separate GTL systems, with 800 operators and technicians, began churning in a gigantic project that employs almost 50,000 people.

Fifteen years ago, Qatar’s Sandhurst-trained Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani concluded that his father, the emir, Sheik Khalifa bin Hamad, was squandering Qatar’s future, hidebound as it was by a religiously inspired status quo. He deposed his father, on vacation in Switzerland, in a bloodless transfer of power.

The new emir lost no time opening up the country to the rest of the world. At the same time, he funded with $137 million the creation of Al Jazeera (the Peninsula), a no-holds-barred radical Arab voice that sent shock waves through conservative ruling families that kept their media on the straight and narrow. Today, Al Jazeera’s English service, available in Washington on Channel 275, with its globe-girdling bureaus, twitter feeds and YouTube channel, outshines CNN International. Doha’s two English-language newspapers – the Peninsula and Gulf News – each carry 14 pages of international news, rivaling in volume such global giants as the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune.

Last week, Al Jazeera’s one-on-one interview in English with Ahmad Chalabi made the former neocon icon (who produced disinformation on weapons of mass destruction designed to maneuver the U.S. into invading Iraq in 2003) squirm under the barrage. Rejected by the United States, Mr. Chalabi maneuvered himself into chairing Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission, where he decides which former Ba’ath Party loyalists are to be purged from public life. To work anywhere under Saddam Hussein, one had to be a Ba’athist. Al Jazeera’s interviewer left no doubt that Mr. Chalabi, a Shia and frequent traveler to Tehran, is now Iran’s man and that his goal is to become prime minister.

In Qatar, political reforms were more sagacious; they went hand in hand with modernity as the emir and his dynamic, beautiful wife, Sheika Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, lobbied U.S. universities to open campuses in Qatar. Six have done so. Students get the same education they would stateside. In 1999, women voted for the first time in municipal elections. At Qatar University, 75 percent of 10,000 students are women. A woman is education minister. Balloting for a national parliament and a constitutional monarchy are on the docket. There even is a Ladies Tour of Qatar bicycle race – in shorts.

Doha’s skyscrapers have won architectural prizes by the score. They are well separated for viewing from their four sides. Each major ministry has its own high-rise, all with Arabic and Muslim motifs.

Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait with 100,000 troops and 700 tanks – followed by an allied force of 500,000 that flowed into Saudi Arabia to kick Saddam out of Kuwait, followed by Sept. 11 and the U.S.-British invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and then the 200,000-strong U.S.-British invasion of Iraq in 2003 – all forced an agonizing reappraisal of Qatar’s defense priorities. Tampa, Fla.-based U.S. Central Command maintains a subheadquarters at Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base, 28 miles west of Doha, where 1,000 Americans from all services are based. It also has use of a 15,000-foot runway, the longest in the Gulf, under Qatari command.

The emir and his government chief, strategic thinker Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, who is both prime minister and foreign minister, and the national security staff see all their many accomplishments in dire peril should Israel decide to bomb Iran. The distance from Iran’s nearest missile batteries to Qatar’s LNG port at Ras Laffan is just 100 miles. «Two missiles on LNG loading docks as a supertanker takes on a full load,» said one ranking Western diplomat, and Qatar «is out of business.» So Qatar endeavors to maintain «cordial» relations with what is perceived to be a military regime in power in Tehran. Its Northfield cornucopia abuts, even overlaps, with Iran’s claim.

Last week, Qatar’s defense chiefs received a high-powered Iranian military delegation, headed by Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi. The post-meeting communique was effusively bland. No mention of threats and dangers. But privately, Qatar’s leaders believe the best solution to the Iranian threat is what they call «Japan and Brazil.» No further explanation is required. Both Japan and Brazil are roughly three months from being able to produce a nuclear weapon. And they think Iran is ready to accept similar status as a compromise while, of course, denying it has any nuclear weapons ambitions.

The worst-case scenario came up at the Club of Monaco (retired senior statesmen and women from Europe, the Middle East, including Israel, and the U.S.) in Doha last week. Diplomatic code was «detonator,» which was designed to conjure up an Israeli air strike against an Iranian nuclear facility that would automatically unleash Iran’s asymmetrical retaliatory capabilities against U.S. and pro-U.S. targets up and down the Persian Gulf. Most world governments would assume the U.S. had given Israel the green light, and Iran, in turn, would feel justified in «counterattacking» throughout the Gulf. Thus, Israel becomes the «detonator.»

There also was an emerging consensus that Iran had welcomed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and that Iranian officials in the Gulf were privately rooting for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. One Iranian official was quoted as saying, «America got rid of our worst enemy and turned Iraq over to Iranian influence.»

Another ranking French participant said President Obama «is self-weakening, and his influence over the Iranian crisis is dwindling. And the more he weakens himself, the more inclined he will be to give Israel the nod to bomb Iran.»

Qatar and Oman, two of the six Gulf Cooperation Council members, established trade relations with Israel in the late 1990s. The five Israelis who attended the Monaco Club conference were betting Israel would not bomb Iran. And the leaders of the former British protectorate of Qatar, independent since 1971, are determined to keep climbing the ladder of international success.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor-at-large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.