Obscured by the WikiLeaks revelations and controversies reverberating in Arab capitals is a bit of news arguably far more important than the latest embarrassment for Arab leaders. On December 2nd, the tiny, oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar managed to win the coveted 2022 World Cup bid, beating out the U.S. and Australia in one of the more unlikely upsets in recent sports history. The New York Times' Nate Silver called the decision "astonishing," others were simply confused. It was both a brave and risky move for the FIFA committee. For Qatar, however, and the broader Middle East, it has the potential to be a game-changer.
Arab countries are not accustomed to victory in the global arena. The past few years in particular have been, by even the region's high standards, depressing. Whether civil conflict in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, or the political deterioration of Egypt, the region has at times appeared to be in free fall.
But not in Qatar. The World Cup is just the latest success in an impressive run for the Qataris, who currently enjoy the world's highest GDP per capita as well as its fastest growth rates. More importantly, the win is a vindication of Qatar's odd, and often creative, foreign policy.
In 1995, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father in a bloodless coup, becoming the new Emir. Under his leadership, Qatar made a strategic decision to distinguish itself from its competitors in the Gulf, particularly Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The country, home to less than 300,000 citizens, has since become an increasingly influential player on the regional and international stages. The revenue generated by Qatar's deep oil reserves of course helps. But it is the use of this revenue that has set Qatar apart. Rather than spending it on costly weapons systems - Qatar's military expenditures are quite low by Gulf standards - the country has focused its attention elsewhere. Qatar is already home to "Education City," which hosts campuses for Georgetown, Northwestern, and other top American universities. One of the world's largest collections of modern Arab art is set to open by the end of the year. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera, one of the region's freer and most widely watched news networks, projects the country's influence around the world.
Meanwhile, the region's pro-Western pillars, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, are declining both in spite of and because of their closeness to the U.S. As the State Department cables released by Wikileaks have shown, these countries are crippled by the wide gap between leaders and their citizens. The former go along with American policy, whether on the Arab-Israeli peace process, Iran's nuclear ambitions, or counterterrorism, while the latter decry Western influence and sympathize with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. And managing the divide is not getting any easier: in several Arab countries, U.S. favorability ratings are lower under President Obama than they were in the final years of the Bush administration.
By contrast, Qatar has steered a middle path, hosting the largest pre-positioning U.S. military base in the world, while still managing cordial, and increasingly close, relations with Iran. As we saw with the 2008 Doha Agreement, in which Qatar brokered peace between the Lebanese government and the Hizbollah-led opposition, when you have leverage with both sides, it's easier to strike a deal. Qatar has also mediated between the Palestinians, Yemenis, and Sudanese, with varying degrees of success.