On Monday, Qatar signed a 6.3 billion euro ($7.02 billion) deal with France to buy 24 Rafale fighter jets. The small, wealthy Gulf country is working hard to raise its international profile, and modernizing its military is one key element. With destabilization raging in the region, the country’s arms purchases are no longer mostly symbolic.
Through its actions, diplomatic or otherwise, and through its state-owned media company al-Jazeera, Qatar has been both making and shaping news in the region. It has come into heated arguments with other Sunni countries for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood (and Hamas, whose leader Khaled Meshal is still based in Qatar) but the situation is complicated. Qatar supported but did not participate in U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and raised a stink when Egypt bombed ISIS in Libya. But under pressure from Egypt and Saudi Arabia especially, it has been taking steps to somewhat distance itself from supporting Islamists. In a sign of that rapprochement, Qatar is now conducting airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen as part of a Saudi-led Sunni coalition.
Qatar is also taking high-profile strides on another front: addressing climate change. Last Tuesday, the government officially inaugurated one of the biggest environmental projects in the world, the Jetty Boil-off Gas Recovery (JBOG) in the port of Ras Laffan. (In early April, Qatargas celebrated loading the 5,000th cargo ship with LNG from Ras Laffan). The JBOG project, which captures gas that used to be flared off when loading up LNG ships, actually began operations in October, and has already recovered gas from over 500 ships. At a cost of $1 billion, it will cut flaring by 90% and avoid 1.6 million tons of CO2 emissions annually, as well as power 300,000 homes with the salvaged gas. “We don’t have an expectation of an economic return from the project, but we will benefit from the recovered gas,” Saad Sherida al-Kaabi, Qatar Petroleum’s chief executive officer, said on Tuesday. In total, approximately 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is expected to be captured and re-used domestically over the next 30 years.
The JBOG project is part of the “Qatar National Vision 2030,” a grandiose two-decade plan of human development and sustainable economic diversification away from its finite reserves of fossil fuels. (These efforts gained more publicity when Doha, the country’s capital, hosted the U.N. Climate Change Conference in 2012.) Heavy emphasis is placed on raising the country’s international profile in energy, media, education, science, and sports.
Another prominent example of the Vision is the Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP). Inaugurated in 2009 as a free zone allowing 100% foreign ownership, tax-free status, duty-free import and exports, and unlimited repatriation of capital and profits, it now has over 40 tenants, including startups and major players like ExxonMobil and GE. In October the QSTP hosted the 31st International Association of Science Parks (IASP) World Conference. At the same time, the park’s managing director said that it had reached 95% capacity and will expand with three new buildings. The state-run Qatar Foundation funds the QSTP, as well as other prominent institutes like the Sidra Medical and Research Center (with a $7.9 billion endowment), and Qatari campuses of several American universities such as Northwestern and Georgetown.
That said, all the publicity in the world won’t change the fact that Qatar’s location makes it vulnerable — right on the frontlines of any potential regional war with Iran.