At the end of a desert road leading to the Persian Gulf lies the key to prosperity for tiny Qatar: the world's largest natural-gas field. The reserve holds enough gas to satisfy U.S. demand for more than 30 years, and makes Qatar a natural place for giants such as Exxon Mobil (XOM), France's Total Fina Elf (TOT), and Japan's Mitsui (MITSY).
Energy supplies Qatar's wealth. But the progressive style of the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, may supply something else: a role model for other gulf states as they contemplate life in the region after Saddam. If President Bush decides to invade Iraq, Qatar will play an important part. Home to Camp As Sayliyah, headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, Qatar is one of the most outspoken supporters of U.S. policy toward Iraq in the gulf. "The United States is a very close friend to Qatar," says Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassem bin Jaber Al Thani, a cousin of the emir.
BLOODLESS COUP. Friendship with the U.S. is an important pillar of Qatar's security and possibly its long-term prosperity. Just as important are the emir's goals and policies. The Qataris have no desire to exist in the shadow of either the Saudis or the Iranians -- they want a future more secular and more Western than either of those states provides. "The emir has a genuine belief that the world is changing and that it's better to do things now, when we can, and not wait until there's more tension," says Hassan M. Al Ansari, director of the Gulf Studies Center at the University of Qatar in Doha. "Change is not an easy thing."
Qatar is no transplanted piece of American society and never will be. But its leaders are shrewdly combining economic and security policy to secure the country's future. After the first Gulf War, Qatar quietly agreed to host American forces. Then, in 1995, the emir deposed his figurehead father in a bloodless coup and began instituting radical changes. These included investing more than $1 billion in an air base, Al Udeid. It's home to a 15,000-foot runway, the longest in the gulf -- and now a centerpiece of America's power in the region.
Just as crucial, Sheikh Hamad followed his welcoming of the U.S. with an easing of immigration rules and the introduction of tax breaks to overseas investors. He oversaw the drafting of a constitution that will eventually create an elected Parliament, lifted the ban on alcohol, and established Al Jazeera, the freewheeling satellite-TV station, which frequently annoys Qatar's neighbors with its pointed reports.
"He has broken all the taboos," says Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis, an independent think tank in Dubai. "He flagrantly talks about democracy. This is encouraging to investors from the West." Along with having a maverick leader, Qatar's size makes it conducive to change. Fundamental shifts in a big country like Saudi Arabia would be much more difficult, Kahwaji says.
NO TAXES, CHEAP GAS. The sheikh can conduct his social experiments in a prospering country. Lured by the gas fields and tax breaks, multinationals are pouring money in -- unlike, say, in Jordan, another progressive Arab state that has no major gas or oil reserves to attract foreign capital. Qatari growth has averaged 13.5% over the past five years. Last year, gross domestic product per capita soared to an estimated $27,050 -- higher than France's.
The development of the 900 trillion-cubic-foot natural-gas field has provided the state with the money to offer enormous benefits for its citizens. Qataris don't pay taxes, have free health care, and enjoy free electricity and water -- and cheap gas. Nearly every other car zipping along the palm tree-lined highways of the capital, Doha, is a sport-utility vehicle. "Everything is done for the benefit of the people," says Mubarak Mohamed Alboainin, an engineer at Qatar Petroleum who got his degree at Lamar University in Beaumont, Tex., at the state's expense.
In this atmosphere, liberal thoughts creep in. Qatari women participate in the prosperity, in contrast to Saudi Arabia, where their rights are limited and they must remain covered from head to toe. True, most women in Qatar still wear the traditional long black robe, the abaya. But thanks to a push from Qatar's first lady, Sheikha Mouza, women can now drive, vote, and run for office in municipal elections.
Behind the push for women's rights is the belief that all Qataris need to be educated for the country to become a true modern state. In addition, since the Arab state is so small and has such a large immigrant population, officials want as many natives as possible participating in the workforce.
DIFFERENT DEMOCRACY. One successful woman is Hind Abdulla Al Maraghi, a sales and marketing executive at the Doha Club, an exclusive social center in the city's downtown. Al Maraghi, who is working on a bachelor's degree in computer programming, views recent changes as revolutionary. "There's a big future for women in Qatar," she says. That's not to say every aspect of a woman's life has changed: In July, Al Maraghi will marry a man who was picked for her.
Just as cultural traditions will take time to change, so will the government. While Qatari rulers talk glowingly of democracy sprouting up in this barren desert state, the reality is a bit different. Yes, there are hopes for an elected Parliament, but no plans to replace the monarch with an elected head of state. "The question is how you judge democracy," says an adviser to the emir. "Is it democracy in the Western sense? No. Is it progress? Yes."
Progress the U.S. hopes to see replicated in the region. By Laura Cohn in Doha, Qatar