Qatar Remains Crucial Gulf Ally

America all but ignored the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar for years, but with a conflict brewing with Iraq, the tiny country within easy striking distance of Baghdad looks set to become America's new best friend.

"Qatar is in the middle of the Gulf," said Sheikh Hamad ali Jassim al-Thani, the Qatari foreign minister. "So, strategically for the U.S., it's perfect."

The Al Udeid Air Base, near the capital, Doha, will play a critical role. Located just 700 miles from Baghdad, the base has the longest runway in the Gulf and can handle 120 planes. Qatari officials say about 3,000 U.S. military personnel live on the base and they expect that number to grow to about 9,000 by the end of the year.

Signaling Qatar's strategic importance, the Pentagon has announced that up to 600 members of the U.S. military's Central Command headquarters staff would head to the country for a three-week exercise in November. Some of those personnel will be stationed at Al Udeid.

ABCNEWS has learned that once the exercise ends, most staff will probably leave the Gulf nation, but a new high-tech modular command facility — the pieces of which will be arriving by sea over the next two months — would be left behind in Qatar, and could easily be used as a field headquarters for an attack on Iraq.

Forging a Relationship

Qatar is a tiny country — not much more than a peninsula of sand — home to just 800,000 people. But it also sits on a massive treasure: the biggest, purest natural gas field in the world.

For much of its modern history, Qatar relied on Britain and Saudi Arabia for its defense. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, however, Qatar's royal family realized only one country was likely to protect its wealth.

"The only power that can project power in this part of the world is the United States," said Hamad. "There's nobody else."

So Qatar set out to woo the United States. After the Gulf War, Qatar began building the Al Udeid Air Base and invited the United States to use it. The American military, however, didn't move in until after the attacks on Sept. 11.

The airbase was used extensively for Operation Enduring Freedom, the military operation the United States launched in Afghanistan last year against al Qaeda and the Taliban regime.

Lack of Dissent

In addition to the nation's geopolitical importance, other factors also make Qatar an appealing staging ground. The large American military presence in Qatar would stir passionate debate or even outrage in many Arab countries, but is hardly talked about in Qatar.

This nation is relatively new, and was founded primarily for economic reasons. It continues to exist and prosper because of its oil reserves and bustling financial sectors. The businesses this oil has created for this secular and non-political state has made people more concerned with economic well being.

For this reason, the people of Qatar are generally far more concerned with their economic prosperity and stability than they are with the political and religious struggles of the rest of the Muslim world.

When asked their opinion about Iraq and the prospect of a conflict in the region, many people spoken to by ABCNEWS said they had none. "We don't get involved in political affairs," said one man who refused to give his name.

"We have faith in God," another said. "I'm not worried about anything."

A 'Progressive' State

Qatar appears relatively progressive in other ways. All adults — men and women — have the right to vote, although the officials they elect have very little power.

For five years, Qatar's emir has funded and supported the Arab world's most liberal and free cable news channel, al Jazeera. Other Arab leaders have been critical of the pan-Arab satellite broadcaster because they are no longer able to control what their people see.

There have been even harsher words from segments of the Arab world over Qatar's policy on Israel. While most Arab countries cut trade ties with the Jewish state, Qatar maintained them. Israel even has a trade office in Doha.

American Influences

In a little more than the decade since the Gulf War, Qataris have become intimately tied to America and its way of life. American culture is pervasive, with a McDonald's, Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken on many of its dusty corners.

American educational institutions have also moved in. Cornell University is building a four-year medical school in Doha. Virginia Commonwealth University has already established a presence.

Where other Middle Eastern countries have endured years of war and bloody internal political struggle, Qatar has a different outlook than many of its neighbors. For members of the American military based in Qatar, it is safe and familiar.

ABCNEWS' Bob Woodruff and Andrew Morse contributed to this report.