Qatar: Strikes Delicate Balance Against Gadhafi

Christiane Amanpour's interview with Qatari Prime Minister and Key American Ally

April 10, 2011 — -- As the United States and NATO continue to enforce a no-fly zone over Moammar Gadhafi's Libya they are joined by one country with a tiny air force: Qatar.

The small but very rich country on the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula was the first Arab county to join the U.N. effort to support the rebel forces in Libya. And while the Qataris are used to striking a delicate balance in the Middle East, the stakes have never been higher.

ABC News' Christiane Amanpour sat down with Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin al-Thanisim al-Thani in New York this week and explained his country's commitment to support this spring's democratic fervor in the Middle East -- even if that support risks rankling its Arab neighbors.

"Well, actually, it's not a good position," bin al-Thanisim al-Thani said. "But ... we decided to take this position after we see that Gadhafi is using air force, using all the heavy artillery against his people.

"For that reason, and to encourage the international community to be part of the coalition, some Arabs have to be in. So this is why we take the decision to help the Libyan people," said.

Al-Thani is adamant that this conflict in Libya must end with the removal of Gadhafi.

"For us, the decision (to support the rebels) is as long as is necessary," he said. "The people of Libya and the international community will not accept any solution except that he leave power."

An Ally in Yemen

Qatar is also playing an influential role in the nation of Yemen, where there have been violent clashes this month between the opposition forces and Yemeni President Saleh. This democratic swell in Yemen presents a unique challenge for the United States and its allies because Saleh has been an opponent of Al Qaeda.

Al-Thani said that while he expects Saleh to leave by the end of the year, the impact of his removal is unclear.

"This is a big question and the answer is difficult," al Thani said. "I believe if Yemen has a democracy and they have their own new government, they will see that the benefit of Yemen is to fight al Qaeda and any terrorist group. Because that will bring prosperity, will bring investment, will bring tourists in Yemen."

But no immediate conclusion to the conflict in Yemen is in sight yet. Even late Saturday, amid a barrage of clashes between protesters and military forces in Yemen, Qatar joined representatives from other Arab states to attempt to negotiate a peaceful departure for Saleh in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

"I think he has to leave before the end of the year," al-Thani said. "Not that I have a say that he has to leave, but the people of Yemen want this."

Not only was this proposal rejected, but Yemen also reportedly withdrew its ambassador to Qatar in response to comments made by al-Thani calling for Saleh's resignation, much like those made to Amanpour.

Democracy at Home

For Qatar, support for democracy in some of its neighboring Arab states, could lead to changes in its own monarchy government, al-Thani said.

"That's what his highness plans to do," al-Thani said. "The people know that he's serious."

Al-Thani said the emir, the Qatari monarch, has supported democratic reforms in his country without the pressure of violence as we've seen in other countries.

"The people know that he did a constitution under no pressure," al-Thani said. "There was no pressure to do a constitution. There is no pressure to do parliament. There is no pressure to do municipal elections. There is no pressure to do a free press in Qatar. And you know a free press bring a lot of headache for Qatar."


The Qatari prime minister said the classified diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks have presented many concerns and may have a chilling effect on some diplomatic communications going forward.

"I know some of the leaders, they start now to take care what to say and what not to say after Wikileaks," al-Thani said. "And I think it will take many years until people forget what the damage have been by WikiLeaks so they can talk with the United States more frankly and more open. No doubt, there is damage in that."

Al-Thani joked: "I think they will talk about the weather more than they talk about complicated issues."