Desert upstart Qatar reaches out to the world
by Birthe B. Pedersen and Britta Søndergaard
Thirty years ago, Qatar was a sleepy community of pearl fishermen, but then natural gas was located under its soil. Today the stony desert state supports aid projects throughout the world. Now even in Denmark, Qatar has donated 100 million kroner (ca. USD 17 million) for the first major mosque in Copenhagen.
On Vingelodden in northwest Copenhagen workmen are hurrying to convert a former office building into a large Sunni Muslim mosque and a cultural center, which will be completed in the spring. By this project a relatively unknown organization, the Danish Islamic Council, seeks attainment of the dream of a great, impressive mosque, moving religious life away from basements and backyards.
For years, Danish Muslims discussed different mosque projects, but time after time, the plans failed because it was not been possible to collect enough money.
Now the Danish Islamic Council, which according to information gathered by the Kristeligt Dagblad, has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, has partnered with the wealthy oil state of Qatar. The tiny emirate provided more than 100 million kroner for the project. This included Muslims in Denmark in the extensive network of initiatives that the small country so generously supports.
One and a half kilometers away, on Vibevej in Copenhagen, craftsmen are also engaged in mixing concrete for the first Shia mosque in Copenhagen, supported with an unknown amount of money from Iran. All indications, however, are that the Sunni mosque in Vingelodden will be the first that can open its doors to the public.
While Saudi Arabia and Kuwait previously dominated aid to schools and mosque construction projects overseas, Qatar has gradually taken the lead. This is in itself a remarkable achievement, given that Qatar is only a third as large as Jutland [district of Denmark] and has only two million residents – three quarters of whom are foreign workers.
The big question is: Why? Does this represent an attempt to gain influence among Muslims abroad, or is Qatar's offensive far more complex?
How can one explain that the small desert emirate of just thirty years ago, a sleepy community of pearl fishermen, which later became the world's richest country after the discovery of large natural gas deposits, supports Hamas, cooperates with high-profile American universities and think tanks, invests in British department stores and also has trade agreements with Israel? Moreover, Qatar created the TV channel Al Jazeera in 1996 and thus genuinely spread critical journalism around the Arab world.
And in addition, to complete the picture, Qatar will host the World Cup in 2022. Add to this that Qatar is basically Wahhabi like Saudi Arabia, but practices the strict Islamic doctrines less rigidly. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, it is possible to obtain alcohol in Qatar, although it does not flow freely. Women are allowed to drive, and the Emir's wife, the sophisticated Sheikha Mozah, runs a large-scale training program and neglects no opportunity to call her sisters to become students. The capital Doha will deal willingly with the Afghan Taliban, Hamas from Gaza and businessmen from the West.
So far, Qatar has mainly funded mosques and Islamic cultural centers in Muslim countries in Africa and Central Asia. For example, the country has donated 400 million U.S. dollars – about 2.3 billion Danish kroner – to a mosque in Tajikistan, which will be the largest mosque in the former Soviet Union. In a smaller scale, the small African nation of Djibouti gained 10 million dollars for a mosque.
In western countries, mosque investments are more discreet. Qatar has, at the request of the French government, supported the Great Mosque of Paris, with 15 million kroner. A religious congregation has also started negotiations with Qatar to finance a large mosque in Munich, but there has been contract, and politicians do not agree on where the mosque should be. In Luxembourg, the charitable organization Qatar Charity supported the Muslim organization Le Juste Milieu, which collects funds for mosque construction. In addition, there are several Qatar-funded mosque construction projects underway in Italy.
While Qatar's support for mosque construction has taken place quietly, the situation of its investments is different, and has aroused debate. In France, especially, the purchase of the Parisian football club Paris Saint-Germain, directed the public eye against Qatar's money bin. The Qatar Investment Authority acquired 70 percent of the football club in 2011 and has since secured the last 30 percent, and also bought handball club PSG.
In addition, Qatari investments range from so small a holding as a one percent stake in the luxury goods giant LVMH, to more conspicuous investments, such as nearly 13 percent of the media group Lagardère, and 7.5 percent in the European aircraft manufacturer EADS.
In Germany, the Qatar Investment Authority bought 17 percent of the Volkswagen group, but it is noted in the UK that Qatar's Crown Prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, head of the Qatar Investment Authority, has been shopping for a total of around 114 billion kroner's worth of assets, according to the British newspaper The Guardian. Among the spoils are especially significant shares in Barclays Bank and Harrods department store.
While some experts explain Qatar's thrift as a desire to do business, other see these investments as a thinly veiled attempt to export a radical form of Islam.
"This investment is pure business," says Eric Denécé, director of the French think tank Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement.
"Qatar anticipates the depletion of its gas resources and is investing in profitable sectors that can support the country's economy in the long term. And there is also Qatar's controversial desire to invest in the French immigrant suburbs," says Eric Denécé.
Since Qatar offered to make 370 million kroner available to companies in the French immigrant suburbs, a storm of protest and a fear arose, suggesting that behind the generous investment was a hidden agenda to influence the suburbs' predominantly Muslim population.
The project has since been converted into a joint Franco-Qatari fund, in which the French public bank Caisse des Dépôts and Qatar each contribute more than a billion kroner.
"There are also purely economic interests and expectations that investment will pay off. But it does not prevent another component of Qatar's international strategy being to export its Wahhabi version of Islam to the world's Muslims – in competition with Saudi Arabia," says Eric Denécé.
While Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, has assured the French press that "Qatar has absolutely no intention of proselytizing," a leader of the extreme left, Jean-Luc Melénchon, spoke of the "economic colonization of France," and the leader of the far right, Marine Le Pen, has accused Qatar of "exporting radical Islam to the whole world. "
Karim Sader, consultant and specialist in Gulf countries, said that Qatar has a clear strategy to influence Muslims to follow Qatar's version of Wahhabism.
"Qatar is a kind of 'real' Islamism that combines a rigorous version of Islam with a certain modernity, especially in the form of pragmatism in business and in relation to modern technology. Investment in sports and in the French suburbs, for example, is intended to give Qatar a good image in Western countries. But it is especially in Muslim countries, particularly in Africa and Central Asia, that Qatar is trying to secure its influence," says Karim Sader.
He points out that Qatar, from the beginning, supported the Arab Spring and is now making giving significant assistance to the new Islamist rulers, especially in Egypt and Tunisia. Qatar supported the rebels against Muammar Al-Qadhdhafi, and then against Bashar el-Assad in Syria, where the Islamist opposition is strong in opposition to the Syrian dictator.
"Qatar is trying especially to ensure its influence by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia, while Saudi Arabia supports the more radical and violent Salafist organizations," said Karim Sader.
Eric Denécé shares the view that Qatar particular focuses on out-competing Saudi Arabia as Wahhabi representative in Islamic countries. But he fears that the country also finances jihadist organizations, if it is in its interest. And in particular, he believes that Qatar has supported the jihadist organizations in northern Mali.
With regard to Europe he warns Europeans against being naive: "One should not believe that there are ideological motives behind all Qatari investments in large companies in the West. But the Western countries must not be naive. Qatar also has a clear agenda to spread an Islam that belongs to the extreme end of the spectrum. And you should definitely be skeptical when Qatar injects money into mosques in Europe," says the French researcher.
The American journalist and Middle East expert Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, who became Muslim and is head of the think tank Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, also believes that Qatar's support for mosques is problematic:
"Qatar has taken over Saudi Arabia's role. As Saudi Arabia has been more reluctant to support mosques, Qatar has been the major donor. They support forces associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and in Europe. When they support a mosque in Copenhagen, the goal is not so much to influence what is being said in the mosque. It is important for Qatar to build up a community, with a bookstore and a surrounding environment that favors the Muslim Brotherhood. And more generally, their goal is to create parallel zones for Muslims in Europe," says Stephen Suleyman Schwartz.
Associate Professor Martin Hvidt of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, who has followed developments in Qatar, does not share the fear that Qatar will support specific parallel societies in Europe.
"Qatar is a tremendously rich country, and they also have a need to show their brothers and sisters around the world that they are going to share some of the benefits that they have received. They can only do so through symbolic actions such as building a mosque," said Martin Hvidt, who believes that Qatar is trying to promote a modern and open-minded form of Islam.
"The crisis surrounding the Mohammed cartoons may have contributed to a mosque application being viewed favorably in Denmark. Qatar will probably see the mosque as a way to promote multicultural society in Denmark," in the assessment of Martin Hvidt.
A middle position is held by Naser Khader, a senior fellow at the U.S. Hudson Institute who has traveled several times in Qatar. He also assesses that country's support for a Danish mosque as rooted in a mixture of altruism and the desire to emerge as a dominant force in the Arab world.
"Overall, it's hard to figure out what Qatar will do. They have their fingers in many investments, and they have an emir and a first lady who are extremely ambitious. One of the reasons Qatar supports mosque construction is a tradition of altruistic principles in the Islamic world. According to Islam, you have to pay two and a half percent of your assets in zakat," says Naser Khader. He stresses, however, that Qatar's religious support often goes to organizations that have close links to the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, according to Naser Khader, Qatar's desire is reinforced by support for the new mosque Iran is building in Copenhagen.
"Support for mosques is also a way to gain influence," says Naser Khader.
According to Professor Jorgen S. Nielsen of the Theological Institute at the University of Copenhagen, there is a good deal of defense policy in Qatar's investments.
"Qatar is a small country and can very easily be overrun by Saudi Arabia. It strengthens Qatar; the country gets a sympathy network abroad," says Jørgen S. Nielsen.
On Vingelodden in northwest Copenhagen, a spokeswoman for the Danish Islamic Council, the 22-year-old Kodes Hamdi, has high expectations for the new mosque. The young headscarf-clad woman denied that Qatar will influence the project.
"They did not impose conditions, but just wanted to help us build a mosque and cultural center. The mosque means that the first time we can practice our religion in beautiful settings and open our doors to Danes who want to know more about Islam," said Kodes Hamdi.