The United States and Qatar on Wednesday signed an agreement that allows the U.S. military to upgrade its facilities at a base that could be used in the event of an attack on Iraq. The agreement is an example of the developing ties between Qatar and the United States.
While Qatar may have the smallest population in the Gulf region, it is rapidly becoming one of America's largest allies in the Arab world.
It is currently the site of a U.S. and British military operation called Internal Look. The operation, which relies heavily on computers, is intended to test the ability of a state-of-the-art military mobile command and control center. In the event of war the control center, equipped with giant-sized computer screens and high-speed communications equipment, would be used by U.S. Central Command to direct troop movements from a single location.
Internal Look is the fourth in a series of such exercises since 1990. This is the first time the exercise has been held outside of the United States, fueling speculation Qatar will be a critical factor in a possible invasion of Iraq.
There are additional reasons for this speculation. Qatar's al-Udeid airbase has the longest runway in the Middle East. It is capable of handling aircraft of any size and continues to be used for operations associated with military activities in Afghanistan.
There are about 3,300 U.S. troops stationed in Qatar, but it's believed that number will expand. On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed an agreement in Qatar clearing the way for tens of millions of dollars to be spent to improve the al-Udeid airbase.
Possibly the biggest reason Qatar's importance has grown so dramatically is the fact that it is one of the few countries in the Arab world that has publicly announced it will allow the United States to use its facilities and airspace if there is an invasion of Iraq.
The head of Qatar University's Gulf Studies Center, Hassan Saleh al-Ansari, said Qatar's leaders are acting out in their own interest. Mr. al-Ansari said the Persian Gulf state is trying to develop its resources, including sizable oil reserves, and the United States is the only power that can provide protection.
"We are interested in developing our human resources, developing our natural resources and we think without securing the country we will not be able to do that. And we think that the United States plays a major role in this," said Mr. al-Ansari. "For the last 20 years, there is no nation that can provide security for the region except the United States; and the United States is the balancer, and everybody might not say that but this is the reality."
But Mr. al-Ansari said Qatar's allegiance to the United States is not blind. He said its future relationship will be heavily dependent on how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved and what role the United States plays in bringing peace to the region.
But for now, he said, when it comes to the United States, Qatar's arms are open.