Qatar's rate of development is staggering. Cranes and construction crews are in motion from day to night churning out high-end development projects and futuristic skyscrapers.
A state-of-the-art new international airport was recently opened, the government is working on a new port and infrastructure improvements like a light rail system are in the planning stages in preparation for the World Cup 2022.
Qatar is working to put itself on the map as an international travel hub, business center and tourism destination. A pivotal part of that strategy is aviation.
The Middle East has recognized it is geographically poised to be the new crossroads of global travel with billions of people living one direct flight from the Middle East to include a growing middle class in China and India.
Dubai is on the cusp of overtaking London's Heathrow Airport as the busiest airport for international visitors. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Middle East airlines saw passenger demand growth of more than 18 percent in April, more than twice that of any region in the world.
Qatar Airways, the state-owned flag carrier, is moving at a feverish pace to direct international tourism and cargo through its capital city of Doha, buying hundreds of planes and opening new destination routes worldwide.
It is a startling and swift transformation for the small Middle East country. Below you will learn more about Qatar -- its history, its successes and its challenges:
Qatar is an absolute monarchy ruled by the Al Thani family since the mid-1800s.
The small peninsula, roughly the size of Connecticut, extends into the Persian Gulf sharing a land border with Saudi Arabia.
Its economy has evolved from fishing and pearling to oil and natural gas production, which has fueled large-scale development projects and catapulted Qatar to the top of the list of the world's wealthiest nations.
Qatar boasts the world's highest income per capita with one of the lowest unemployment rates.
The Central Intelligence Agency suspects that its immense wealth has shielded the country from experiencing the kind of domestic unrest or violence seen in other parts of the region.
Fun Fact: The Oryx is the national animal of Qatar and the logo for Qatar Airways.
During the global financial crisis, Qatar made direct investments into domestic banks to protect the local banking sector. While private and foreign investment in non-energy sectors are on the rise, oil and gas still account for more than 50 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
Formerly a British protectorate, Qatar gained independence in 1971.
The State Department describes diplomatic relations with Qatar as "strong, with the United States and Qatar coordinating closely on a wide range of regional and global issues ... together we support progress, stability and prosperity in the region."
Qatar has been a crucial player in America's regional security strategy. Relations between the United States and Qatar flourished during the Persian Gulf War when Qatar played a pivotal role in helping Kuwait during the invasion of Iraq. Qatar hosts the U.S. Central Command Forward Headquarters (CENTCOM), which The Economist describes as "the most critical of the constellation of American military bases around the Gulf, together serving some 35,000 American troops."
The airbase southwest of Qatar's capital city of Doha called Al Udeid is the base hub for logistics and command for U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
CENTCOM is responsible for the "central" area of the globe, which consists of 20 countries -- Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, SaudiArabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
The United States is Qatar's largest foreign investor and its single largest source of imports.
Exports from the United States to Qatar include aircraft, vehicles, optical, medical instruments and agricultural products.
Imports to the Unites States from Qatar include liquefied natural gas, aluminum, fertilizers and sulfur.
"According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the year-to-date value of U.S. exports to Qatar had reached $3.8 billion through September 2013, consisting mainly of transport equipment, manufactured goods, and machinery -- up from $1.9 billion over the same period in 2012. The year-to-date value of U.S. imports from Qatar, mainly oil, totaled $1 billion through September 2013, up from $763 million over the same period in 2012." -- Christopher M. Blanchard, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, Congressional Research Service, Jan. 30, 2014
Qatar's terrain is mostly barren and flat desert. It has mild winters and very hot and humid summers. The extreme summer heat and common sandstorms have been another source of Fifa criticism for the organization's decision to grant Qatar the hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup. Some fear it will be too hot, dangerously so, for both players and visitors. Air quality also an issue.
In Qatar, access to limited natural freshwater is increasingly dependent on large-scale desalination facilities.
Arab is the official language of Qatar, but English is commonly used as a second language, especially in commerce.
Islam is the official religion of the State of Qatar, and the Islamic Law (Sharia) is a major source of legislation in the country.
Fun Fact: The work week runs from Sunday through Thursday.
Qatar drafted a new constitution in 2003 and has a 45-member advisory council, or Majilis al-Shura, that would constitute a sort of legislative branch. But the Emir always has the final say and the Majilis al-Shura have limited legislative authority to draft or approve laws. The constitution had outlined a plan to allow citizens to vote for two-thirds of the Advisory Council seats, but the elections were postponed and no new date has been set. There are no political parties in Qatar.
Qatar has drafted a "2030" plan calling for improvements in healthcare, education, commercial aviation expansion and sustainable development.
There are infrastructure expansion projects underway in preparation of hosting the 2022 World Cup to include a light rail system, construction of a new port, roads and stadiums. That's if Fifa doesn't pull the plug first. An investigation into bid corruption claims is currently underway.
All press is state controlled. Qatar is also home of Al-Jazeera, which the Central Intelligence Agency reports "was originally owned and financed by the Qatari government but has evolved to independent corporate status."
Flag description as described by Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
The national flag of the State of Qatar is maroon with a broad white nine-point serrated band breaking into the maroon side. The meaning of Qatar's flag is as follows:
+ The white color denotes the internationally recognized symbol of peace.
+ The maroon symbolizes the blood that was shed during the several wars Qatar has undergone, particularly in the second half of the 19th Century.
+ The nine-point serrated line obviously indicates that Qatar is the 9th member of the (Reconciled Emirates) on the Arabian Gulf in the wake of concluding the Qatari-British treaty in 1916. This is recorded by the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1931 regarding Qatar's national flag's layout and coloring.
Qatar has become a gem of the Middle East.
Powered by oil and gas revenues, in just about two decades, Qatar has undergone a rapid modernization of infrastructure and development with brand new roads, architecturally significant skyscrapers, leading cultural institutions and an emerging regional aviation hub.
A brand new airport opened in just the past few weeks. Qatar Airways is adding new destination routes on nearly a weekly basis to include a nonstop flight to Miami. The new Hamad International Airport is expected to open with an annual passenger capacity of 24 million on initial opening and 50 million when complete.
Its population boasts the world's highest per capital income, making Qatar the richest country in the world.
But with all its successes there are some frustrations.
Human Rights Concerns:
Claims of labor abuse are frequent.
Last year Guardian reporter Pete Pattisson uncovered an alarming death rate by workers brought to Qatar to work on 2022 World Cup projects.
"This summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar," Pattisson wrote in the September 2013 article, "many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of laborers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organization, during a building binge paving the way for 2022."
Then in February 2014 Guardian reporter Rebecca Falconer wrote about the conditions faced by some foreign domestic workers: "Foreign maids, cleaners and other domestic workers are being subjected to slave-like labour conditions in Qatar, with many complaining they have been deprived of passports, wages, days off, holidays and freedom to move jobs."
Falconer also reported that the Philippine Overseas Labour Office took-in more than 600 runaway maids in the first six months of 2013. Groups told the Guardian contracts and job descriptions often change once the foreign workers arrive in Qatar, they are not paid for months and "women who report a sexual assault can be charged with illicit relations."
Just this month, ArabianBusiness.com reported that two unions have filed a formal complaint to the United Nations against Qatar Airways claiming that the carrier is violating the rights of its foreign workers.
"According to the AFP report, Qatar Airways staff are forced to live in company compounds, under surveillance, with curfews," ArabianBusiness.com wrote. "They are also banned from marrying during their first five years at the company and must obtain permission from the airline thereafter."
The article also says professional employees are exposed to workplace harassment.
Human rights groups and the United Nations have been calling on Qatar to end the "kafala" system by which migrant workers are tied to their employers. Migrant-rights.org described the system this way: "GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) country manages its 'temporary' migrant workforce through the sponsorship or Kafala system. Under this system, a local citizen or local company (the kafeel) must sponsor foreign workers in order for their work visas and residency to be valid. This means that an individual's right to work and legal presence in the host country is dependent on his or her employer, rendering him or her vulnerable to exploitation. In most GCC states, migrants cannot leave or enter the country without their employer's permission."
Human rights reports by the State Department have noted Qatar's restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly and ban on political parties.
Hamas & The Taliban 5:
While Qatar does support substantial U.S. military operations on a base southwest of Doha, U.S. government officials say Qatar maintains ties to Hamas "and others critical of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations."
The 2012 State Department report (released in May 2013) stated that "Qatar's monitoring of private individuals' and charitable associations' contributions to foreign entities remained inconsistent" and noted that the Qatari government "maintained public ties to Hamas political leaders."
Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal continues to operate from Doha after decamping there from Damascus in 2012. Yusuf al Qaradawi, an outspoken Egypt-born religious cleric, also continues to operate in Qatar, where he advocates support for armed Islamist groups in Syria and encourages Egyptians to rise up against the current government, which has sought his arrest. In recent years, U.S. counterterrorism concerns with regard to Qatar have focused on support provided by some Qataris to extremist and terrorist groups abroad.
The State Department reported in 2011 that Qatari authorities "did not adequately enforce its laws and international standards to track funds transfers to individuals and organizations (including charities) associated with extremists and terrorist facilitators outside Qatar." During 2012, the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENAFATF) completed a required review of Qatar after determining that "Qatar had improved its anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism regime and was either 'compliant or largely compliant' with all of the Task Force's recommendations." -- Christopher M. Blanchard, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, Congressional Research Service, Jan. 30, 2014
It is in part the concerns stated in that recent report which led the Obama administration to come under fire for a prisoner swap deal which released five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. In return for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, five Taliban leaders were released to Qatari officials. Some believe their stay in the richest country in the world will be too comfy, with too much access to other extremists thought to be laying low in Doha to include members of Hamas.
The New York Post: "Taliban 5 are now in a terrorist hotbed."
The Daily Beast: "US Spies worry Qatar will 'Magically Lose Track' of Released Taliban"
LA Times: "Most of 5 freed Taliban prisoners have less than hard-core pasts."
WORLD CUP CONTROVERSY
A Moroccan tour guide in Qatar called it the "jackpot." There was immense pride in the region after Fifa chose Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, making it the first country in the Middle East to host the month-long international soccer competition.
It didn't take long for criticism to take hold. Qatar's blazing summer temperatures and sandstorms are legendary. During June and July temperatures can often exceed 115 degrees. Many worried it is simply too hot for the players and visitors. There are also tourism worries pertaining to the country's decency laws and limited access to alcohol.
Then The Sunday Times dropped a bombshell that put Qatar's ability to hold onto to the title of 2022 World Cup host country into question. The British newspaper reported that a cache of leaked emails show the country's top soccer official paid $5 million to Fifa officials to secure the winning bid.
Qatari officials have insisted they did nothing wrong and told the Qatar Tribune that they were confident Qatar will retain the rights to host the 2022 World Cup.
Fifa's lead investigator is attorney Michael Garcia, a partner at the Kirkland & Ellis global law firm and former U.S. attorney. His report into allegations of corruption in the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup is expected to be delivered to Fifa officials in the coming weeks.
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