10/13/2014 04:53 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2014

Qatar's Path to Regional Maturity

"What is the only country in the world whose name starts with the letter 'Q?" A quiz question I remember being asked as a child, playing the word game "Name Place Animal Thing" on long family drives in Pakistan thirty odd years ago. The name of the country still causes much confusion, with prominent world leaders and journalists still mispronouncing it with an unseemly "G" instead of a "Q." Yet despite all these comical tales, and its relatively small geographic and demographic size (a population of only around 2.1 million, of which only 300,000 are indigenous inhabitants and the rest are migrant temporary workers), this country is now a major power broker in the Middle East.

Until the discovery of fossil fuels in the 1940s, Qatar had little global presence. The Al-Thani family had controlled the emirate since 1825, while skirmishing and frequently losing control to neighboring Bahrain and the Ottomans during much of the nineteenth century. The British formed an alliance with the ruling family in exchange for allegiance to the Crown that continued until 1971, when the country was granted full independence. As with most benevolent autocracies in the region, Qatar's fate has been determined by the emir for better and for worse. Its rise to global prominence can be largely credited to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-thani who took power in a 1995 coup, while his father was vacationing in Switzerland.

Sheikh Hamad, wisely influenced by his wife Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, started the Qatar Foundation to utilize the country's wealth strategically around media, art and education development. During his reign, Education City was built, attracting leading American universities such as Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon to open their campuses and offering fully accredited degrees in the country's capital Doha. The world's largest museum of Islamic Art, designed by famed architect I.M. Pei, was opened at choice location along the capital's corniche. And perhaps most notably, Al Jazeera was launched as an alternative media voice in both Arabic and English, much to the chagrin of many Western audiences, but also drawing ire from Saudi Arabia and Egypt for critical commentary.

"Alternative" as it was, Al Jazeera resisted criticism of the Qatari regime's political decisions and the same was true of research conducted at the universities and think tanks supported by the government. As noted in a recent New York Times article, a certain respectful distance was taken on criticism the Qatari government's decisions regarding support for Hamas or for the Muslim Brotherhood as well as controversies surrounding labor practices and the alleged bribery involved in the country's successful bit to host the Football World Cup in 2022. I observed such inconsistencies in media and research products firsthand while living in Doha for 4 months in 2009 as a visiting fellow at The Brookings Doha Center. Nevertheless, I felt relatively comfortable in Qatar which was still far more intellectually open and energizing than its various neighboring states and willing to host public forums such as the "Doha Debates" (that are still broadcast on the BBC) . The meltdown of the Arab Spring appears to have vindicated some of Qatar's censorship as a price to pay for stability in a volatile region, though foreign institutions should still disclose any restrictions or restraints in their research reporting from the country.

More than a year has passed since Sheikh Hamad abdicated power to his 34-year old son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani in June 2013. The decision was sudden and there was little known about the new Sheikh, apart from his signature studies at the prestigious Harrow School and the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst (UK), which are a frequent right of passage for Gulf rulers. There were some indications that new Sheikh was more conservative than his father, particularly with reference to supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. However, after some teething troubles in his first year with diplomatic clashes involving Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the US, the Sheikh appears to be settled in a far more stable and mature position. Qatar's ambivalence on issues like Islamist politics appears to have an emergent strategy and greater transparency of purpose. The country, despite its majority Wahabbi Sunni population, also has a better relationship with Iran, with whom it shares the enormous South Pars North Dome gas field in the Arabian/Persian Gulf.

In his first media interview to a foreign news organization, the Sheikh spoke to CNN's Christiane Amanpour on September 25, 2014, and came across as articulate and strategically insightful. He stood his ground on the rationale for giving refuge to certain Islamist elements but noted restrictions imposed on their activities, soon after announcing the expulsion of several Brotherhood members who were violating the terms of their asylum. Sheikh Tamim also expressed conciliatory gestures towards the United States and even noted a willingness to engage with Israel as soon as the peace process with the Palestinians gains traction. He has also committed to enforcing strict labor standards and admitted the potential for indentured exploitation from the old migrant sponsorship control system which he has abolished.

Sheikh Tamim is thus showing sensible political acumen that is most welcome in Gulf politics despite his young years. He should also be willing to embrace greater freedom of press and resume the hybrid democratization process which was started by his father. Legislative elections were supposed to occur in Qatar in 2013 but were "postponed indefinitely" when Sheikh Hamad abdicated the leadership to Sheikh Tamim. Ironically, the Qatari leadership has supported democratization processes in Libya and Egypt, despite their troubled outcomes and perhaps this may lead the Sheikh to question such processes in his own land. However, given the positive development investment and affluence of Qatar's population across the board, democratization is unlikely to cause any major upsets in the country. This small peninsular state has much promise to be a democratized outlier in the Gulf and there are signs that it is learning from past policy mistakes and reaching a level of maturity that could make it a major diplomatic force in the region.