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US Envoy looks back to Qatar's future

Joseph LeBaron was assigned to a quiet Doha as US vice-consul in 1980. When he returned 28 years later, he found an 'extraordinarily different' city.

DOHA // After earning a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University in 1980, Joseph LeBaron joined the United States diplomatic corps. His first posting? Vice-consul of the US Embassy in Doha, a quiet Gulf port of barely 200,000 people at the time. Mr LeBaron soon moved on to assignments in Amman, Ankara and Washington, but not before he got a glimpse of Qatar's future. "One of the last things I did before getting on the plane was to tour the Sheraton Hotel, which was going to open later that week," said Mr LeBaron. The Sheraton's pyramid-shaped waterfront hotel at the north end of the corniche is widely regarded as the first major western brand to arrive in Doha. "There was nothing else in West Bay," he recalled. "The diplomatic missions had not yet moved in; there was nothing else there."

When Mr LeBaron returned - as US ambassador to Qatar, in July 2008 - he found a very different city. West Bay has been dubbed "The Towers" because of its rising forest of skyscrapers. The population of Doha has quintupled. Billion-dollar residential and retail developments abound and Qatar is the world's leading exporter of liquid natural gas. "Physically it's extraordinarily different," said Mr LeBaron. The government is building a new airport and construction is set to begin next month on a 40-km causeway linking Qatar to Bahrain, in addition to recently announced plans for a US$25 billion (Dh92bn) metro and light rail.

"There's been a real intensification in the deployment of capital available to the state for infrastructural development - that is a major change," Mr LeBaron said. To better deploy some of that cash, a half dozen Qatari officials travelled to Washington, DC, this week to meet with urban planners and policymakers. Organised by the US Embassy, the Smart Infrastructure Leaders' trip is the sort of public diplomacy that Barack Obama envisioned in his widely praised speech in Cairo last June.

In that speech, Mr Obama laid out "a declaration of intent, a way forward for the United States to engage with Muslim communities on the basis of mutual interest and mutual trust", according to Mr LeBaron. "We as an embassy have been focused on following up - that is a tremendous challenge and it energises a lot of what we do here." Food security also energises the ambassador. He pointed out that the Arab world imports more than 50 per cent of its food - Gulf countries as much as 90 per cent. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that by 2050 arable land in Arab countries will drop 60 per cent from 1990s levels and renewable water will fall below 500 cubic metres per person - about one-tenth the world average.

Mr LeBaron hopes the United States works with Qatar, which recently formed a national food security programme, on scientific research and technical co-operation to improve food security across the region. "The Arab world is one of the least food secure regions of the world; the United States has one of the most advanced agricultural sectors in the world," said Mr LeBaron. With a major international food security conference coming to Doha next March, he sees "a great opportunity for the US to partner with the Arab world on something that is of existential importance".

For US soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military presence in Qatar is important. Al Udeid military base is the logistics centre for the war in Afghanistan and As Sayliyah is US Central Command's forward headquarters. If a crisis or natural disaster hits MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, from where the wars are managed, the US central command would temporarily relocate to Qatar.

The US has also held bilateral military exercises with Qatar and provided counter-terrorism assistance. Qatari-US co-operation on security issues has expanded considerably since a defence co-operation agreement signed in 1992. "Quite clearly, it's strategically important," Mr LeBaron said of the relationship. Qatar is an important player in diplomatic circles. In addition to launching the latest round of World Trade Organisation talks and securing broad agreement on anti-corruption enforcement, Qatari leaders have been hosting talks to broker peace in Darfur.

Mr LeBaron, who once worked under the prominent US diplomat George Mitchell, said their efforts have been very inclusive - involving special envoys from France, the United Kingdom, China and the US, as well as representatives from Chad and Libya. "They have made significant progress and they have not been dissuaded," said the ambassador. "I'm optimistic that they'll get there." Mr LeBaron appears even more optimistic about Qatar. He pointed to several developments, including a rapidly expanding economy, Education City, Al Jazeera, and the "Heart of Doha", a $5.5bn project to sustainably remake downtown - that suggest a nation on the rise.

"This is a country that can be considered small demographically, can be considered small geographically, but it has global reach," said Mr LeBaron. "There's a great deal of vision here, and it's exciting to be back after a 30-year absence and to be a part of it." dlepeska@thenational.ae

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