Qatar: Embracing Democracy

<B>Ed Bradley</B> Visits Progressive Persian Gulf Country

During the war in Iraq, the forward headquarters for the United States Central Command and Gen. Tommy Franks was in Qatar, a tiny sheikdom on the Persian Gulf that is energy rich and strategically located.

Correspondent Ed Bradley visits this formerly traditional Persian Gulf country that is rapidly becoming one of the most progressive in the Arab world - and one of America's closest allies. This story originally aired just before the war with Iraq.

Located on the outskirts of Doha, the capital of Qatar, is a military base called As Saliyah - a warehouse facility with a deliberately low profile. More than 1,000 U.S. troops are stationed here, but you'd hardly know it.

The flags of Qatar and the United States are the only visible symbols that this base sits on some of the most strategic real estate in the Middle East.

Since the end of the first Gulf War, the United States has used these pre-fabricated warehouses to store everything from Humvees to tanks.

Most of that equipment was moved out and into position for the second war. This is the forward headquarters for the U.S. Central Command while at war with Iraq.

Al Udeid, the second American base in Qatar, is only a half hour flying time from targets in Iraq. Qatar spent a billion dollars on its construction, on the theory that "if we build it, the Americans will come." And they did.

"We need the super power to be with us because of the wealth which we are going to have in a very near future," says Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, Qatar's foreign minister.

That wealth comes from natural gas. Five hundred trillion cubic feet of it lies beneath the Persian Gulf off Qatar - the largest single natural gas field in the world.

It's already made the people of Qatar, known as Qataris, rich. And within five years, it's estimated that, per capita, they will be the richest people in the world.

By any definition, life for Qataris is good. Education is free. And so are all the utilities. Housing is subsidized. And that's just the beginning.

These are some of the benefits of living in a tiny, extremely rich country, says Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani - the emir, or ruler, of Qatar.

Ruling this conservative tribal desert kingdom has been the emir's "family business" since 1867. But after 135 years of hereditary autocratic rule, Sheikh Hamad decreed that it was time for Qatar to try something - which in the Arab world is rare - democracy.

"Well, any people, they want to develop their countries. They have to practice democracy. That's what I believe," says Sheikh Hamad. "Because there is no one could say that he will be the qualified person to lead."

Sheikh Hamad made himself the qualified person to lead. He deposed his own father in a bloodless coup in 1995.

He had already convinced his extended family change was a necessity if Qatar wanted to be more than just another insignificant gulf sheikdom most of the world had never heard of.

And when the emir created Al Jazeera, the first independent satellite news channel in the Arab world, he put Qatar on the map, broadcasting controversial interviews, Osama bin Laden communiqués, and talk shows that frequently criticize other Arab regimes.

Since then, Sheikh Hamad has held the first elections in the country's history, has given women the right to vote, and authorized drafting the country's first constitution - to be followed by parliamentary elections.

The emir says his motivation comes from observing other democracies around the world: "If I look around the world, I could see the most progress country who's practicing democracy."

When the world looks at Qatar, that's what Sheikah Hamad would like it to see - a progressive country practicing democracy.

It will certainly see construction. In fact, there is so much building going on in Doha, it looks like the entire city is getting a facelift. The emir, who likes to see how the work is going, regularly drives himself around the town.

He drove 60 Minutes past miles of new developments, everything from new homes to new office buildings to modern hotels that are literally growing out of the desert.

This is all part of Sheikh Hamad's vision to transform his country from what used to be one of the most conservative and traditional countries in the Middle East into a cultural and education Mecca - a dream shared by his wife, Sheikha Mouza Nasser Al Misnad.

"I know very well his vision and his dreams to this country and I've tried to help in any way I can," says Sheikha Mouza.

In a country where traditionally women are not seen or heard in public, Sheikha Mouza's role as Qatar's first "first lady" is groundbreaking.

She has addressed the United Nations, is now a UNESCO Special Envoy for Education and has become a strong advocate for educational reform in her own country.

"Without education, we can't achieve anything," says Sheikha Mouza. "Without citizens who can conduct a civilized debate, and can decide for themselves what to choose and who to choose for their political life, we won't be able to achieve anything."

And the Qataris are literally building on that belief on 2,400 acres on the outskirts of Doha - a site called Education City where the Sheikha wants top universities from around the world to set up branch campuses.

So far they've attracted three universities, two from the United States, and they're negotiating for more.

The universities don't have to pay a dime. All they have to do is offer the same education here that they offer in America.

For example, Cornell Medical School in Doha will train 50 doctors a year in one of the most modern and sophisticated medical schools in the world.

"Some of them, they thought we are just dreaming. But I think it was obvious from day one that we had commitment and we are ready to fulfill our commitments," says Sheikha Mouza.

So far, fulfilling that commitment has cost the emir over a billion dollars and they're still spending. Last October's "official" opening of the Cornell Medical School was a royal event. The emir and the sheikha appeared together in public for the first time, and for the first time, television cameras were permitted to show her face, breaking a social taboo.

"If a social taboo had to be broken in order to deliver this message, so let it be," says Sheikha Mouza. "But my intention was not to break the taboo. My intention was to show the importance and the, how the education is, on the top of our agenda."

Another item on the top of her agenda is women's rights, which have improved dramatically since her husband became the emir.

Now, women can drive cars. They have the right to vote. They can run in elections, and they can hold elective office. They can dress as they wish - completely covered, or not have a veil. And they can work alongside men.

You can see some of the changes in education at Qatar Academy, a private co-educational school in Doha, where students have access to modern ideas and technology.

Teachers are also implementing changes that the sheikha wants to spread throughout the entire public school system. 60 Minutes talked to a group of students about her impact on their lives.

"No first lady in the Arabian Gulf is like her," says one student. "She encouraged me to study politics. No woman studied politics in Qatar until now. It wasn't appropriate but now she's encouraging girls to, to be useful in society."

Life here is tranquil. Almost everywhere you can see a mixture of the old and the new. There's a growing affinity for American culture and no outspoken opposition to the American presence or the emir's changes. And American investment is increasing dramatically, especially in natural gas.

"If we go back to 1993-94, the Americans, they invest in our country around $200 million or $300 million. Now it's over $30 billion American investment in Qatar," says the emir.

It's good for the U.S. because it provides bases that can be used in a war with Iraq.

It's good for Qatar because the American military presence provides protection for the emir and his reforms - reforms that have made Qatar a role model for change in the Arab world.

Sheikh Hamad knows he has to change his country while he can, because he also knows that the last two rulers before him were overthrown.

When asked what he thinks Qatar will look like in 10 years, the emir says, "Well, first, I hope you find me facing you in the same chair. And I hope I'm sure you'll find a big change."