“Qatar” is no household name. But that is changing. The current round of world trade talks is named for Qatar’s capital, Doha. The Al Jazeera television network is based there; so is the US military’s Middle Eastern command. Why is Qatar suddenly so hot?

“…drivers glide about…fueled by petrol that’s cheaper than water.” – The official magazine of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society describes life in Qatar, March 2004.

To say that in Qatar gasoline is cheaper than water is not technically accurate. For Qataris, water is free – so are electricity and health care, and there are no taxes – while gasoline is highly subsidized but still costs a few pennies per gallon.

Yet the Royal Geographic Society’s claim captures the flavor of the place rather well. A country of such extremes that the immutable laws of political economy bend and bend and finally begin to run in reverse.

Start with the extremes of population and provenance. Qatar – bordering Saudi Arabia, and pronounced, roughly, “cutter” – has only 150,000 citizens and yet possesses sufficient natural gas reserves to heat every home in America for the next 100 years. And that is before the oil reserves – also large – are even counted. Which makes Qataris, before they lift a finger, some of the richest people on earth. (In 2000, according to United Nations statistics, they were, in fact, the richest – it depends on oil prices.)

With only 150,000 people, this is more a family than a country. And that is not far from the literal truth. An estimated one-fifth to one-half of Qatari citizens have royal blood. When the Al Thani clan fled there after losing one too many battles for control of Arabia, Qatar was a desolate, arid peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf. Hence there was no indigenous merchant class to deal with. No political, religious or business groups to struggle with or co-opt. The Al Thani family built the place from scratch.

And once the oil started flowing, they could afford some hired hands to help with the job. So many, in fact, that Qataris have now become a minority in their own country. There are an estimated 600,000 migrant workers – Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos – serving as guest laborers in Qatar.

What happens to politics when a majority of the population – the guest workers – are almost completely apolitical? When nearly all political and business leaders and indeed much of the general public come from the same family? When the economy booms continuously and almost without effort?

Suffice it to say that the normal rules do not apply. Qatar suffered no significant political instability from 1972 to 1995, despite the misguided, spendthrift and even kleptocratic policies of the former emir. (The Qatari government has politely asked him to return $3 billion in missing funds to the national treasury.) Policies that would have plunged a less fortunate nation into political and economic crisis did little more than run up the national debt. To this day, there is no discernable organized political opposition. It is even hard to detect much political protest.

What instability Qatar has suffered owes more to Shakespeare than Caesar. The current emir deposed his father in 1995; who for his part had deposed his uncle. The 1995 coup was bloodless. There was an attempt at a counter-coup, but that was more comical than alarming. Bedouin nomads, recruited for the job, infiltrated across the dunes from Saudi Arabia, but in the unfamiliar urban environment of the capital city became hopelessly lost and were unable to find the presidential palace.

It is almost as if categories such as “government” and “the people” do not apply. There is a strong political reform movement in Qatar, but it is being imposed by the country’s autocratic ruler on a public that seems frequently surprised and sometimes even opposed to democratization. (The rules of politics, once again, running in reverse.) The emir created elected business bodies, then elected municipal councils, and finally in April 2003 rammed through a referendum on a constitution that will create an elected parliament – albeit with limited powers.

On top of which the emir created Al Jazeera, the independent television network which has become the main outlet for all the ample political rage of the Middle East. This rage is directed against enemies both real and imagined, and Al Jazeera targets them all with its reporting and commentary. This includes, of course, Israel and the United States. But also Islamic regimes. It was Al Jazeera reporters who broke the story of the atrocities being perpetrated with the complicity of Sudan’s Islamist government in the now-infamous Darfur region.

Indeed, the only thing that worries Qatar is its neighbors. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait drove home this point. With its vast wealth and tiny populace, Qatar is a tender morsel that the region’s big cats – Iran, Iraq and even Saudi Arabia – have all eyed hungrily.

And this, in the end, explains why Qatar – and Al Jazeera, and the “Doha Round” of trade talks – have recently made the front pages. If the past year has shown anything it is that Middle Easterners have long memories. Much of the Middle East recalls injustices perpetrated by foreign occupiers. But Qatar, by contrast, exists today only because Britain saved it from annexation by the Saudis in the early 1900s. The Al Thani family has not forgotten this, and reaches out to the outside world whenever it can. US bases, world trade talks and the 2006 Asian Games – Qatar is hosting all of these in an effort to cultivate foreign friends.

And in recent years the outside world has reciprocated, resulting in the current Qatar boom. Qatar may not have as much oil as Saudi Arabia or Iraq, or the strategic importance of Egypt. But with its combination of spectacular wealth, a tiny population, and amiable politics, Qatar is well-supplied with a commodity that, in today’s Middle East, has become even more precious than oil. That is, political stability. Hence on the world stage, Qatar’s 150,000 citizens punch well above their weight.

This article was originally published on Countryrisk.com, before I sold the website to Roubini Global Economics.