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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taking Command in Qatar

If you want a glimpse of where the Arab world may be heading if the modernizers succeed in their efforts to embrace change, take a look at the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. It's about as close as the Arab world comes to democracy -- with a freewheeling press, female suffrage and, soon, the most important U.S. military base in the region.

A decade ago Qatar had a reputation in the oil industry as a sleepy backwater. The country had a weak ruler, underutilized energy resources and a name most Westerners found unpronounceable. (Try saying "gutter" with a clutch in your throat, and you'll come close.)

Today Qatar is emerging as the first of the "successor" regimes in the gulf, taking over from the autocratic rulers who have governed for decades. The clearest sign of its new role came a week ago when it was reported that the U.S. Central Command is preparing to "replicate" at Qatar's Al Udeid Air Base the elaborate command and control facilities it had built in Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. military is quietly leaving Saudi Arabia partly because Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah wants it to go and partly because U.S. commanders feel they can operate more safely, and perhaps more cheaply, from other bases.

As the sun slowly sets over Prince Sultan Air Base in the Saudi desert, billions of dollars of largely wasted investment are shimmering away in the heat. For the reality is that over the past 20 years, U.S. officials have connived with the Saudis to build what may be the world's most expensive -- and largely unnecessary -- command-and-control system.

Known as "Peace Shield," the Saudi system is an integrated combination of communications gear and early-warning radar that is linked to similar systems across the gulf. It was completed in 1996 at an official cost of $5.6 billion -- with fiber-optic cables linking more than 300 Saudi agencies.

Peace Shield enriched dozens of U.S. contractors, not to mention Saudi princes and middlemen. But at its core was the increasingly dubious proposition that the greatest threat to Saudi security was a potential military attack from outside the country. Sept. 11 helped change that ill-founded notion.

Crown Prince Abdullah has given voice to a different idea of Saudi security. He doesn't want more fancy American military hardware cluttering the desert. And he certainly doesn't want more of the corruption that the Saudi military-industrial complex has helped to spawn. Instead, he's trying to stabilize the kingdom from within, by encouraging Saudi religious leaders to counter the hotheads who would support Osama bin Laden and his notions of national suicide.

So far, Abdullah's courtly methods seem to be working. Arab sources describe Saudi Arabia as a far more stable place than it was a few months ago. The crown prince seems to be managing the neat trick of riding two camels at once -- being at the same time a modernizer and a traditionalist, a peacemaker with Israel and an Arab nationalist, a critic of dependence on the United States who still has close ties to Washington.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Qatar, a vision of the Arab future is taking shape. The change began in 1995, with a bloodless coup in which Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father, who was away on vacation in Switzerland. The neighboring Saudis weren't happy about the coup -- and reportedly helped sponsor a failed counter-coup later. But the new emir had the support of his brothers.

The new emir was also clever enough to hire a Washington law firm, Patton Boggs, which had been recommended by the government of another of the modernizing gulf states, Oman. When the deposed emir, Khalifa, tried to hold on to several billion dollars in Qatari wealth, a small army of lawyers froze the assets and pressured Khalifa to return much of the money.

Qatar realized that, as a small state, its security would be helped more than hurt by an American military presence. So the new emir decided to construct the Al Udeid Air Base.

What makes Qatar interesting is that, in addition to wanting American protection, it is also embracing American values. This is the nation that spawned al-Jazeera, the Arab television network whose programs are infuriating, inflammatory -- and irresistibly interesting. Al-Jazeera, even with all its rabble-rousing, is providing what the Arab world needs most -- a chance for open debate. Qatar also has municipal elections and -- gasp -- regular contact with Israel.

It's hard to find hopeful signs in a Middle East that's torn by war and suicidal passions. But there are a few encouraging developments -- both in the Saudi Arabia that American forces will soon begin leaving, and the Qatar to which they are heading.

David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.