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Not so long ago, the borders of Arabia were imaginary lines in the sand laid down by warring tribes, and it was into what is now Qatar that Sheikh Hamad's al-Thani ancestors migrated from the vast central desert of Arabia in the mid-1700s. Had the al-Thanis not come under British protection in 1868, and signed an agreement with Britain in 1916 that allowed for Qatar's eventual independence in 1971, the sheikhdom could easily have become a province of Saudi Arabia.

The peninsula had few apparent resources except for pearls, and by the mid-18th century it was one of the most productive pearling grounds on Earth. Oil was discovered in 1939, and it is still being discovered today. Off Qatar's northeast coast lies the world's largest deposit of natural gas not occurring with an oil field.

The size of that deposit is difficult to grasp: It covers an area half the size of Qatar itself and holds some 900 trillion cubic feet (25 trillion cubic meters) of natural gas, enough to heat all U.S. homes for more than a century. Being developed at an accelerated rate, this field promises to make Qatar one of the world's largest suppliers of energy, and in a few years the richest nation, per capita, on Earth.

Under Sheikh Khalifa, who ascended to the throne in 1972, as oil revenues started to pour in, Qatar became a welfare state whose citizens were provided all amenities. It also began to stagnate under his tepid and insular leadership.

Hamad, Khalifa's eldest son, was born in Doha in 1950, the only child of Khalifa's favorite wife, who died shortly after Hamad's birth. He was raised to his father's specifications and educated in Doha, where he studied the Koran and sharia law. When he was 17 he went to study abroad in England, where he fine-tuned his ear for politics. (As a teenager, he'd even been briefly detained, in Doha, when he and a group of school chums demonstrated in support of Arab nationalists.) After his father ascended to the throne, Hamad, by then back in Qatar, became commander in chief of the nation's armed forces and was named as his father's heir.

A subtle contest for power between the increasingly distracted Khalifa and his increasingly independent son surfaced during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when several thousand U.S. troops were sped to the sheikhdom, which they used as a staging base for air strikes against Iraq. After the war Sheikh Hamad, who had argued for opening Qatar to foreign investment, began, as defense minister, to forge a military alliance with the United States. As emir he followed through, and today Washington has an enormous stake in Qatar.

I met with Sheikh Hamad in 2000 at the royal palace in Doha. He was dressed in a traditional white dishdasha, his face was framed by a flowing white kaffiyeh secured by a black cord, and he wore wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose. Unlike other Middle Eastern monarchs I've met, Sheikh Hamad's manner was informal, at times ebullient, and he spoke in impeccable English polished at Sandhurst and Cambridge.

I asked the emir if he would ever permit U.S. troops to be based on Qatari soil. Given the problems that a U.S. military presence has caused Saudi Arabia, I was taken aback by his reply.

"If the United States asks, there will be no opposition," he responded without pause.

After 9/11, the Bush Administration came calling. Today more than 3,300 U.S. military personnel, largely from the Air Force, are based here. Some are assigned to Camp Snoopy, a high-security facility on the outskirts of Doha; others are at As Sayliyah, on an enormous, Pentagon-financed pre-positioning base in the eastern desert, the largest such facility outside the United States. Still others are at Al Udeid, a Qatari air base deep in the desert that Sheikh Hamad built at a cost of more than a billion dollars. He recently went one step further, authorizing the United States Central Command to stage a major military exercise, held in December 2002, out of As Sayliyah.

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