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Harrods: a new flagship for Qatar's burgeoning fleet

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11 May 2010 09:00

Qatar Holdings, the investment arm of the Qatar sovereign wealth fund the Qatar Investment Authority, has bought Harrods from the Al-Fayeds.

This cements Qatar's position as one of the more innovative diplomatic operators around these days. As Carla Liuzzo pointed out earlier this year, Qatar is well known for launching and backing the Al Jazeera network - which now has one of the largest operating budgets of any of the government-funded broadcasters. It is less known, so far, for its other soft-power ventures - in particular, the projects of the Qatar Foundation, which reputedly has an endowment of $4 billion.

The Foundation is the 'mothership' for a number of ambitious initiatives, including the massive 'Education City', a 1,000 hectare mega-campus which has already enticed Northwestern, Weill Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Virginia Commonwealth and Texas A&M Universities, as well as the RAND Corporation, to set up shop there.

The Foundation also funds a Philharmonic Orchestra, a children's television channel, a medical and research centre, a science and technology park and a convention centre.

Qatar's deep pockets obviously help. But its outward-reaching initiatives are working as a sophisticated soft-power strategy aimed at attracting the world to Qatar - working nicely to advance the Emir of Qatar's plan for his country to be 'known and noticed'. They may also be part of a shrewd foreign policy strategy of insulating Qatar from its powerful neighbours: with Iran across the Gulf and Saudi Arabia its nearest neighbour, it sits in a geopolitically precarious position - a point which must have been rammed uncomfortably home by the 1990 Kuwait invasion. A key plank of Qatar's insurance policy is the large US airbase which it hosts at Al-Udeid, to which the US shifted its Middle East air operations in 2003.

This week's acquisition of Harrods might seem like just another entertaining frolic by a wealthy Middle East operation. But in the context of Qatar's other soft-power manoeuvres, it looks to be a canny addition to a veritable armada of initiatives aimed at establishing Qatar as a serious international player.

Photo of Harrods by Flickr user Domien Verschuuren, used under a Creative Commons license. Photo of Education City forecourt by author, with convention centre under construction in the background.

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