Oil-rich Qatar, host of 2022 World Cup, warms up to Cuba
The Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar —host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup — is the world’s third-largest exporter of natural gas, making its people among the wealthiest on Earth. It is also cultivating very close ties with Cuba, nearly 8,000 miles away.
During lengthy interviews in Washington last month with Mohamed Abdulla Al-Rumaihi, Qatar’s new ambassador to the United States, and Patrick N. Theros, president and executive director of the US-Qatar Business Council (USQBC), neither commented on the development of Qatari-Cuban relations.
In 1994, after more than two decades of baby steps and gradual mutual recognition, Cuba’s embassy was formally established in Doha. Its first ambassador to Qatar was Jorge Manfugas. Previously, he had been stationed in Kuwait, but after Saddam Hussein’s invasion the embassy was closed by the Iraqis.
Later on, following Desert Storm, Cuba tried to reopen its embassy in nearby Kuwait, though U.S. military authorities there did not allow the Cubans to return. In 2000, Kuwaiti officials under Emir Ahmed al-Jaber gave the green light and normal relations were resumed (among the biggest projects underway is Kuwait’s financing of the rehabilitation of the Santiago de Cuba aqueduct).
Qatar’s fascination with Cuba dates back to 1988, when officials from the emirate took a special interest in Cuba’s success with healthcare and education. In 1992, the Qataris sent a delegation to Havana, which focused almost entirely on public health and tobacco exports.
Qatar became a major backer of Cuba’s opposition to the U.S. embargo, and supported the first South Summit of the Group of 77, which was held in Havana in April 2000.
Cuba actively campaigned for Qatar to host the G77’s second South Summit in June 2005. This sort of diplomatic relay was helped along by personal correspondence between Fidel Castro and Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Since then, a prestigious Casa del Habano outlet has been inaugurated in Doha, and a member of the al-Thani ruling family has become Cuba’s representative for all Casas del Habano throughout the Middle East. The two countries also cooperate extensively in sports.
In 2008, real-estate conglomerate Qatari Diar concluded a memo of understanding to invest $70 million in a five-star resort on Cayo Largo. The MOU was signed by Ahmed Al-Mazroei, deputy chief executive of Qatari Diar, and Marta Lomas, then-minister for international investment, at the company’s headquarters in Lusail, Qatar.
The project called for construction of a 200-room hotel and 60 deluxe villas, along with a world-class spa, fitness center and conference facilities. The deal was a joint venture with Gran Caribe, a subsidiary of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism — though it is not known if this project will ever be developed. With a population of only 1.5 million and annual per-capita income exceeding $100,000, Qatar can certainly afford to invest overseas.
In 2007, Qatar became the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas and has proven gas reserves of 25 trillion cubic meters, more than 5% of the world’s total reserves. It also has proven oil reserves of 15 billion barrels of oil, which should ensure continued output at current levels for the next 20 years. All major U.S. energy companies are active in the Connecticut-sized emirate.
“We have been blessed by God, especially in natural gas and oil,” Ambassador Al-Rumaihi told us, “and through our wealth, we seek to create a model for the entire Middle East.”
Despite their warm friendship, Doha and Havana don’t always see eye to eye.
Qatar, whose money and Air Force helped topple Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi last year, has emerged as the leading supplier of weapons to rebels fighting to overthrow Syria’s longtime dictator, Bashir al-Assad.
Yet the Castro regime consistently defends Assad at the United Nations every chance it gets, demanding that the United States and Western Europe stay out of Syria despite the country’s worsening human-rights atrocities.
Cuba’s media has granted extensive coverage to Qatar — home of the Al Jazeera network — including one of the island’s most-watched TV programs, La Mesa Redonda.
Perhaps most significant is Qatar’s gleaming Dukhan General Hospital, supervised by the country’s deputy minister of public health, Saled Faleh Mohammed Hussein Ali.
Quickly renamed “The Cuban Hospital,” the remote desert complex was inaugurated Jan. 11, 2012, at a ceremony attended by Cuba’s minister of public health, Dr. Roberto Morales Ojeda.
“This is a special day for the State of the Qatar and the Republic of Cuba which enjoy close ties of cooperation and mutual respect,” Qatari Health Minister Abdullah al-Qahtani told 200 Cuban doctors, nurses and specialists in the fields of rehabilitation, dentistry, pathology, biomedicine and radiology. “We are waiting for them to provide high-quality, advanced medical care service to our patients.”
Earning an average $2,000 a month, Cuba’s skilled doctors in Qatar “are some of the lowest-paid workers in the world’s richest economy,” the online Havana Times reported in July.
Indeed, the desert country has become extremely wealthy. It plans on spending upwards of $120 billion on infrastructure as it readies for the 2022 World Cup. That includes a subway system to rival that of Washington, D.C., a new $9 billion airport, an $8 billion causeway linking Qatar to the island nation of Bahrain, and at least 50 new hotels.
While U.S., European and Arab companies will get the lion’s share of that business, conceivably Cuban firms could benefit as well.
“There aren’t enough engineering companies in the world to do all the work that has to be done,” said USQBC’s Theros. “It’s going to be enormous.”
CubaNews editor Larry Luxner recently visited Qatar, and our political analyst, Domingo Amuchastegui, contributed substantially to this report.
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