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Qatari to chair U.N. Alliance of Civilizations

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is set to appoint a top former Qatari diplomat as his high representative of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, reinforcing the oil sheikdom's standing as a rising diplomatic powerhouse.

Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, a former Qatari envoy to the United Nations who served as U.N. General Assembly president last year, will replace Jorge Sampaio, a former Portuguese president who currently heads the organization.

The decision places a trusted Western ally at the head of an organization that aims to bridge the cultural gap between the West and the Islamic world.

The New York-based agency was established at the initiative of former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who proposed the creation of a high-level panel of eminent leaders to promote cooperation in the Christian and Muslim world. The Spanish proposal came several months after more than 192 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Madrid in March 2004. Turkey later signed on as a co-sponsor of the initiative.

The high-level group includes the Qatari emir's influential second wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, the former Iranian President  Mohammad Khatami, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and U.S. Rabbi Arthur Schneier.

Qatar is an intriguing pick.

Qatar's emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and Sheika Mozah have sought to transform the emirate into the intellectual and cultural capital of the Middle East, sponsoring outposts for major Western universities, including Cornell and Georgetown, and think tanks like Brookings Doha Center.

Earlier this month, Qatar's satellite television station, Al Jazeera, purchased the Current TV cable channel, granting the government-funded news organization access to tens of millions of American households. So, in a sense, Qatar has already been at the forefront of bridging the cultural gap between the Islamic world and the West.

But the role of the Sunni monarchy within the Islamic world has been controversial, particularly in the Middle East, where Doha has been a protagonist in the emerging schism between the region's Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The Gulf sheikdom has been a highly controversial actor in the region since the Arab Spring, funneling cash and weapons to revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi and insurgents in Syria, where Qatar backs the downfall of Bashar al-Assad and the ruling Alawite minority, which has close ties to Iran's Shiite government. During his tenure as General Assembly president, Nasser organized several sessions to condemn Syria's crackdown on protesters in Syria.

Qatar has contributed large sums of money to Sunni Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which the United States government considers a terrorist organization.

Despite its regional ambitions, Qatar has sought to cultivate a reputation as an intermediary between the Middle East and the West. It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into peace efforts from Darfur to Lebanon, and it supports American military aims. 

The United States view the Qatari monarchy, which hosts the largest U.S. military air base in the region, as a key ally in its military campaign in recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq. While Washington has privately expressed unease about Qatar's relations with Iran (with which it shares an enormous natural gas field), it believes that Qatar shares Washington's desire to contain Iran's influence in the region.

"I see this appointment playing perfectly into the way the Qataris try to market themselves diplomatically; they can use this as part of their global soft power projection and generate international good will," said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. "With all due respect to the worthiness of this [Alliance of Civilizations] project -- and I think it is worthy," he added. "This is not real diplomacy; this is public relations."

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