Ten years ago, when Qatar was still relatively unknown outside the Middle East, every TV program Patrick Theros appeared on would begin with the interviewer asking him the same question: “How do you pronounce the name of your country?”
Theros would always give the same answer: “Cutter,” as in a Coast Guard cutter — not ka-TAR or QUA-tar.
Regardless how you say it, Qatar has money to spend. And now more than ever, Fortune 500 firms are eager to do business with the little emirate, which ranks as the world’s third-largest exporter of natural gas and is, on a per-capita basis, one of the richest nations on Earth.
Theros served as U.S. ambassador in Doha from 1995 to 1998. Two years later, he was named president and executive director of the U.S.-Qatar Business Council, a Washington-based group formed in the mid-1990s by half a dozen U.S. energy giants eager to tap Qatar’s mammoth North Gas Field.
“Since then, they’ve been acquiring each other,” Theros told The Washington Diplomat. “I’ve lost members right and left through mergers and acquisitions.”
Today, the council has 40 executive members each paying $10,000 a year. Its nine founding members, each of which pay $25,000 a year, are Al Jazeera, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Occidental Petroleum, Qatar Airways, Qatari Diar Real Estate, Qatar Petroleum and RasGas Ltd.
“Our bread and butter is helping American and Qatari companies network with each other to enhance the bilateral relationship in all fields, especially commercial and financial,” Theros explained. “We’re not a lobbying organization. Rather, we seek to educate Americans about Qatar. In the past, it was an uphill fight, because no one had ever heard of Qatar.”
That’s certainly not the case today.
In 2011, U.S. exports to Qatar totaled $2.8 billion, making the United States the largest source of exports to the emirate. Most of that consists of capital goods, aircraft, construction equipment and components for the oil and gas industry. On the flip side, Qatari imports to the U.S. amounted to $1.2 billion, almost all of it oil, natural gas and some petrochemicals.
Among other things, the U.S.-Qatar Business Council has acted decisively on behalf of its members when trouble loomed. For example, in 2001, when Richard Grasso, then head of the New York Stock Exchange, banned Al Jazeera reporters from the NYSE trading floor, the council advocated on behalf of the Doha-based TV network, and got the decision reversed. The council also acted when a political group in Washington — which it declined to identify — “attempted to use the emir in a derogatory fashion to advocate a political agenda.”
Theros, who’s held U.S. diplomatic posts not only in Qatar but also in Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates, said Qatari investment in the United States has grown substantially during the 12 years he’s headed the council.
The largest such investment currently is CityCenterDC, a mixed-use residential, commercial, retail and office complex at Ninth and H Streets that Theros calls “the biggest such project in Washington in a generation.” Opening in 2013 on the former site of the Washington Convention Center, this massive 10-acre city-within-a-city envisions 520,000 square feet of office space in its initial phase, nearly 700 luxury residential units, 185,000 square feet of retail, and a 20,000-square-foot central plaza.
Qatari Diar Real Estate’s $700 million stake in CityCenterDC, which broke ground in April 2011, represents one-third of the project’s total value and ranks as the emirate’s biggest investment in the United States since construction of the Golden Pass LNG Terminal on the Texas-Louisiana border. Upon completion, CityCenterDC is expected to bring 3,700 new jobs to the District and generate $30 million in taxes, the Washington Business Journal recently reported.
Back home, Qatar plans to spend upward of $120 billion on infrastructure over the next 10 years as it readies for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. That includes a subway system to rival that of Washington, D.C., a massive causeway linking Qatar to nearby Bahrain, dozens of new skyscrapers and at least 50 new hotels.
“There aren’t enough engineering companies in the world to do all the work that has to be done,” Theros said. “It’s going to be enormous.”
In addition, Qatar hopes its massive Education City will become the envy of the Arab world, with the participation of six prestigious U.S. institutions of higher learning: Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Texas A&M, Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth University.
“The idea is to become one of the most important cities in the Gulf, but not a Dubai,” Theros said. “They see themselves more as an industrial center, more like Pittsburgh than Las Vegas. They are also absolutely determined to become the educational center for the entire Middle East.”
— Larry Luxner