So now they have struck in Qatar. Nice, friendly, liberal Doha, with its massive U.S. air base and its spiky, argumentative al-Jazeera television, its modern shops and expatriate compounds and luxury hotels. Ever since al-Qaida urged its supporters to strike around the maritime Arab kingdoms of the Gulf, the princes and emirs have been waiting to find out who's first. The suicide bomber -- and the killing of a Brit -- gave them their answer.
The first indications were that the killer was an Egyptian called Omar Ahmed Abdullah Ali, for it was his car that exploded outside the Doha Players Theatre in the suburb of Farek Kelab. But there was no doubt about the seriousness of the original warning. "To the brothers of Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the Emirates and to all the lions of jihad in the countries neighboring Iraq, every one of us has to attack what is available in his country of soldiers, vehicles and air bases of the crusaders and the oil allocated for them," it said.
The audiotape was made by Saleh al-Aoofi, a Saudi follower of Osama bin Laden who is credited as leading al-Qaida's operations in the Gulf.
The United States' largest air base is in Qatar. Bahrain is home base to the U.S. fleet in the Gulf. U.S. and British warships are regularly alongside in the emirate of Dubai. Oman has long been an ally of the United States and Britain. And all have substantial expatriate populations. In Dubai, they used to say, it was difficult to find a citizen of the Emirates because of the vast population of Brits, French, Russians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Indians. In the old days, you could ring the Omani defense ministry and, like as not, the phone would be answered by a woman from Godalming.
So the Iraqi insurgency is now, it seems, to embrace all these "safe" locations. The last time Qatar witnessed violence was the car bomb that killed the former Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev -- for whose murder two Russian agents are now languishing in jail. But last weekend's bombing was directed at a specifically Western target -- albeit that a theater hardly qualifies as an air base.
So safe was Qatar believed to be that the United States imprisoned Saddam Hussein there. Indeed, his first wife, Sajida, and her children live in the emirate at the private invitation of Sheikh Mohamed bin Khalifa al-Thani. The Qatari interior ministry stated that the Egyptian was solely responsible for the explosion, which seems highly unlikely. It takes considerable sophistication to rig a car bomb, and those who prepare the vehicles are too valuable to their organizations to be sacrificed in an attack.
Sheikh Mohamed received the usual rash of phone calls from his opposite numbers in Kuwait, Bahrain and the Emirates. Compared with recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Saturday's was small-scale.
Qatar's own population has long been friendly to foreigners even though these are increasingly military. There is also a large CIA base in the emirate and U.S. Special Forces troops live in guarded compounds in residential areas of Doha.
The real purpose of the bombing, however, may have been economic.
Al-Qaida's assaults on Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were almost certainly intended to raise the price of oil. Qatar exports gas. Iraq's oil exports have been interrupted by hundreds of insurgent attacks on its pipelines.
The idea that "regime change" would bring newfound stability to the countries of the Gulf -- another of President Bush's excuses for the 2003 invasion -- now appears to be a myth.
That last weekend marked the second anniversary of the invasion may have been in the bomber's mind. Certainly it coincided with attacks inside Iraq, including a suicide bombing in Mosul, the killing of another U.S. soldier near Tikrit and a roadside bomb near Basra. The crisis in Lebanon provoked by the former premier Rafik Hariri's murder has drawn attention away from Iraq even as the insurgency grows in strength.
The reality is that the Iraqi invasion now reverberates across the Middle East. Hariri was the leading proponent of a Syrian military withdrawal -- which the United States supports, primarily because it holds Damascus responsible for helping Iraqi insurgents. Lebanese officials have even claimed privately that Hariri's friendship with the Iraqi interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi (himself half-Lebanese) brought about his death, a suggestion that neither the Americans nor the United Nations takes seriously.
Now the smaller Arab nations of the Gulf await the next assault, which no amount of expatriates and foreign soldiers can protect from al-Qaida.
Robert Fisk writes for The Independent in Britain.
© 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer