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The discovery of natural gas in Qatar back in the 1970s was a transformative economic windfall for the country and its long-time rulers, the Al Thani royal family. Since then, the Al Thanis have been spending that money to build Qatar’s global brand – while strengthening diplomatic ties with powerful, and sometimes unlikely, allies.On today’s Big Take podcast, Bloomberg wealth reporter Devon Pendleton joins host Sarah Holder to trace the meteoric rise of Qatar and its royal family, and discuss how the war in Gaza and escalating conflict in the Middle East has made the country’s mediator role as critical as ever.Read more:  A $150 Billion Fortune Bolsters Qatari Royals at Critical Moment 

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Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation:

Sarah Holder: Our story today begins in a hotel. A Sheraton in Doha, the capital city of Qatar…Devon Pendleton: It's right on the shore. A five star resort, very dramatic. It's kind of shaped like a pyramid.

Holder: This is Devon Pendleton, who covers wealth for Bloomberg.

Pendleton: A really extraordinary place. I mean, there's no kind of hotel like it in the world, you might say. 

Holder: The hotel is very nice..Lots of amenities…Hundreds of rooms. But this isn’t what makes it so special. 

Because this hotel — in the middle of a country that is half the size of Vermont – has become a kind of nerve center for global politics.

Pendleton: It's kind of a hotel-cum-diplomatic hot spot.

Holder: So this isn't just a regular old Sheraton.

Pendleton: Absolutely. I mean, it kind of quickly came to encapsulate this very kind of identity of Qatar, which is as a broker for the world, as a place where all different factions can come together to kind of broker difficult conflicts. 

Holder: This very hotel hosted representatives from the US and the Taliban, to hammer out the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russia and Iran convened here to negotiate energy policy amid Western sanctions. In the last six months, Qatar has been involved in ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas. It is also engaged in the delicate dance of de-escalating tensions between Israel and Iran, after the two countries traded military strikes this month, raising the risk of a greater regional conflict.

Qatar didn't become a diplomatic hot spot by accident, it’s the result of a decades-long campaign. Over the last thirty years, Qatar and its Royal Family have amassed an enormous amount of money, property, influence and… attention…not all of it good.

Today on the show: We track the meteoric rise of Qatar and its royal family. How they leveraged their wealth to become a global player – and managed to put themselves in the center of one of the most important geopolitical negotiations in the world/on the planet.

This is the Big Take from Bloomberg News, I’m Sarah Holder.

Holder: Qatar's central role in Middle Eastern relations today might have been surprising even a few decades ago.

Pendleton: So Qatar was for a long, long time, it was this little country, it's kind of at the very tip, it's on a peninsula sticking into the Persian Gulf. 

Holder: Wealth reporter Devon Pendleton says that for years, Qatar had to fight for its own existence…Pendleton: And for a long time it was contested by these very sort of powerful neighbors, powerful tribes really, from Bahrain and from Saudi Arabia. The Ottoman Empire wanted it for a while. And so it was almost sort of by twist of fate that they became their own independent country. And they were a British protectorate for a number of years.The country was so different than it is today. Their main source was a port serving as a port for different ships coming and going and bringing goods and also pearling diving for pearls, which was sort of an economic mainstay in the region back then. Obviously that didn't bring in a tremendous amount of money. It was a very poor country. 

Holder: That started to change in the 1940s, when Qatar discovered oil reserves. But it wasn’t a ton of oil. Not nearly as much as some of its neighbors, like Saudi Arabia. The real game-changer for Qatar came in the 70s, when it found it was also sitting on a lot of natural gas. 

Pendleton: Their reserves are absolutely enormous, and they share it with Iran, and their share is absolutely huge. // But it didn't really kind of, you didn't see the effects hitting their economy until the 1990s because during that time they were building up the technology to transform that natural gas into what we call liquefied natural gas. And that is basically a process where you freeze it, freeze it, freeze it so that you can basically liquefy it, and then stack it onto ships and send it around.And that was an absolute windfall for the country. I mean, that's brought them in billions and billions of dollars. 

Holder: Today, Qatar is one of the largest exporters of natural gas in the world. This explosive growth was particularly good news for Qatar's ruling family: The Al Thanis. 

Pendleton: So the Al Thani royal family has been the royal family in the country for generations, and they are a very, very, big family. they take up. most of the really significant leadership roles in the country, the Emir and the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister — the Al Thanis, they essentially are the country. 

Holder: In other words, a windfall for Qatar meant a windfall for the Al Thanis. Devon crunched the numbers on just how wealthy the family is. 

Holder: Can you walk us through how, how vast the Althani’s wealth is?

Pendleton: It's so vast as to almost be a number that's really difficult to pin down and a lot of it is because there is a degree of opacity between state money and personal money.

Holder: All told, Devon says the Al Thani family has a net worth of at least $150 billion dollars — making it one of the wealthiest families on the planet. And that 150 billion could be a lot higher. That’s what Devon heard when she asked for comment on her findings.

Pendleton: (laughs) I think their exact words were “highly speculative, based on guesswork, and flawed extrapolation.” 

On background, sources close to the family said it was low. But, all of our calculations are deliberately conservative. We try to be as conservative as possible. This is really best viewed as an at-least number.But what's remarkable really is what the Qataris have done with that money and how effectively they've reinvested it. I mean, they're very savvy investors. And a lot of their investments have a lot to do with kind of promoting Qatar as a, as a brand. 

Holder: The family has invested its billions all over the world, snapping up large shares of banks, like Barclays, and stakes in some well-known high-end companies. 

Pendleton: Some of the ones that are fairly well known are, you might have heard of the French department store chain Printemps. They own that. They own some really well known, um, luxury brands like Valentino, for example, they own 70% of Valentino. They also own some really beautiful hotels in London, for example the Connaught Hotel, Claridge's Hotel.

Holder: Wow.Pendleton: Yeah.Holder: Qatar has also poured money into the international news agency, Al Jazeera, and has become a major donor for colleges and universities all over the world. According to a Bloomberg analysis, Qatar is the single biggest donor to US universities, responsible for almost $6 billion in giving so far. But the biggest brand-building opportunity came in 2010, when Qatar landed the bid to host the World Cup.Holder: I was actually just watching the video of the ceremony where they officially won the bid and the royal family was there and they sprung up and were so excited.

Archival Team Qatar: And the winner to organize the two twenty two World Cup is… Qatar! 

Pendleton: It was a huge deal. Um, many people, when Qatar won the World Cup, had never even heard of the nation. I mean, it's not even an exaggeration. So this was a massive coup for them. Up until then, sort of their efforts to raise their profile had been hosting, you know, certain small diplomatic conventions. And then now all of a sudden they're hosting the biggest sporting event in the world by, by miles. And it was not without a significant amount of controversy.

Holder: Qatar’s growing prominence didn’t come without a price. The country found itself at the center of major international scandals over  human rights abuses, bribery and its relationship with Iran... But the country navigated these and emerged stronger and more powerful than ever. Just how that happened, and the influence it has today, after the break.

Holder: We’re back. We’ve been talking about the royal family of Qatar, and their efforts to use their vast wealth to build influence. One prime example was their 2010 World Cup bid. It was a major victory for Qatar… but it also came with increased scrutiny. 

As the country was constructing stadiums for the matches, media outlets began exposing some of Qatar’s troubling labor practices. Here’s Bloomberg wealth reporter Devon Pendleton again:

Pendleton: It cast a light on the system of labor, which are common in the Gulf where you have guest workers come in from countries like Pakistan and Nepal and very, very poor workers who could come over temporarily and often have their passports taken away while they're here to work.And of course, and often just really grueling conditions and unbelievable heat. There were deaths and, you know, I think they made sort of lip service to improving that and were defensive about the system, but it really got a lot of attention for it. Negative attention. I think for a lot of people, the hosting of the games was seen as a human rights abomination.

Holder: As these issues were coming to light, questions arose about how Qatar had secured the World Cup in the first place. 

Pendleton: There were also allegations left, right, and center of bribes being paid to win votes. And there was actually, the US did end up indicting three FIFA officials for taking money from Qatar. 

Holder: Bad press followed the country all the way up to the World Cup itself in 2022. In spite of everything, though, Qatar and the Al Thani family still considered the event a success. 

Pendleton: If you ask members of the Al Thanis, most anybody kind of who is close to Qatar, many people saw the World Cup as a massive win. It was a successful cup. It was a really exciting World Cup. It went off more or less without a hitch.

Holder:  This wasn’t the only time Qatar would make it out of a tricky situation and come out on top. 

Back in 2017, in the lead-up to the World Cup, the country came under fire from some of its most powerful neighbors. Its close relationship with Iran drew heat from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE. The alliance applied some pretty serious pressure on Qatar. 

Pendleton:  It was a move I think that a lot of people didn't see coming. The neighbors that encircle Qatar, led by Saudi Arabia, formed an embargo against the country. And they cut off all land and water crossings to the country.

And it could have been devastating to Qatar, and I think a lot of people thought it would be devastating. They would have no choice but to capitulate, because otherwise their economy would wither up. But they did no such thing. I mean, they did, went to extraordinary measures to kind of persist, like, probably the best example is that they, the government got busy and they sent money to businesses which airlifted cows from all over the world so that they could have milk and all the dairy that they needed.

Holder: Cows?

Pendleton: It was — cows. They were airlifting cows. They were flying in, you know, huge jumbo jets full of cows. And they, you know, shored up their banking system, which of course was in, in a dire situation, and they just forged new — they made new friends, and that's kind of got to the heart of what Qatar does so well, is finding allies; forging partnerships.

So they formed new trade routes with countries they didn't previously have trade partnerships or they had weak partnerships like Oman and Iran and Turkey. It showed a real backbone, I think. It showed like, a real confidence in their belief that this is the best way to survive and thrive in this corner of the world. It's a very risky gambit to kind of seek out and speak to these different factions when you know that it's making powerful people unhappy.

Holder: Qatar emerged from the embargo stronger than before. And the world got a glimpse at just how effective the country was at making powerful – and unlikely – friends. Its role as a mediator is literally written into its constitution, where it pledges to strengthen international peace and security by quote “encouraging peaceful resolution of international disputes.”

Pendleton: It's really how the country views itself as a broker between different factions.They see kind of key to their security being a very small country in an area where there's a lot of hostility and conflict is being a broker, being the go-to person who can kind of get different warring factions together in one room.

And this has also worked in their favor because they have used it to harness a very powerful ally in the US. And the US knows that Qatar can be relied upon if they need to get a message to the Iranians, they can have Qatar deliver it. Or if they need to get a message to the Taliban and that is kind of why they are really crucial to the US. 

Holder: This seems like a really important moment to be looking at Qatar in this new role because of the important talks that they've hosted, you know, involving Russia, Iran, and the US. And these, these negotiations with Hamas and Israel. Qatar also brokered a deal to bring aid and medicine into Gaza.

Pendleton: It exemplifies, I think, how essential — how important money is because it's, it's a really a fascinating approach that Qatar has taken with, you know, not just using their money to become an influential investor by investing in, in Barclays. It is just remarkable to me that this tiny little country with a population smaller than Los Angeles is this well-known, widespread, and powerful.

Holder: These are obviously high- stakes negotiations for any country to be brokering. And given Qatar's human rights record; the allegations of corruption; and its friendliness with countries that have been blacklisted and sanctioned — I asked Devon about their role at the center of peace negotiations. 

Pendleton: You know, obviously it's problematic. And it is a matter of sort of who, if not them, then who? If the Qataris weren't playing this role, who would they be turning to? You know, if you, if they can't speak directly to Iran, are they not going to speak at all? And then, and what does that look like?

A lot of play — major players in the world tend, will tend to see things more black and white. Like the US says, we do not deal with Iran. Saudi Arabia generally does not like Iran. The UAE has very particular views about who they talk to, who they don't, who is good, who is bad. Qatar doesn't really have that view. They're, they're more, we will talk to anybody. We will talk to anybody, especially if you ask us to. If you need us to, we can go to them. And, and that is kind of what really makes them distinct, is that they haven't written anybody off. 

They're saying, hey, you want to talk to this guy? I got his number. I can put you in touch. And, you know, that's raised eyebrows, that's given them sort of maybe a reputation, that's ticked off all sorts of people. But all of a sudden, when one of these countries, these big powerful countries, be it the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia, they need to talk to somebody, they have to go through the Qataris. That puts the Qataris in a really powerful position.

Holder: As fighting escalates in the Middle East, Qatar’s role has become more relevant than ever. Since October 7th, they've played a crucial role in negotiations between Hamas and Israel.

Pendleton: They have been successful in helping over 100 hostages be released. Israeli hostages and hostages from other nations.  

Holder: As Israel's war in Gaza wages on, and its conflict with Iran unfolds, Qatar's role is continuing to evolve. Amid these heightened stakes, the country has come under increased political heat — and Qatar's prime minister has said it is reviewing its role as mediator between Hamas and Israel. For now, Qatar’s power continues to come from its long-held position: right in the middle. 

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