All eyes on Qatar, Al Jazeera's money machine

August 21, 2013: 1:03 PM ET

The tiny nation has a population that would fit in one Manhattan neighborhood, and its sovereign wealth fund is worth an estimated $85 billion.

By Vivienne Walt

qatar-620xaFORTUNE -- For centuries, one sure way to gauge a country's influence has been by the size of its territory and population. No surprise, then, that the U.S., China, and Russia have complex economies with global reach and serious political clout.

But what do we make of a powerhouse that is so tiny that it could fit comfortably inside Connecticut, and with a population small enough to occupy one neighborhood of Manhattan? This week, 45 million or so Americans will get a taste of how a pocket-sized nation can flex some big muscles, when they switch on their TV and find Al Jazeera America -- the first new 24-hour news channel to roll out in the U.S. since Fox News began 17 years ago. Launched on Aug. 20, the channel is wholly owned and financed to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars by miniscule Qatar, a dot on the map that juts out from the Saudi Arabian coastline on the Persian Gulf.

When I landed in Qatar in the broiling July heat, on assignment for Fortune to write about how Qatar is taking over the world, it quickly became clear why this peninsula has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in financial investments across the planet, as well as an interventionist presence in the Middle East's turmoil, and a key partner (most times) for the U.S., whose regional CENTCOM base is located here. (See "Qatar takes over the world.")

First, unlike Russia, the billions Qatar makes from its vast offshore natural gas reserves are shared among only 250,000 or so locals, leaving the country with the world's highest average annual income, of about $100,000. Having invested heavily in liquefied natural-gas technology and infrastructure, Qatar is now the world's biggest LNG exporter, ensuring a dependable influx of cash for years to come. Its sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (from which Al Jazeera is financed) is estimated to be worth somewhere north of $85 billion.

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When I asked Nasser al-Khelaifi, who heads the state-financed Al Jazeera Sports and beIN Sport networks, what drives Qatari executives to succeed (they hardly need the paycheck) he told me, late one night as we sat in his modest office atop the Qatar Tennis Foundation, which he also runs, "The motivation is not only money, it is for the country."

In the late 1990s, the country's previous ruler, Sheikh Hamad, realized that his little nation needed worldwide influence in order to avoid being dominated forever by its giant neighbor Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Hamad galvanized Qataris into creating a different model for the region: A skyscraper capital of Doha, where international banks, companies, media organizations, and Western universities would be lured in to do business and create international links, and also -- somewhat different from Dubai -- invest heavily in the rest of the world. Khelaifi, who at 39 is practically old for top officials, says his generation was inspired by Qatar's dynamism to work hard. "You cannot teach people to love or work for the country," Khelaifi says. "For most Qatari people, they have it in their blood."

In many ways, Khelaifi encapsulates the country's strategy for the future, with an expanding business empire that has helped Qatar cement key relationships, from Washington to Paris. Qatar's sports broadcasting is growing quickly -- and largely without any political upset. Khelaifi tells me that in the U.S., beIN Sport is eyeing the rights to Major League Soccer, when it comes due next year. In France, meanwhile, the cable network Canal Plus last month sued beIN Sport for unfair competition, claiming that Qatar was vastly outbidding it on broadcast rights, deliberately luring away its subscriber base, and threatening the network's viability.

What has made Khelaifi -- a tall, soft-spoken former tennis champion -- somewhat famous is Qatar's other business in France: It owns the French capital's soccer club, Paris Saint-Germain, which Khelaifi runs. Qatar has poured some $475 million into stadium upgrades, training, and signing top European players (including David Beckham for a while). This year, the club won the French League for the first time in 19 years. Now, autograph hunters trail Khelaifi when he walks the Champs Elysée in Paris. Not even Khelaifi's close, lifelong friend, the new emir, Sheikh Tamim, 33, enjoys such fame abroad. "When we bought the Paris club, we knew we were there for the long term," Khelaifi tells me, echoing a business strategy I heard from other Qatari executives. "We wanted to build the best training center in the world for the club."

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Qatar hopes that it can also build long-lasting ties in the U.S., where Qatar has had to reassure Americans that Al Jazeera will not push any political line. The channel earned notoriety among Americans after 9/11 for airing Osama Bin Laden's videotaped addresses. An effective decade-long boycott by U.S. cable operators against Al Jazeera was broken when Qatar simply bought Al Gore's Current TV network for $500 million last year, unlocking a distribution platform across the country. Time Warner Cable (TWC) pulled Current TV after the purchase. Al Jazeera sued AT&T (T) after it refused to carry the network.

As Americans tune in starting this week, many will be watching closely for signs of political bias. And in Qatar, officials will notch up another success in its rising global influence -- all from a miniature territory.

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