WASHINGTON -- It may at first seem strange that a major world event I am taking note of this Fourth of July is happening in the Persian Gulf, many worlds away.
What, no celebration of the Declaration of Independence? No bugle corps skipping along? No great republican principles to dominate the conversation as we listen to the bouncy music of freedom played on the National Mall?
Well, the fact that I, the humble columnist, choose to praise the Lilliputian nation of Qatar, long ruled by a royal emirate, makes more sense than you might at first think.
Qatar is a nation of a mere 250,000 citizens where power has usually passed violently from father to son for centuries in a part of world where democracy is as rare as a flowing river, and it has just taken a gigantic step forward. In short, the emir of Qatar has just voluntarily abdicated his position in favor of his 33-year-old son.
That, you may well say, is small potatoes when we're thinking of how earnestly we've been talking about installing democracy from Iraq to Afghanistan and from El Salvador to Nicaragua. But if you look with even half that earnestness at the outcomes, you find that the effort has largely fallen by the wayside, while attempts like the Qatari one can be said, for argument, to exemplify the eternal influence of our Fourth in the most unlikely corners of the globe.
What has happened is this: Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has, apparently in good spirit and in full control of his senses (as the lawyers would say), turned power over to his son, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Moreover, Hamad has done this, not out of failure, but out of spectacular success.
Eighteen years ago, he overthrew HIS father in a coup while dad was away -- that was the habit of the times and it remains embedded in the collective official mind of the Persian Gulf. In those ensuing years, Hamad and his active wife have used the fact that Qatar is the world's largest exporter of liquefied gas to make tiny Qatar a force in the region.
His regime started Al-Jazeera, the worldwide newsgathering media empire that now is extending its coverage to in-depth analysis of the U.S. Qatar hosts a large American military base, and it has taken an unusually large geopolitical role in the Middle East, sponsoring peace talks for Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan. It funded the revolution in Libya, and is now funding fighters in Syria (although many of these are feared to be Islamic extremists, as with the Palestinians). And, again on the plus side, it has given tens of billions of dollars to an "education city," which by the way is in part an offshoot of my own alma mater, Northwestern University. It has also started its own Qatar Airlines, which it modestly calls "the five-star airline" -- and in many ways, it is.
On the minus side, The Washington Post writes in a recent editorial, Hamad's agenda has been "not liberal but sectarian and Islamic," and that "the emirate is fanning what has become a dangerous polarization between Sunnis and Shiites that could convulse much of the Middle East."
To see it, the Persian Gulf monarchy's capital of Doha does not seem as though it has power of any kind. It is a modest little city, with large open spaces and handsome buildings scattered about. There is nothing here of the bling of its showoff neighbor, Dubai, with its tallest building in the world and indoor ski hill.
Still, the picture of a rich emir like Hamad, turning over power before he's on the last flight to Nice, Paris or Jeddah, is a powerfully engaging one in this part of the world. It is one of those events that tell more of the story than they dare. Next door to the west and north, for instance, lies the real powerhouse, Saudi Arabia, where there is not yet a whiff of an idea that the king will give up any power.
Moreover, the new young Emir Tamim has been meticulously prepared for this position. Like Oman's brilliant Sultan Qaboos, he was educated at Sandhurst Military Academy, where incidentally, Princes William and Harry were also graduated.
The first words of the new emir, who was obviously speaking to criticism outside of Qatar, were: "We must avoid arrogance. Vanity leads to mistakes." In place of Qatar's recent "go-it-alone-fast" regimen, he spoke of the "highest possible level of integration" with his Gulf neighbors, and of a "gradual revolution" in a country of "institutions" and the "function of law."
The problem with socially chaotic countries (see Egypt, Libya, Syria) that try to institute democracy too quickly is that contesting parties destroy the very stability upon which democracy grows. In these small Gulf countries, these families have legitimacy -- sometimes, as in Jordan and Morocco, the legitimacy of being of the family of the Prophet.
We should watch, in this race for development and progress, which one really comes in first.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)