Qatar takes over the world

  @FortuneMagazine August 15, 2013: 7:06 AM ET
QAT02 qatar skyline

As I stepped out of the car on my first full day in Qatar, the 120-degree heat made me feel as if someone had suctioned the oxygen out of my lungs, then pressed down on my chest.

But through the front door of a small building lay another world: a cool, dark screening room in which no ambition for this tiny country seemed too big, improbable, fanciful -- or expensive. As I sank into an armchair, an ice-cold soda in my hand, a 3-D surround-sound video sprang to life from 34 projectors on a three-sided screen, showing the Qatar of the near future. Arab nomads in white robes rode camels over the sand dunes before melting into a cityscape of high-rise towers, air-conditioned soccer stadiums, vast airport terminals, and spotless high-speed electric trains. "It will be spectacular ... unlike anything seen," the narrator cooed as two words fluttered across the screen: "Expect Amazing."

That may sound like magical thinking. But then this is Qatar: a nation that has already spun natural resources into mind-blowing wealth and outsize global clout in just one generation -- and that now looks set to transform itself again. The pintsize power, contained on a peninsula that is smaller than Connecticut and juts out from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf, is the world's leading exporter by far of liquefied natural gas, thanks to immense offshore reserves. As a result, the fewer than 250,000 native Qataris who make up the country's population -- grandchildren of pearl fishermen -- are now the world's richest people, with an average annual income of about $100,000. They are also the world's most brazen investors -- in property, art, television, sports, mining, and banking. They aggressively snapped up many of those assets at fire-sale prices in the wake of the Great Recession, a once-in-a-lifetime buying opportunity for countries, like Qatar, with cash to burn.

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