Qatari officials made use of the second US-Islamic World Forum, held in Doha January 13-15, as a stage to express moderate Arab concerns about US foreign policy, particularly with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the ongoing conflict in Iraq.
The three-day event was organised by the Washington-based Brooking Institution's Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, in co-operation with the State of Qatar - and provided a platform from a wide range of both Arab and Western viewpoints. But the predominant theme was established in the opening address by Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who directly addressed the deep frustrations felt in the region over Washington's seemingly unconditional support for Israeli actions.
"Conditions in the occupied territories have deteriorated to an unacceptable extent," Sheikh Hamad commented, citing "the practices of Israel's forces of occupation, marked by excessive violence that breaks the rules of international law, UN principles and resolutions, and human rights".
He said that the US, as sponsor of the peace process, along with the international community, must step up efforts to halt Israeli-Palestinian violence. He also endorsed the Road Map plan set out last year by the present US administration, calling for "a sovereign Palestinian state, living in peace side by side with Israel".
Possibilities for resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations remained a central topic of discussion throughout the three-day conference, which closed with a speech by former US President Bill Clinton.
With conflict in Iraq continuing and Middle Eastern strategic concerns shifting, Qatar has emerged as an increasingly important regional ally for the US. The tiny petroleum state's leadership says bluntly and openly that Qatar needs the security guarantee of the most powerful country in world.
Qatar established diplomatic relations with the US in 1973, shortly after the departure of the British colonial administration. Defence concerns in the wake of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait prompted Sheikh Hamad to open the brand new al-Udeid airbase for use by US forces, creating the assurance of constant American protection.
US-Qatar relations broadened in the years that followed, and formal security agreements were reached between the two countries. After the attacks against the US on September 11, 2001, the Gulf emirate quietly endorsed the US military response in Afghanistan. The Iraq war is a more sensitive issue, but, starting in early 2003, the US military was allowed to expand its facilities at al-Udeid, which has since become the forward headquarters for US Central Command.
While the emirate's co-operative stance is appreciated in Washington, Qatar has not hesitated to make use of US ties to increase its voice in regional affairs. At this week's US-Islamic Forum, Sheikh Hamad also raised concerns about the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, "the repercussions of which we have to approach with wisdom and realism".
With the same sort of pragmatism, Qatar was the first Gulf state to establish ties with Israel, albeit in the form of a low-level Israeli trade office set up in Doha in the mid-1990s, and subsequently closed down in response to Israeli actions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Overtures to Israel had initially been made in 1995, when the pro-peace government of Shimon Peres was in office.
Qatar also explored, tentatively, the possibility of selling liquefied natural gas to Israel, but has been unwilling to seal a deal in the current political climate. Relations reached a low point with the dramatic escalation of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians in 2000 and the election of Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister.
After a meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Doha in May 2001, Qatari officials announced that the country's ties with Israel were frozen. In the interests of peace, however, the Qatari leadership remains open to dialogue.
Other speakers on the opening day of the US-Islamic Forum included Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the UN, who stressed the importance of building US-Islamic relations as a counterweight to terrorism, poverty and unresolved issues in the Middle East.
"If we cannot contain and reverse the growing chasm between the West - and especially the United States - and the Islamic world, it will worsen many other problems," AP quoted Holbrooke as saying.
But he also pointed to the deep differences between mainstream US and Muslim views on Israel.
Qatari-based Muslim cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, also quoted in an AP report, said that US policy "does not pay heed at all to what takes place in the Palestinian territories".
Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, speaking on the second day of the conference, emphasised the need for both Israelis and Palestinians to listen to each others' views, as well as to renounce all violence against civilians. Arab states must refrain from endorsing suicide attacks on civilian targets, he added.
Muasher spoke at a session that also included former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, both of whom put their signatures to the recent, non-governmental Geneva Accord, intended to show that a workable peace could be reached by determined parties.
To maintain the momentum of "candid and constructive dialogue," Sheikh Hamad called for contacts to be maintained through the recently established Qatar-Brookings Project, with a permanent office to be set up in Doha in the months ahead.