By Regan E. Doherty
DOHA (Reuters) - Sudanese rebel leaders, far from the war in Darfur, whiled away their free time in recent months smoking fruit-flavoured waterpipes and dining at all-you-can-eat buffets in Doha luxury hotels as peace talks wore on.
Their stay is on gas-rich Qatar's tab, part of government efforts to boost the tiny Gulf Arab state's credentials as the mediator-of-choice in regional and international conflicts.
"Qatar is a good place for negotiation, because the climate here is good for it. They are not seeking to benefit from the negotiation, unlike Chad and other neighbouring countries," said Hassan al Sadig, a negotiator from Darfur's main rebel group who was staying at the Doha Movenpick.
Qatar, sitting in the shadow of top oil exporter and political rival Saudi Arabia, has endeavoured to cut a unique profile as a diplomatic arbiter and peace broker in recent years, interceding in conflicts from Lebanon to Yemen and, most recently, Darfur.
Its financial prowess -- most recently demonstrated by Qatar's purchase of London department store Harrods -- has enabled it to be a generous benefactor.
Thanks to copious supplies of liquefied natural gas, Qatar with a population of 1.63 million, is now among the world's wealthiest countries with the highest per capita income. Doha has paid for accommodation of hundreds of participants to the stop-start Darfur talks since January.
"There is a palpable desire to be a trendsetter at the forefront in all domains, whether it's education, media or diplomacy," said Mark Farha, professor of Middle East politics at Georgetown University in Qatar.
"As the world's largest exporter of LNG, they're a force to be reckoned with."
Qatar, though a close ally to Washington and home to the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East, has not hesitated to cozying up to America's foes Iran, Syria and Hamas in pursuit of leverage. It is also host to news network Al Jazeera, which has often riled Arab neighbours and Western allies alike.
That boldness has contributed to Qatar's success as a regional mediator -- Doha has developed an ability to engage almost everyone from the United States to Hezbollah, and even Saudi Arabia, an old foe and traditional regional powerbroker.
Qatar also gained credibility among fellow Arab states when it expelled the Israeli trade representative in Doha in 2008 after Israeli bombing of Gaza.
Doha has successful precedents to draw upon, including a mediation coup in Lebanon crisis in 2008 when they flew in Lebanese leaders and factional figures to Doha for talks that helped the fractious country avert a new civil war.
Where the Arab League, the United Nations, France and other go-betweens had failed, personal intervention by Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani helped cajole Lebanese leaders to a political agreement, proving Doha could punch above its weight in regional diplomacy.
"It pulled the country back from the brink," Farha said. "(Qatar) is such a small country, and the fact they have been able to pull this off is quite astounding."
Their diplomatic triumph wasn't all based on charm and skill but involved a large amount of cash. One intermediary said Qatar helped cement the success of those talks by distributing $44 million to the rival Lebanese parties.
The country, whose economy once centred on pearl fishing, now has a sovereign wealth fund that controls an estimated $70 billion in assets. Qatar has launched a string of high-profile investments, including a viable bid for the 2022 World Cup.
In addition to its stake in Harrods, Qatar also has stakes in firms across Europe, including supermarket chain Sainsbury and the London Stock Exchange, as well as property investments in London. The most prominent project is the London Bridge Tower, a skyscraper which when completed in 2012 will be the tallest building in London.
But money alone was not the sole reason for Doha's diplomatic prowess.
"Other Gulf States also are endowed with great wealth and have not done nearly as much," Farha said. "They cannot afford any regional instability, because they'd be among the first of many victims."
In the case of Sudan, the Khartoum government signed a ceasefire with the main Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), in Qatar in February, as well as a framework deal setting out terms for future talks.
Days later, talks hit a stalemate and have progressed only intermittently since. JEM said in May following recent violence that it was suspending talks with the government which had been due to resume on May 15.
But many Darfur rebels have so far stayed on in Doha.
Though negotiations are far from over, the fact that Qatar has succeeded in bringing as many as 30 Sudanese factions to Doha was a mark of success, analysts say.
"To mediate between all the different sides -- Chad, Libya, Egypt, the Arab League, the African Union, the U.N. -- is quite a complex endeavour. They've tried to provide an environment for all the groups to unite, and I think they've been successful," said Salah Eddin El Zein of the Al Jazeera Center for Studies.
Doha is viewed by many Sudanese as an ideal talking ground for the Darfur enemies, as it is geographically and politically more removed from the war than previous hosts -- Chad and Libya.
"What's unique about Qatar is that it does not have a direct interest in Sudan the way Egypt, Libya and Chad do, and thus it is seen as an honest broker, to a large degree," Zein said.
And where previous hosts have attempted to dictate the terms of the talks, Qatar has treated the negotiating sides as equal partners, analysts say.
"We haven't seen anything that could threaten the process," said JEM negotiator Ahmed Toba.
(Reporting by Regan E. Doherty; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)