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BUT NATURE abhors a vacuum, and Qatar is quietly stepping up its activities.

It vigorously supported the French initiative in Libya and even supplied arms to the rebels; it seems that it is still sending arms to the Islamist head of the Tripoli military council; it is also very much in favor of the Brotherhood party in Tunisia which recently won the elections.

The powerful Al Jazeera TV channel, financed by the ruler of Qatar, was instrumental into whipping crowds into frenzy first in Tunisia, then in Libya and Egypt. It is calling for an end to Assad's regime and supports the main opposition group, led by Muslim Brothers and demands action from the Arab League and the Security Council. Qatar is more and more assuming the role vacated by Egypt in trying to settle local and international disputes. It brokered a deal between the government of Sudan and the Darfur rebels and lately between Fatah and Hamas. A number of international seminars and conferences are held in Doha, the capital city.

Yet the small Gulf state, with a population of 1.3 million - 300,000 being citizens of the country and the rest mainly Asians working in conditions akin to slavery - has no history to speak of, no army, no famed cultural traditions. Its ruler achieved his actual position of preeminence through the television channel he founded but also through his policy of acquiring more and more assets in the West; in France, for instance, where Qatar is being accused of "conquering" the country.

The transformation of a small - but immensely rich - Beduin emirate into a major player is due in part to the influx of Muslim Brothers fleeing Egypt after the aborted assassination attempt on Nasser and helping the country set up a system of education based on radical Islam, as well as playing a significant role in the Al Jazeera channel.

Qatar enjoys excellent relations with the United States, which has no less than three military bases on its soil - but keeps in touch with al-Qaida. Al Jazeera regularly publishes the videos and cassettes transmitted by the terror organization.

It is careful to maintain correct relations with Iran and the commander in chief of its tiny army visited Tehran last year.

Which begs the question: is Qatar, a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood since the Fifties, really an asset for the Americans or some fifth column promoting radical Islam? Meanwhile, the Brotherhood's upsurge is continuing. After Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco the Brothers are looking for gains in the forthcoming elections in Algeria in April and in Libya in June.

There are talks about reviving the union of Maghreb states established in 1989 which failed because of a number of conflicts between the member states; today it is felt that Islam can be a unifying factor, though it is unclear whether Islamic solidarity will be stronger than national and economic interests.

Altogether, the "old" Middle East, with its dictatorial regimes and clear division between countries supporting Iran and countries allied to the United States, is no more. A new map is yet to emerge, while the fate of Syria still hangs in the balance. However, the map will be painted with the green of Islam, and hard work will be needed to persuade the new regimes that they need to tone down their extremism to benefit from investments, loans and technology from the hated West.