WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama heaped praise on Qatar's ruler on Thursday, saying Washington could not have put together its Libya coalition without him and praising his role in addressing unrest across the Middle East and North Africa.
Qatar, an absolute monarchy of fewer than 1 million people, has been a major -- if unlikely -- ally to Washington as it struggles to deal with unrest in the region.
Qatar and the neighboring United Arab Emirates are the only Arab states to participate in military operations in Libya, despite the Arab League's support for the no-fly zone there.
Qatar hosted a meeting of the international "contact group" for Libya and is marketing Libyan crude oil and buying fuel on behalf of the rebels -- throwing a lifeline to the forces fighting Muammar Gaddafi in a move endorsed by Washington.
"We would not have been able, I think, to shape the kind of broad-based international coalition that includes not only our NATO members but also includes Arab states, without the emir's leadership," Obama told reporters at the end of a meeting in the Oval office with Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
"He is motivated by a belief that the Libyan people should have the rights and freedoms of all people," Obama said.
The emir's visit to Washington came after Obama dispatched his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, to Saudi Arabia and UAE for talks.
"Qatar has done very well under his highness' leadership, but his influence extends beyond his borders, and so we've had discussions about how we can continue to promote democracy, human rights, increased freedom and reform throughout the Middle East," Obama said.
The oil- and gas-rich Gulf state has also urged Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after weeks of protests and deadly clashes with security forces.
With vast energy resources, OPEC member Qatar's gross domestic product per person is a sky-high $145,300, which has spared it much of the pro-democracy unrest of other countries in the region.
The Qatari leader said he was grateful for Washington's actions in the Middle East and North Africa.
"I would like to extend to you our deep appreciation and thanks for the position the United States has taken in support of the democratization process that has taken place in Tunisia, in Egypt, and what is attempting to take place in Libya," he said.
He brought up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestinian statehood aspirations, which he termed "the most important issue for us in the region." But he said he understood Obama's support for the existence of two states living side by side and said Qatar supported Obama's position.
Editing by Paul Simao