DOHA, Qatar - "This was a sleepy little town when I moved here eight years ago," said Mohamad Moabi, from an office overlooking the turquoise waters alongside this city's crescent-shaped corniche, where dozens of half-built skyscrapers are going up. "Now it's on the frontier of the global economy."
Drawing on a cigarette as he gestured northward, Mr. Moabi, 44, the Lebanese-born chief economist at Qatar's largest bank, pointed to why this tiny emirate, no bigger than Connecticut, is elbowing aside other energy-rich countries to become the leader in the emerging international market for natural gas.
"It helps," he said, "when you have a natural gas field up there that can be extracted for about a century."
In a shift that has drawn historical comparisons to the ascent of Saudi Arabia's oil industry several decades ago, Qatar has moved swiftly in recent years to develop its huge offshore natural gas reserves - once dismissed as practically worthless because of the difficulty of transporting gas to distant markets - while cementing strong military and economic ties with the United States.
Driven by an ambitious, reform-minded ruling elite, these moves have allowed Qatar to leap ahead of Russia and Iran, the only nations with larger reserves of natural gas, seizing new opportunities to export the fuel to markets in North America, southern Europe and the Far East.
Tankers laden with gas supercooled to liquid form already depart each day for Japan and South Korea from the northern port of Ras Laffan, not far from Al Udeid Air Base in the Qatari desert, the American military's main air operations center in the Arabian Peninsula. Soon the ships will start delivering their cargoes to ports in Texas and Louisiana in the most ambitious project to date to bring natural gas from the Middle East to American consumers.
These plans, which would help transform the United States into the largest importer of liquefied natural gas, have created some unease at a time when American reliance on oil from the Middle East is still unabated. Even as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries tries to strengthen its grip on world oil markets, Qatar has moved to exert greater influence over the trade in natural gas through the creation of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum.
With a liaison office in Doha, the group's 12 members, including Algeria, Indonesia and Venezuela, control more than 70 percent of the world's gas reserves and more than 40 percent of production. Though in its infancy, the organization has been likened to OPEC in its early efforts to control oil prices, an aspiration that officials here contend is not under consideration.
"Natural gas is not as flexible a commodity as oil and is sold in longer-term contracts," Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyeh, Qatar's energy minister, said in an interview. "The purpose of the forum is to exchange information. We don't believe in confrontation with our consumers."
Indeed, Qatar's ability to emerge as the world's leading producer and exporter of liquefied natural gas, with plans to produce 77 million tons of the fuel by the start of the next decade, depends on cooperation. It is working with Western energy companies and Asian shipping concerns in the construction of an immense industrial complex in Ras Laffan near the maritime border with Iran, about an hour's drive through the scorching desert north of Doha.
"We're building what might be the largest plant facility anywhere in the world," Wayne A. Harms, the president of operations in Qatar for Exxon Mobil, the largest foreign investor in the country, said in an interview.
"It's happening in a very fast, almost unprecedented period of time," Mr. Harms said, describing the frenzied activity of more than 50,000 workers, largely from India and Pakistan, toiling to build the complexes needed to condense natural gas so it can be shipped across the sea.
It has been just a decade since the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup, strengthening ties with the United States and betting on an offshore natural gas reserve of 900 trillion cubic feet - the world's largest purely natural gas reserve, called the North Field - that it shares with Iran.
That shift gave Qatar, long a marginal oil producer, a commodity to help it escape the Saudi orbit and the wealth to plot its own path to prosperity.