"For them, of course, this is about 'We want to be the big host of big stuff.' But when it comes to the content, maybe they've seen it's not like hosting the World Cup," he said.
Since October, though, Qatar is said to have assembled a team of about 20 people whom observers described as largely unfamiliar with the labyrinthine UNFCCC politics but dedicated to making COP 18 a success.
"I think Qatar wants a successful COP, and they are now understanding what a successful COP means, what kind of political investment it takes. I just hope it's not too late," Hmaidan said. "They've been stepping it up a lot lately. ... They want something meaningful; they don't want a greenwashed deal."
Gulf nations face long-term climate problems
Rob Stavins, director of Harvard University's Environmental Economics Program, who has met several times with Qatari leaders in preparation for the COP, said he disagrees with the conventional wisdom that the nation has faltered in preparations.
"My perception is that they are well on their way to being well-prepared for this. I think they recognize its importance, and I anticipate that it will be a successful meeting," he said. "I've been very impressed with the people I have met with in Doha. They take the problem and the challenge of the COP very seriously."
Stavins also noted that many Gulf countries -- exceptionally arid and starved for water -- face a major threat from climate change that they will certainly highlight at COP 18.
There are several side events planned around showcasing clean energy work in the region. Bahrain, for one, is hosting a discussion on building efficiency in the Gulf. The United Arab Emirates is also expected to showcase its long-standing work as a leader in clean energy and climate change awareness in the Gulf.
Many analysts said they are encouraged by the serious on-the-ground work that is being done on renewable energy in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia's target of installing 41 gigawatts of solar capacity within two decades, and 90 GW of wind. Experts note that the drive behind Saudi Arabia's renewable development has little to do with climate change and everything to do with economics, including predictions that it will run out of oil for export by 2030.
Still, Michaelowa argued, the work being done is big. He said that while working with the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum over the last three years setting up carbon trading mechanisms, he was surprised by the seriousness with which officials approached the markets.
"It became very clear that they have a long-term vision of emissions mitigation," Michaelowa said. "They are on the way to changing their economic landscapes. ... They understand that a pure fossil fuel economic model will not lead anywhere; they have big challenges with growing populations, and therefore climate policy could help with that approach."
Have Saudis changed their tune?
While that doesn't jibe with the notoriously obstructionist position Saudi Arabia has taken at the climate talks, Michaelowa and others urged patience.
Already the Saudi government has removed its longtime negotiator Mohammad Al-Sabban, who embraced climate skeptics, demanded compensation for lost oil revenues if nations reduce greenhouse gases and, many said, appeared to revel in trying to upend negotiations each year.
"Saudi Arabia is known for using pet issues as tactical ways to divert the whole process. It's not much of a caricature to say that there's a point in every COP when Saudi Arabia turns to the host and says, 'We're going to destroy your COP unless we get what we want,'" one analyst familiar with Gulf countries said.
Replacing Al-Sabban with a negotiator willing to work with other countries, the analyst said, is not a major change of substance, and no one should expect a "dramatic turnaround on a dime" from Saudi Arabia. Yet the change is "a fairly significant change in tone. And if there's a change in tone from the Saudi side, that is sort of a major change in substance."