When the blighted housing projects ringing major French cities exploded in nationwide riots, France pledged quick action to fix them. Seven years on, the suburban projects remain islands of despair, lofty promises of rebirth largely forgotten. So a new plan to spend millions to help residents turn their neighborhoods around seemed cause for celebration.

Instead, it met a wall of resistance and outright hostility. The reason: the benefactor was the wealthy Arab emirate of Qatar.

The oil-rich state less than the size of Connecticut has exerted an outsized influence as a global bankroller, putting it at the cutting edge of an accelerating power shift between traditional Western powers and emerging economies. As Europe is engulfed in crisis, Qatar has been on a global spending spree, buying stakes in luxury brands, acquiring soccer club Paris St. Germain and financing London's "Shard" — the EU's tallest building. Now, to the consternation of the French, the emirate wants to make a major humanitarian investment in the West.

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