Qatar the Bridge-Builder

Dec 13, 2012 Written by 
The first lady of Qatar, Sheika Mozah bint Nasser, left, and the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, attended the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha The first lady of Qatar, Sheika Mozah bint Nasser, left, and the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, attended the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/07/world/middleeast/arab-spring-spawns-interest-in-improving-quality-of-higher-education.html?src=rechp

This is a collage of information on Qatar, following up on my previous blog, “Qatar Goes Green.” Shortly before his untimely death, Anthony Shadid, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, wrote about Qatar: “This thumb-shaped spit of sand on the Persian Gulf has emerged as the most dynamic Arab country in the tumult realigning the region.” What about this “outsize influence” that “Qatar wields in Arab Politics”? I’ll touch on five areas, starting with politics but then going beyond: its success in isolating the Syrian regime, its role in the new Sunni triangle, its sponsorship of Al Jazeera, its vsion as seen through the Qatar Foundation, and the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue. My point is this tiny country is a bridge-builder.

 

Isolation of the Asad Regime

 Anthony Shadid’s piece on Qatar, written months before an acute asthma attack took his life while reporting in Syria, begins with these words:

 

“Qatar is smaller than Connecticut, and its native population, at 225,000, wouldn’t fill Cairo’s bigger neighborhoods. But for a country that inspires equal parts irritation and admiration, here is its résumé, so far, in the Arab revolts: It has proved decisive in isolating Syria’s leader, helped topple Lybia’s, offered itself as a mediator in Yemen and counts Tunisia’s most powerful figure as a friend.”

 

Qatar too is the state that most influenced the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership on November 12, 2012. Syria, a bastion of Arab resistance over the decades, was stunned. Yet President Bashar al-Assad had failed to implement the Arab League-brokered peace deal, plainly choosing to accelerate his grisly campaign against his own citizens.

In September 2012 the Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani said in a speech to the UN assembly that in light of the Security Council’s failure to act he thought it was “better for the Arab countries themselves to interfere out of their national, humanitarian, political and military duties and do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed in Syria.” There was a historical precedent, he noted. The Arab League in 1976 authorized an Arab peacekeeping force to stem the bloodletting in Lebanon.

It was again the Qatari prime minister who on November 6th urged the Arab League to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the Syrian crisis. Six days later the League decided to suspend Syria’s membership. Qatar had played a disproportionate role in the matter, just as Qatari contacts and funneling of money to the Libyan rebels had been crucial for their revolution as well.

Qatar was instrumental too in setting up a plan for the unification of Syrian rebels’ contentious factions. In early November 2012 the US and Britain announced their support for the aptly named “Doha Initiative.” As it turned out, that initiative did succeed in consolidating opposition forces both within and outside of Syria. No doubt, Qatar is becoming a diplomatic powerhouse.

That said, Shadid’s quip about “equal parts of irritation and admiration” applies here too. For the last couple of months we’ve been reading about the US and the EU’s disquiet about Qatar’s role in channeling money and weapons to the Syrian rebels. Not by chance, perhaps, but the jihadi fighters associated with islamist movements and some even with al-Qaeda (many came over from neighboring Iraq) have the best weaponry, discipline, and strategic skills. One group has already made the official US list of terrorist organizations, the Al Nusra Front. This brings up the next point about Qatar’s affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood and other emerging islamist parties in the wake of the Arab Spring.

 

The New Sunni Triangle

 Starting around 2005 pundits were wringing their hands about the expanding Shia crescent – Iran now could count on a Shia-dominated Iraq as well as its Hizbullah ally in Lebanon, and the staunch support of Assad’s Syria, whose ruling elites come mainly from a Shia-inspired sect, the Alawites. And even as the 2011 protests unfolded in Tahrir Square, many were making grim predictions of an Iranian-Egyptian rapprochement. That’s what intrigued me most about Mohammed Morsi’s trip to Tehran for the Non-Aligned Summit. While officially passing the ceremonial leadership of the movement from Egypt to Iran, Morsi blasted his hosts for supporting a bloody dictator.

In case anyone was wondering about how isolated Iran has now become, that was one clear indicator. Its only Arab ally Syria was now shut out and humiliated by its Arab brethren. But there’s more.

As New York Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar argues, the Arab Spring has brought to the fore “a new axis,” a “triumvirate” that “played a leading role in helping end the eight-day war between Israel and Gaza” – “the Sunni Muslim alliance of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.” Qatar and Turkey have been working for some time on resolving the Syrian civil war and they joined Egypt as its president Mohammed Morsi brokered the Israeli-Gazan cease-fire. But don’t forget: just a month before the fighting, the Emir of Qatar had paid the first state visit to the Gaza Strip since its international blockade was triggered by Hamas’ popular election in 2006. More than just a symbolic gesture though, Sheikh Hamad came bearing tidings of nearly half a billion dollars in aid to the imprisoned and destitute Gazans.

What do Egypt, Turkey and Qatar have in common besides being Sunni? Egypt and Turkey both have moderate islamist governments. Qatar is a conservative Islamic Gulf state, but in contrast to the Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that want nothing to do with the political Islamic ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, its ties to that movement go way back. First it was Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who emigrated there from Egypt in 1961 and then was asked to establish the Sharia faculty of the University of Qatar. Many other Muslim Brotherhood activists joined him in one of their few safe havens. Bear in mind, as a movement they had renounced violence long before, but they were fiercely persecuted in Egypt and elsewhere because their political activism threatened the authoritarian Arab regimes. Unsurprisingly, when the current emir (or “king”) founded the independent satellite TV station Al Jazeera in 1996, he asked Qaradawi to produce and host its only religious program, Sharia and Life, which now has a global following of 80 million viewers.

Just a quick note about Qaradawi, whose work I’ve been researching. You need to know that there is another side to his leadership in the “reforming” of Islamic law, his strong condemnation of all al-Qaeda-style terrorism and his plea for western Muslims to contribute more actively and constructively to their new surroundings. He also has some strong feelings against Zionism and in particular about what Israelis have done (and continue to do) to Palestinians in their last 45 years of military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In 2009 MEMRI, a think tank with strong right-wing Israeli ties, posted some excerpts from a sermon Qaradawi gave with English subtitles , in which he minimizes the Holocaust, then says Hitler was a punishment from God and that he wishes he could blow himself up in Israel killing as many victims as possible. The website “Islamophobia Watch” retorted that this was a tendentious “cut-and-paste” job and gave other quotes from Qaradawi showing his support for dialog between the three monotheistic faiths and pictures of him alongside Jewish leaders. Just the same, Qaradawi did issue a fatwa in the early 2000s authorizing Muslims to blow themselves up in Israel, because the Israelis are killing so many Palestinian civilians; and besides, Israeli men and women serve in the army.

Now don’t let what I have just told you about Qaradawi lead you to believe that Qatar is a militant ideological state. My own observation is that the emir and his advisors, ambitious as they are, are both pragmatists and idealists. Like the Saudis they oppose the "Shia crescent" that blossomed after the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the Shias in Iran joined hands with their brethren in Iraq and the Hizbullah in Lebanon. More to the point, though, as their actions in Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Gaza indicate, Qatar sensed which way the Arab winds were blowing since January 2011 and proactively continue to nurture these rising islamist movements so as to be on the groundwork of a new Middle East, one in which a conservative yet democratic political Islam is on the rise.

Naturally, this sends shivers down the spine of western observers. In fact, no one knows where the current constitutional turmoil in Egypt is leading, nor what future policies the states of Libya, Syria, or Gaza will favor. At the same time, the Al Jazeera project makes me believe that Qatar is genuinely seeking to create links beyond the Arab-Islamic world.

 

 The Al Jazeera revolution

 At about the time the French were reviled in America (remember “freedom fries”?) for opposing its invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera TV was castigated for playing tapes by al-Qaeda leaders and generally for fueling anti-American feelings in the region. Yet the story of this project is surprisingly different.

 Al Jazeera in fact has earned a stellar reputation of journalistic excellence. Back in 2003 the BBC signed an agreement with Al Jazeera to share news stories and facilities in the Middle East. You can read about the prizes it has won in the long Wikipedia article devoted to it. The most significant prize, as I see it, was the “Best Circumvention of Censorship” award in 2003 it won from the Index on Censorship. The Huffington Post reported in March 2011 this statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

 

“Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.”

 

One could argue that, because it was the only independent channel in the Arab world routinely presenting opposing views on all kinds of issues, Al Jazeera helped develop an Arab civil society that longed for more freedom of expression. No doubt it was one important factor behind the uprisings of 2011. As the explosion of popular anger spilled from Tunisia to Egypt and then elsewhere in January 2011, the New York Times commented that “the protests rocking the Arab world this week have one thread uniting them: Al Jazeera … whose aggressive coverage has helped to propel insurgent emotions from one capital to the next.”

 

A visionary leadership

 The Emir Sheikh Hamad certainly has great ambitions for his tiny country, as we have seen – mostly in leveraging its diplomatic skills for peace and greater freedom in the region, albeit with its own conservative religious slant. What is less known is the dynamic role played on the regional and global scene by his second of three wives, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned. As in the picture above, she often accompanies her husband in official functions, mostly because of the weighty responsibilities she carries beyond her chairmanship of the Qatar Foundation.

 Sheikha Mozah earned a degree in Sociology from the University of Qatar in 1986 and has since been awarded honorary doctorates from five American universities. Her highest honor was the 2007 Chatham House Award, which is yearly given to the statesperson who has most contributed to improving international relations. Already in 2003 she was appointed as Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education by UNESCO, a task she valiantly carried out even in war zones like Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005 UN Secretary General Kofi Annan named her to the High Level Group of the UN Alliance of civilizations. Not surprisingly, Forbes Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential women in the world in 2007 and The Times of London cited her as one of the 25 most influential business leaders in the Middle East.

In the above picture taken in Doha in November 2011 she and her husband were hosting the international gathering of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), an initiative she helped to launch in 2008 and financed through the Qatar Foundation with its three major branches of education, science and community development. The 2011 forum brought together 1,200 academics and policy makers from all over the region, representing the culmination of a two-year study in 300 universities. Two other major contributors were the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies and the Carnegie Corporation.

 All this to say, Qatar is again playing a leading role in the wider Middle East to bring attention to the youth and the urgent necessity of offering them the best education and training they deserve. That is far reaching.

 

Interfaith Dialog

I come to the end of this blog with a confession. Maybe I’m not totally objective (who ever could be, right?), as I’ve just had a piece published by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), thanks to a request that came to me by its journal’s editor, Dr. Adeel Khan, for a special issue on the environment. You can download my own article, “Muslim-Christian Trusteeship of the Earth: What Jesus Can Contribute,” or any other one in this issue of Religions (Adyan in Arabic).

 The mission statement of the DICID reflects the best, I believe, of Qatar’s ambition to provide a crossroads of understanding amidst the angry voices of our world. When people of various faiths come together with ears to listen with respect and hearts to share – and all the more so in the Arabian Gulf – there is hope for a better world:

 

 MISSION 

“We strive for constructive dialogue between followers of different faiths towards better understanding and harnessing of distinct religious principles and teachings to the benefit of all humanity, on the basis of mutual respect and acknowledgement of differences and through cooperation with related individuals and organizations.”

 

All said and done, Qatar seems to harbor an unshakable optimism that it can mediate between all kinds of hostile crosscurrents. After all, it has provided a pulpit for the world’s most charismatic mufti and at the same time it hosts two American military bases with over 13,000 personnel. The aim, after all, is to build bridges. As the late Anthony Shadid quipped, “Maintaining channels with an array of forces has proven a cornerstone of Qatar’s policy.” We wish it success!

 

Postscript

I'm surprised no one has commented on this piece ... But I've had comments elsewhere from people who truly know this region and who've told me this was an exercise in naïveté, if not just plain propaganda. So just a couple of points in response.

1. I plead guilty, in the sense that this is not my area of expertise; I've never been there; I'm basing this only on western media accounts -- not an academic exercise.

2. I never said, however, that Qatar (or any of the other Gulf states) was a democratic state. It is autocratic, by definition, and dissent is punished in a variety of ways.

3. As you can read elsewhere on this website (look at "The Dark Side of Empire" in Resources), I'm very critical of US imperialism and its multiplication of military bases all over the world. So my comment about US bases here is not about celebrating them. And yes, the very presence of US power necessarily adds a whole layer of irony (we have a history of supporting authoritarian regimes in order to meet other goals) and complication at many levels.

4. My title of the other blog "Qatar Going Green" is, admittedly, way overblown. Qatar's spate of investment in high-profile "green buildings" is a good example of window-dressing for the sake of enhancing their international reputation. Qatar and its neighbors (as we do at home) have a long way to reach an environmental policy that would be qualified as "sustainable."

5. Is Al Jazeera truly "independent"? It cannot be since it was started with state money. But since when is private money a guarantee of independence and objectivity?

5. Qatar has all manner of other social challenges (esp. youth unemployment and its poor treatment so far of foreign workers). Still, I want readers to also see the positive achievements of this nation, and especially in light of the prejudice we Americans nurture about Muslim countries in general. Even in our own press it's possible to see different sides of how Qatar and its policies have been covered. Again, the aim of this website is to encourage dialogue and understanding. So please write in your comments!!

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