December 8, 2008

Qatar – the soft touch of radical change?

Filed under: opinion article — newritings @ 12:24 am

I have a confession to make: I never thought I would say what I do hereunder about a Gulf state but, in my defense, I boldly affirm these are preliminary observations which I garnered whilst there for a conference, and as Keynes said to a critic: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Qatar, tiny gulf state, is competing to play a leadership role between the extreme poles that divide the Arab and Muslim world, between those who violently oppose US imperialism and those who collaborate with it. In this attempt, Qatar is walking a tightrope, if not within a conundrum… (For the record, it has a US military base on its soil and has supported the USA in the first Gulf war and the 2003 war on terror, allowing US military aircrafts to refuel en route to Iraq.) Truly, this is a tough neighbourhood, and the having set this as background, I want to move on to what may be signs of a turn towards the light…

Apparently this region has been ruled by the Al-Thani family for years, and not all the family rule has been progressive,. There was also a brief period as a British protectorate, but it can truly be said that since the rule of Amir HAMAD bin Khalifa Al-Thani, a progressive democratic who ironically had to overthrew his dad in a bloodless coup in 1995, things first slowly and now at a crescendo started to happen for Qatar. The profits from the oil and gas resources is said to fund much of the new breath of democratic fresh air that Qatar is experiencing.

For some visitors the skyscrapers are a mark of progress and development – but not so in my book, and I will not even talk about it. For starters, by hosting international conferences of critical importance to the global south (developing countries) such as the recently held Doha Review conference  and before that the World Trade Organisations talks – called the Doha Development Round – it has put its money, literally, where its mouth is: assisting in funding the dialogue on development, as well as meeting its 0.7 % of development aid. These conferences are a small indication that whilst a small player, Qatar wants to punch in the heavy weight divisions of global politics. Regarding Monterrey, it is a widely held sentiment that if the Qatari government did not come to the party, this conference would probably not have seen the light of day.

Then there are the other great innovative initiatives: the formation of Al Jazeera, which for me is without question the greatest media revolution of the last 15 odd years, and the now recently launched museum of Islamic Art.

Al Jazeera has been fearless in covering all points of view, and has filled a void by covering the voice of victims-survivors of many complex human interactions, particularly the so called wars of terror in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. At a visit to their studios we were impressed by the modesty of the original Arab studios, which angered many a dictator in the Arab world and the White House.

The Museum of Islamic Art is mind blowing by its audacious attempt to bring to life a much-vilified civilization: Islam. The works of art covers a period of 1000 years and traverses the world, from China to Spain (although I must confess that in our short 2 hour visit I did not yet find the contributions from Africa, in particular Timbuktu – I hope it is covered). Nevertheless, it does mark the largest collection of Islam art (and here art, interestingly, is broadly defined to include artifacts, such as teapots, etc.). Not a dime was saved, as the leadership spent over $300 million to get the whole project off the ground.

Whilst we cannot speak with finality on the subject of women’s rights, it appears that women “are encouraged” to play a greater role in public life. For example, I saw women very visible in public spaces: shopping in malls, walking / exercising in both traditional and western wear. Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Misned, wife of the emir, leads from the front and is a leader of various organizations including the Qatar Foundation.

The Qatar Foundation is increasingly playing a role in funding various organizations and institutions of global civil society. According to their web, they state that the foundation aims to “prepare the people of Qatar and the region to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world, and to make Qatar a leader in innovative education and research.”

The Doha Debates

In collaboration with the BBC, the Doha Debates hosted by Tim Sebastian are also making waves. It is an initiative of the Qatar Foundation and marks the country’s vigorous promotion of free speech in the region and the world. A recent debate held on November 17, 2008, was on the theme “Arab States Place Profit Before People” and needless to say the resolution overwhelmingly read:
Motion: This House believes that Gulf Arabs value profit over people
Result: Motion carried 75% – 25%

And for anyone who has seen these will know that it is not only a debate amongst sweethearts, but at times also includes those who are labeled terrorist in some quarters such as Hamas. BBC’s Doha Debates hosted a special event with senior Hamas official, Dr. Mahmoud Al Zahar, on Tuesday May 27 2008. Here is a randomly selected snippet of how it went when discussing Hamas rule in the Gaza:

Dr. Zahar, people are looking at the kind of methods that you employ and wondering, ‘Is this the kind of state that you want to build in the Palestinian territory.’ It’s a state based on torture, of summary executions, kidnappings.
No, no, of course not, because we resorted to the election and the problem started…
You also resorted to these things, according to very good documentation from an independent human rights organisation.
They gave us no chance in order to implement.
So you’re admitting that you did these things?
No, we are, nobody is happy but we were forced to defend the legitimacy of the Palestinian people, the will of the Palestinian people, represented by the last election.
And you defended the will of the Palestinian people by leaving 161 Palestinians dead in eight days of fighting during your seizure of Gaza. That is in the interests of the Palestinian people?
Before that hundreds Palestinian people killed, imprisoned …
So an extra 160 doesn’t make any difference.
By these sacrifices from both sides, we reached to make an end for all the security dilemma. Now Gaza is very secure.

(for more, find the transcript here)

To conclude, I raise some of the critical challenges facing the people and the government and that is the extension of human rights. As a former trade unionist, I take the principle that workers’ rights are human rights seriously and that is where I believe the country is failing. Of course, there are related real difficulties about who can become a citizen and how – which I will not enter into here -, suffice it to say, that someone in Qatar jokingly said to me in reply to my concern about this question: “you will have to win a gold medal in athletics.” But back to the question of workers’ rights, they can easily be met by wealth and values of this country and the people.

Qatar reportedly has the highest per capita income per person in the world, and I do not think it would change much if they work on improving workers’ rights particularly in the areas of human dignity, right to organize, decent housing and pay.

The other concern I have is that, whilst the country is safe, very little space exists for walking (in particular with a pram, and 6.5month old baby) outside the harbour area. The country seems to have been made for big cars and pavements and walking seems to be a relic of the past – or places like Barcelona and some other European capitals.

All in all, the week-long visit to Qatar was a surprise and a learning experience. And these small tentative steps may mark the signs of a progressive politics that will rekindle the high points of Islamic civilization as experienced in Spain during the reign of the Arabs (711 to 1492). But to truly reach these heights, it will have to climb adroitly, walk softly but try to make a big impact.

Ps. After writing this piece, I searched for Al Jazeera coverage on the Gulf states exploitation of workers. The two part series below speak of the corruption and illegal practices of construction companies, weak protection by labour sending countries and arguably feeble recipient country enforcement of decent work rights. I am of the view that if the recipient country insists on ILO standards, including basic conditions of service, such as having the right to join unions of their choice, every worker getting a pay slip and paid on time, guarantees from labour recruiters that workers have not paid for flights and visa, and other miscellaneous costs upfront or later, these small steps will be a sea change.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Qatar – the soft touch of radical change? Qatar, tiny gulf state, is competing to play a leadership role between the extreme poles that divide the Arab and Muslim world, between those who violently oppose US imperialism and those who collaborate with it. … […]

    Pingback by US Election On Best Political Blogs » Blog Archive » Qatar – the soft touch of radical change? — December 8, 2008 @ 12:34 am | Reply

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