Qatar and rule by its people 25, April 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: Democracy in Qatar, Education in Qatar, Qatar, Qatar domestic policy, Qatar elections, Qatar foreign policy, Qatari opinion
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The following article appeared on Muftah.org.
It is no secret that Qatar is not a democracy. While municipal officials have been elected since 1999, increasingly small popular participation in these elections reflects a widespread belief that the work of these officials is mostly insignificant. Indeed, the reality is that a small handful of people in Qatar make the majority of important decisions with relatively little external input.
The realm of foreign policy clearly exemplifies this kind of modus operandi. The Foreign Minister (who is also the Prime Minister) Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani is the key decision maker. Although trusted key lieutenants, such as the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Khalid Al Attiyah, also play an important role, all critical decisions must, as a matter of course, be sanctioned by the Emir or the Crown Prince.
While Qatar’s foreign policy is undertaken in the name of the Qatari people, it is unsurprising that there are no signs Qataris have ever really taken an active role in its formulation. Aside from perennial concerns with the Palestinian issue, the Foreign Minister does not pursue a given policy because of domestic opinion. Indeed, there is no evidence that Qatar’s foreign policy activism in recent decades is reflective of an approach, a whim, or an active desire among Qataris for their country to assume such a posture.
In fact, popular sentiment would appear to point in the opposite direction. Qatar is a small, conservative society and always has been. Until the 1990s, the state’s horizons were perennially limited to the region with brief forays into the greater international arena through involvement in international aid efforts, the non-aligned movement, and relations with non-regional countries as and when oil revenues permitted in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nevertheless, in recent decades, Qataris appear to be broadly content with their state’s foreign policy pursuits. Certainly there has been no active, widespread domestic movement denouncing Qatar’s various initiatives. Instead, there appears to be something of a tacit understanding that foreign policy should be left to the rulers.
Of course, this does not mean Qataris are uninterested in their country’s foreign policy positions. Indeed, as Qatar continues to receive regional criticism for its financial aid and investment activities from across the Arab world, especially Egypt, many Qataris are increasingly angry at what they see as a rude rebuff of their financial support. Equally some Qataris privately question the wisdom of spending so much money on foreign policy activities or, for example, the country’s decision to provocatively unseat Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Yet, still, the majority do not display a discernible desire to affect the country’s foreign policy positions.
While internationally Qatar’s leaders may get something of a free ride, domestically the story is quite different. Even though Qatar is not a democracy, democracies do not hold an exclusive prerogative on reflecting the desires of their people. Indeed, Qatari citizens can and do have a significant impact on domestic politics.
Qatar is a close-knit society with only 250,000 citizens. News, gossip, and anger spreads like wildfire throughQatar’s majlis (the informal, regular, social meetings held in the evenings by many Qataris). The elite – though inevitably moving in privileged circles – are keenly aware of how their policies are received by the people.
Qatar has no history of systematically repressing its citizens, nor would such a move be tolerated. Instead, when issues potentially affect and anger citizens, the government inevitably reacts, often times by slowing the pace of legislation.
A recent article in the New York Times neatly highlighted one example of this strategy. The article profiled the appalling state of migrant worker rights in Qatar. Qatar is but one of several Gulf states that has discussed reforming its draconian kafala system for controlling workers in the country. Since at least 2010 reforms have been under consideration, recognising the need to make the system more equitable and to establish laws and procedures to stop widespread abuses that characterize the kafala system.
These efforts to open up and safeguard the system for workers have been blocked by domestic business entities in Qatar. Just as happened in Kuwait, both the local Chamber of Commerce and Qatari citizens, 95% of whom have a housemaid and over 50% of whom have more than two domestic servants, oppose the reforms.
The Times article quotes research undertaken by Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute finding that 9 out of 10 Qataris do not want the kafala system changed and 30% want it strengthened. With some understatement, Qatar’s Minister of Labor noted that while he recognised the need for change, it “must go slowly.”
There are other examples of direct government responses to public pressure, notably in the social and educational sphere. In 2012, for instance, the government issued a decree changing the language of instruction in several courses at Qatar University from English to Arabic. That this change went against Qatar’s national strategy, which prioritized the development of an English-speaking workforce to compete in the future economy, was ignored. Given the lack of suitable and relevant Arabic-language texts for these subject matters, the legislation also did not take into consideration that challenges to meaningfully implementing Arabic-based courses.
As the number of expats has increased and Qataris have become even more of a minority in their homeland, there has been an inevitable dilution in the traditional aspects of Qatari life. This process has been further exacerbated by Qatar’s headlong pursuit of international trade. As a result, popular desire to ring-fence certain aspects of Qatari culture and education are unsurprising. Indeed, it can be seen in the most curious of places, including a law signed into effect in 2011 to mandate that Arabic be the primary language for advertising on billboards in Qatar.
This leaves Qatar’s Shura Council elections (literally an ‘Advisory’ Council, which technically serves as a legislative body), scheduled for 2013 in a curious place. Assuming that elections go forward (quite the assumption given that they have been pushed back on several occasions) the thirty elected Shura members will join the Council’s fifteen members who are appointed by the Emir. Undoubtedly, their priorities will center on Qatar’s domestic arena. Money spent building the campuses of eight foreign universities as a part of Qatar’s Education City project, as well as on-going costs associated with their upkeep, will doubtless be a focus of discussion. Equally, controversial educationalreforms to Qatar’s primary and secondary education system, led by the RAND corporation, are still a sore topic as are a variety of other matters that reflect attempts to preserve Qatari heritage and culture in an ever changing country.
Given the population’s traditionalist tendencies and the progressive policies supported by the Qatari elite, it will be interesting to see how boisterous Qataris become once their representatives are officially elected to the legislative body. To pursue their vision for Qatar amid popular backlash, the elites will have to carefully marshal support for initiatives to drive Qatar forward and keep the country globally competitive.
It will also be interesting to see if the Qatari elite can continue to dominate foreign affairs without any challenge from the population. While some elected officials are likely to become more vociferous, current trends suggest that overall the international arena will remain almost exclusively under elite control.
Another Qatar football debacle 7, February 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: 2022 organisation, 2022 Qatar, Football Qatar, Qatar, Qatar 2022, Qatar World Cup, Spain, Sports Qatar, uruguay
When the World and twice-running European football champions are in town and playing the Copa América Champions, it would be rude not to go along and watch teams stuffed with the world’s best players. As much as I was looking forward to last night’s showpiece there was always a certain cynical reticence expecting the organisation around the event to be a mess.
It has been years since I saw England-Brazil in Doha, which was a disaster of planning including giving every fan in the stadium hard glow sticks to wave around in the dark, which soon became a rain of missiles pelting the front rows (who’d have thought?). Still, since Qatar has won the right to host the 2022 World Cup it must surely have learned how to organise one match by now…
There’s not a whole lot the 2022 folks can do about the traffic. But the fact remains that for 5k around the stadium the traffic was a complete disaster with a 15 minute journey to the Aspire complex (stadium area) taking over an hour. I don’t expect a subway system to be installed overnight but how about a park and ride system from key points in Doha? How about traffic police monitoring the road and stopping the hard-shoulder becoming the fast lane? How about advertising a few bus services? How about doing anything whatsoever aside from just ignoring the problem?
Entrance to stadium
‘Take your seats by 20:00′ the ticket said for the 21:00 kick-off. Sound advice but had anyone passed this nugget of information on to anyone working at the stadium? Walking around the stadium more or less each gate had long queues of people trying to get in as early as 19:30 (and doubtless before). My particular queue was a special one at somewhere around 200 metres long. I started queuing before 20:00 and didn’t get into the stadium until around 21:25, 25 minutes after kick-off and after the first goal.
I simply cannot fathom how they messed this up so badly leaving thousands of fans outside in interminably slow queues to miss the kickoff. You have x amounts of tickets sold and x amounts of seats (let’s leave the 2011 Asian Cup final debacle to one side for the moment) and the staff presumably know kick-off time. From there it is surely a fairly straight-forward formula?
I just can’t understand why all the major leagues in the world can manage this process on a weekly basis – checking tickets, checking security, etc – often for much larger crowds and yet Qatari authorities can’t manage this once every year.
Do they not realise they can’t actually organise a football match effectively yet? Surely they have an inkling in which case why not get Man Utd or Bayern Munich to show them how it is done – the teams are here often enough, get the ground staff too.
Adding to the rancour in the long-suffering queues was the usual issue of people pushing in left, right and centre with Qatar staff replete with red glowing batons standing around, having a chat doing – precisely literally – nothing.
By the time we got to the gate they weren’t even checking tickets and were just waving people in: lessons not learnt, it seems.
I arrived looking for a quick bite to eat before getting into the stadium; how foolish of me not to factor in the necessary waiting time (half an hour or more at a guess; I didn’t bother).
The trestle tables setup for the drinks were exactly like I remember from my school sports day complete with paper tickets for ‘water’, ‘drink’ and so on; a system they had abandoned. The people serving had no system (I serve, you do cash, etc) but it was just a free-for-all and - obviously - the person I dealt with couldn’t add up, stuffing the wrong amount of money into a torn cardboard box as the cash register.
Again, I just can’t understand the utter amateurism of this whole affair. Why not get a proper catering company in to do the job? Why not think a bit differently and have shawarma and karak stands dotted around instead of a couple inside the tents? I could have organised that myself in half an hour.
I am sure some things went right. They paid $4m to get Spain; well done. But I was far from alone in being utterly demoralised by this farce. I simply have no comprehension as to why Qatar continually spurns these opportunities to show that it can run a successful and largely trouble-free football match. Doubtless these things will be sorted by 2022 – though I said exactly the same thing two years ago – for at some stage someone will get around to experiencing a match in Qatar as a normal fan and not a VVIP…
Incidentally, I can’t describe the contempt that I have for the Goebbels-esque reporting from an Al Jazeera correspondent gushing at the organisation; what a shamefully bad snippet of journalism.
On Qatar and Mali 3, February 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
Tags: Al Qaeda, AQIM, Gao, Islamists, Mali, MUJAO, Qatar, Qatar Red Crescent, Qatar supporting Islamists
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Claims that Qatar is supporting a range of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Sahel are not new. In June 2012 the French satirical magazine Canard Enchaine quoted French Military intelligence sources asserting that Qatar was financially supporting various groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The reports are vague but usually refer to financial support from Qatar, while some refer to Qatari planes landing at Gao disgorging arms and even Qatari Special Forces entering the fray.
None of these accusations ring true given the general thrust of Qatari foreign policy. Ironically, however, it is Qatar’s recent actions particularly in Libya that make these accusations seemingly plausible.
The Qatari contradiction
Qatar is one of only two Wahhabi states and it did name its new state mosque the Muhammad Ibn Abdul Al Wahhab mosque late last year. But Qatar is a box full of contradictions. Alcohol is easily available as is pork. Women can drive (nor has this been an issue) and Qatar has the most visible, outspoken and influential female consort in the history of the Arab world. Western education systems are at the heart of the state and there is not even an official mosque in the entire propose-built, multi-billion dollar ‘Education City’ campus housing six American Universities as well as University College London.
Externally Qatar’s policies can appear confused. Support of America by virtue of the two huge US bases in Qatar and significant (usually unwelcome) outreach to Israel in recent years is contrasted with seemingly amicable relations with Iran and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. More recently a record of enormous investment in London and Paris has been contrasted to escalating support of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and seemingly murky support of groups in the Sahel. Moreover, Qatar has been outspoken in its sub-state support of various groups in Mali’s regional neighbourhood in the last eighteen months.
A loose narrative has built suggesting that an ever increasingly confident Qatar is now beginning to support a range of ever more extreme Islamists across the region.
On the ground realities
Examining exactly what Qatar is doing in Mali is difficult. Qatar never enlightens anyone as to its foreign policy strategies or tactics and nor are there sufficient reliable sources of information in and around Mali.
The best one can say is that in addition to a lengthy history of interaction in the region the Qatar Red Crescent Society increased its capabilities in Mali in 2012 evaluating the state of the plight and the their potential response. This occasionally involved entering Mali from Niger to get to the critical city of Gao. According to an AFP article this in and of itself involved seeking safe passage from the MUJAO, an Al Qaeda offshoot.
The very fact that the two organisations came to this safe passage agreement may well be a root cause of much of the subsequent supposition, with many assuming the transit agreement to be a signal of deeper connections. Yet this is what the Red Cross/Crescent does; it sticks to its central tenet of neutrality in a conflict and deals with the realities on the ground making tactical deals to obtain access when it can.
There is no open source evidence available whatsoever that can back up assertions made by Sciences Po’s Sub-Saharan African expert Roland Marchal who suggests that Qatari Special Forces may have entered Northern Mali to train recruits of Ansar El Dine, which is part the Al Qaeda movement there. Indeed, aside from the Canard Enchaine assertion – which has even been partially retracted – there is nothing on which to base other assertions of Qatar financially supporting Al Qaeda affiliates in Mali other than supposition.
The majority of the hyperbole about Qatar seems to stem from the adage that there’s no smoke without fire. It is unsurprising that the Mayor of Gao accuses the Qataris of supporting terrorism. From his perspective he is making a heartfelt plea for French intervention and he sees the Qatari Red Crescent Society gaining access to territory held by MUJAO. Doubtless he puts one – Qatar, the Wahhabi, rich Libyan-Islamist supporting Gulf State – and one – the Qatari Red Crescent gaining privileged access in MUJAO controlled territory – together and comes to the conclusion that ‘Qatar’ is supporting the terrorists.
Marchal too follows this logic. Qatar was active in Sudan and then in North Africa supporting various Islamists with financial support and Special Forces therefore – QED – Qatar is active in Mali doing the same thing.
While some of this is plain alarmism from those who know little about Qatar, some of it makes sense. The argument that Qatar saw how effective its support of various Islamist groups in Libya proved to be and thus sought to reuse such tactics in Mali is a logical proposition. One could also note that gaining support in an area rich in hydrocarbons and agriculture is also potentially a sensible and explanatory as a motivating factor.
Equally, however, there are many reasons as to why Qatar would be highly unlikely to be meddling with Al Qaeda groups in the Western Sahel. Despite Qatar’s reputation as a Wahhabi and Brotherhood-supporting country Qatar’s most important allies are America, the UK, and France. Qatar has a limited domestic capacity to defend itself and finds itself in a region that has seen three wars in three decades and where it is sandwiched between the two regional behemoths, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have somewhat antagonistic histories with Qatar. The Qatari leadership is under no illusion as to where its security reliance lies; resolutely in Western hands.
Countering this notion one could argue that its leadership feels it can do what it likes as its importance is so great to these key countries. But an equally key part of the Qatar project is deeply concerned with its global reputation. Through cultural events; educational investment; a variety of sporting events; world-class conference facilities and associated apparatus; and other soft power building initiatives, Qatar places a significant premium on making itself attractive internationally. To boost investment, economic diversification and Qatar’s reputation overall it wants to be known as ‘that place where England played Brazil at football’ and that ‘will host the 2022 World Cup’; it does not want to become ‘that place that supported Al Qaeda in North Africa.’ Supporting the Muslim Brotherhood – the group elected to power in several Arab states – is one thing, supporting Al Qaeda affiliates is another.
One must note that the narrative that has built up castigating Qatar suits the Algerian Government. The increasing break between Doha and Algiers with the latter bitterly resenting Qatar’s involvement funding Islamist groups in Libya and Al Jazeera fanning Islamist flames is no secret. Qatar hosting in exile Abbasi Madani, the co-founder of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Islamist party whose near election win in 1991 precipitated the cancellation of elections and Algeria’s bloody decade-long Civil War, doubtless irks the elite in Algiers too. Given the almost entire lack of actual evidence of the Qatari state nefariously supporting Al Qaeda associated groups in the Mali theatre and the way this notion fits with the Algerian Government’s desire to hit back at Qatar, it is unsurprising that at least one North African expert has suggested that ‘Algerian propaganda’ may well be playing a part.
Lastly it is worth pointing out that the small group of people who make decisions in Qatar relating to foreign affairs – the Emir, the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister/Foreign Minister – have shown no interest in the past decades of supporting hard line salafi elements such as Al Qaeda. It is entirely plausible that some Qatari money is finding its way to supporting nefarious elements in the Sahel and there may be Qatar-based charities that engage to such ends, but the odds of a member of the Qatari elite ‘ordering’ such a plan stretches credulity.
Overall, there appears to be no evidence for the more outlandish claims that Qatar is training or financing Al Qaeda-splinter groups. Not only would this idea contradict key tenets of Qatar’s foreign policy for decades now, but it is wholly unclear how useful it would be to befriend a group of extreme Sharia-devout Al Qaeda types in northern Mali. Even before they were being routed by the French, they were hardly a cohesive, structured organisation that could offer Qatar meaningful promises or guarantees.
Instead Qatar’s reputation as supporting certain, typically Brotherhood-orientated Islamist groups in North Africa and a melange of clichés about rich, Wahhabi, conflict-fuelling Gulfies seems to have coalesced, perhaps with some judicious prodding by Algeria, with a basic misinterpretation of the role and practice of the Red Crescent. The ‘Qatari policy’ that this theory asserts may chime with base fears and assumptions and fit snugly into existing narratives but in reality bears little resemblance to Qatar’s state foreign policy thus far.
Qatar is not Bahrain or Kuwait 8, November 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar.
Tags: Arab Spring, Bahrain, bahrain arab spring, Kuwait, Kuwait parliament, kuwait problems, Qatar, Qatar arab spring
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The following article appeared on Dohanews.co last week
While media outlets find it convenient and practical to generalize when it comes to reporting on “The Gulf” or the now 24-month-long “Arab Spring,” these terms can be problematic as they simplify complex issues.
For example, take the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. On the surface, these countries have many similarities in terms of tribal structure, intermingling of families, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and economic and political systems.
But the differences between the nations, and even in cities within one country, are stark. Riyadh and Jeddah – let alone in comparison to somewhere like Muscat – are poles apart and – to engage in a different sort of generalization – Kuwaitis are far more politically garrulous than their Qatari cousins.
So, will the similarities mean that the Arab Spring will sweep across all Gulf States, or will some difference impede its passage? Let’s take a case-by-case approach.
Kuwait has relatively a long, mercantile history. One author even dubbed Kuwait “the Marseilles of the Gulf” – such was the port-city-melting-pot nature of the place. This helped give rise to a rich and relatively independent merchant elite that exists alongside the ruling Al Sabah family.
This dynamic in which the ruling family must contend with other powerful players has set the feisty tone of politics in Kuwait. In contrast, Doha was never as cosmopolitan or as prosperous a city and consequently no merchant class could develop independent of Al Thani power. This meant that politics was, as it remains today, dominated by the Al Thani family.
Today the merchant families in Kuwait have mostly “joined sides” with the Al Sabah against those dubbed “the opposition.” Much of the opposition are referred to as tribal and Islamist in nature and were enfranchised later on in the 20th century when the Al Sabah needed more support. Initially they were grateful to the Al Sabah for giving them a passport and supported them in Parliament.
More recently, however, they have realised that they are in the majority in Kuwait and now feel that they deserve more power. In the ( annulled) previous election, they won 34 of the 50 seats, demanded nine Cabinet posts (of sixteen), were offered three and took none.
The battle lines are thus set broadly between the older, established, richer elites and the “younger” interlopers looking to get their share and upset the status quo.
While there has historically been tension of varying degrees between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Bahrain, the key dividing line was largely a socio-economic one. Though there was certainly a correlation between Sunni and Shia in terms of greater opportunities for Sunni Bahrainis, the tension was typically not manifest in an overtly sectarian way.
The Arab Spring changed that entirely. To some degree this was a state-sanctioned ploy to specifically and overtly use the sectarian angle as an effective way of corralling support against the uprisings in Bahrain. Though they may have been successful in halting any significant changes, this came at a terrible cost not only in terms of deaths and arrests but in terms of profoundly polarizing Bahraini society.
Qatar possesses none of these key dynamics. It has neither a highly active public, political debating culture; latent sectarian concerns; nor deep and widespread socio-economic disparities among citizens. Moreover, it has a tiny indigenous population and prodigious riches to shower upon them.
Yet Qatar’s stability is not obtained through this alone, for its leadership has been putting Qatar on the international map in largely positive ways for over a decade now. This has changed the international perception of Qatar from having no reputation whatsoever – or being “known for being unknown” – to now being known for its mediation, Al Jazeera, sporting initiatives and supporting various factions in the Arab Spring. Overall, I believe that most Qataris are – if anything – pleased with this burgeoning reputation.
Just like every other state on Earth, Qatar does have its problems and its population has its grumbles. The pace of change and apparent “Westernisation”concerns some, while others want more transparency and a say in how the country is run.
By virtue of its proximity and its fraternal ties, Qatar will remain deeply concerned and interested in what transpires as its fellow GCC States wrestle with the Arab Spring. But barring a black swan event or a sea-change in attitudes, Qatar will remain as insulated as ever from the Spring.
Qatar’s flowering relationship with Paris 31, October 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: Qatar, Qatar Banlieue investments, Qatar France, Qatar France investments, Qatar investment stratagy, QIA
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The following article appeared in the Financial Times on the 1st November 2012.
When plans for Qatar to create a €50m euro fund to invest in some of Paris’s poorest suburbs emerged last month, the French political right and left united in disapproval. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, denounced the move as a plot to stoke Islamism in Paris’s Muslim-dominated districts, while the left-leaning Libération railed against the French government allegedly subcontracting its sovereign duties to a Middle Eastern state whose motives were suspect.
Yet the reaction shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the way Qatar operates globally and what it is trying to achieve. The pattern of its international relations shows its investments are geared primarily to three things: profit, security and building a brand that appeals to its western allies despite not being a democracy. The investment in the banlieue – long a scar on France’s social conscience – looks no different.
Part of the suspicion of French commentators stems from the difficulty of evaluating what kind of financial return Qatar could make from such a venture. Simultaneously, Qatar’s well-known support of Islamists in the Arab Spring has spawned far-fetched reports in the French press, quoting military intelligence sources who accuse Doha of supporting pro-Sharia armed militants in Mali.
Yet all this ignores a long record of examples that suggest financial gain is typically foremost in any Doha-backed investment. Such strategy is driven by a desire to bolster the country’s balance sheet and diversify earnings away from oil and gas.
The Qatar Investment Authority, the state’s main international investment vehicle, was established in 2005 to bolster and secure the longer term health of the economy through diversification. Subsequently, it has earned a reputation as a successful, thirsty investor with a particular eye for bargains and blue-chip companies.
Image in the west is also an important element of Qatari ventures overseas, whether backing Libyan rebels or building the Shard, London and Europe’s tallest building.
Since the mid-1990s, Qatar has been trying to present itself as a business-savvy, culturally-sophisticated and forward-thinking country, differentiating itself from other Gulf city-states such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Manama. Doha’s heavy investment in international art and education facilities, conferences and big sporting events such as the World Cup are all part of building the brand of Qatar™.
A third strand in Qatar’s financial strategy is linked to its core security concerns. It has seen Kuwait invaded in 1990, a deepening crisis over Iran and often acrimonious relations with Saudi Arabia – all of which mean it needs its western allies.
While Doha already has the US security umbrella and various agreements with France and the UK, it has been steadily building these relationships, particularly with London, over the past few years. Tens of billions of pounds of investment in London, not to mention supplying a vast proportion of the UK’s gas requirement, guarantees Qatar an appointment at Downing Street whenever it wishes. Doha has also made a series of important acquisitions in France and buys up to 80 per cent of its military material from the republic.
Although there is no document setting out Qatar’s strategy, it is apparent from – and only possible because of – the concentration of power in the hands of a tiny number of decision-makers who are related and share a vision of country’s future. While Hamad Bin Khalifah Al Thani, the emir, remains in broad strategic control, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the crown prince, is increasingly active and is behind several recent sporting ventures, including the acquisition of Paris St Germain football club. Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani, prime minister and foreign minister, is the key player in the Qatar Investment Authority, while Sheikha Moza, the emir’s second wife, is the guiding force behind the social and educationally-focused Qatar Foundation. Sheikha Mayassa, the emir and Moza’s daughter, is in charge of museums and art projects.
The Paris banlieue project contains elements of all the imperatives that have driven Qatar’s international investment spree so far. The fund may prove to be a successful micro-lending facility from which Doha will gain financially in the longer term. Its charitable and social focus also help Qatar look good and while the plan has its roots in the Sarkozy presidency, that it continues under President Hollande reinforces the flowering bilateral relationship between Paris and Doha.
Fear of Qatari motives seems unwarranted in this case. Doha’s slowly liberalising rulers prize their key western allies above all else. They would be loathe to see what – for them – is a tiny deal financially jeopardise goals that they have been aiming at for many years now.
On Qatar and Hamas in Gaza 26, October 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Qatar.
Tags: Arab Spring Qatar Iran, Brotherhood banana, Gaza, Hamas, Iran Qatar, Iranian influence, Qatar, Qatar Hamas
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The following article appeared on ForeignPolicy.com
A deeply contrarian streak has taken hold in Qatar these days. Insulated by U.S. security guarantees, eager to use its burgeoning fiscal reserves, and propelled by its elites’ reformist zeal, Doha continues to exert a disproportionate influence on regional politics. Emir Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani’s latest move was a dramatic visit to the Gaza Strip, becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since Hamas wrested control of it in 2007.
Unlike some of its less imaginative Arab rivals, Qatar saw Hamas’s regional isolation as an opportunity rather than a problem. Despite its alliance with the United States, Doha has been nurturing its ties with the Palestinian Islamist group for some time: Its worst kept secret is that Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s leader, has had a house there for many years and has been increasingly seen in Doha since Hamas was forced to leave Syria in early 2012. Doha has also opened its pocketbook to Hamas, pledging $250 million in February — a gift that was increased to $400 million upon the emir’s visit.
The injection of funds, however, is not the most important aspect of Sheikh Hamad’s trip. By breaking Hamas’s regional isolation and explicitly recognizing its rule over Gaza, Doha has strengthened the militant group’s hand against its Palestinian rivals. An official from the Palestinian Authority, which is in charge of the West Bank, begrudgingly welcomed the visit while noting that “no one should deal with Gaza as a separate entity from the Palestinian territories and from the Palestinian Authority.”
Unlike the Palestinian Authority, Israel felt no need to soften its criticism. An Israeli spokesman carped bitterly about the emir’s trip, saying that the emir was “throwing peace under a bus.”
The visit further highlights Israel’s loss of influence with Qatar. Relations between the two countries warmed with the opening of an Israeli trade office in Doha in 1996 (reputedly close to Meshal’s house) as the two sides looked to ship Qatari gas to Israel, with Enron acting as the intermediary. The deal failed, however, and relations ebbed and flowed until December 2008, when Qatar cut ties in protest of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Rumors that Doha was attempting to restart relations were finally put to rest with a leaked memo from Israel’s Foreign Ministry labelling Qatar as a “leading activist” against Israel, decisively cutting whatever informal relations remained.
The Iranian angle
Iran, with whom Qatar maintains cordial official relations, joins Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an unlikely triumvirate watching proceedings in Gaza with glum resignation. Tehran officials are doubtlessly looking back nostalgically to happier times only a few years back, when their proxy Hezbollah all but defeated the Zionist Entity — winning Iran no small degree of Arab support for its material support to the Lebanese militant organization.Back then, Hamas was also still ensconced in Iran’s camp, and Syria was a stable ally that appeared to be gradually increasing its influence in the Middle East.
Indeed, while Israel and the Palestinian Authority may view Qatar’s embrace of Hamas with chagrin, it is Iran that is the central loser in this drama. The emir’s visit is part of a larger Qatari policy to unseat and reorient crucial Iranian allies around the Middle East — and by extension, amputate a long-used, effective limb of Iranian foreign policy. This is a remarkably forthright policy, for Iran will not — and cannot — take it lying down.
This new policy is most evident in Syria, where Qatar is explicitly and unashamedly supporting the 19-month insurgency with money, equipment, and at the very least light weaponry — little less than a declaration of war against President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s core ally.
But Qatar’s new activism is also apparent in Gaza, where Doha has likely decided to take action precisely because of Hamas’s break from Iran. When Tehran stopped sending money to Hamas after the group failed to publically support Iran’s embattled ally in Syria, Qatar saw an opportunity to split the Palestinian group from its long-time sponsor. While its $400 million donation is earmarked for humanitarian development, not only is such support fungible, but there are doubtless other financial arrangements being made between Qatar and Hamas on this trip — further strengthening the ties between the Palestinian Islamist movement and Doha.
This move will, of course, catalyze another round of speculation that Qatar is supporting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world. That Qatar’s supports the Brotherhood is not in doubt — indeed, it hardly tries to conceal its efforts at engaging with the Islamist movement in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and now with Hamas, another Brotherhood offshoot. Yet Qatar is not nefariously trying to replace the Shia Crescent with a Brotherhood Banana, curving from Syria through Gaza, Egypt, and on to Libya and Tunisia. Doha is much more pragmatic and less Machiavellian than that: It is leveraging its relations where they exist, and looking to bolster popular, effective, moderate Muslim parties with whom it has relations.
Qatar’s vanguard role in weakening a key plank of Iranian foreign policy indicates that Doha must feel deeply secure with its relationship with Tehran, for it would hardly undertake such aggressive moves if it felt imminently threatened. Indeed, there is an obvious flashpoint between the two regional powers: Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest gas field, which has been responsible forQatar’s recent spike in wealth. Traditionally, this has meant that Qatar treated Iran with a great deal of respect. Relations were carefully improved in the 1990s as the field was being developed, as Doha sought to avoid an escalation after numerous instances of Iran attacking and stealing equipment from unmanned Qatari gas rigs.
Today, Qatar’s relations with Iran are as pleasant as ever on the surface. However, the fact that Qatar is overturning one of the key tenets of its foreign policy by antagonizing Iran is a surprising and forthright move by the Qatari elite, which clearly does not accept conventional limits on what is and what is not possible in the Middle East.
Fires in Qatar: the conspiracies 14, June 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: Qatar, Qatar fire, Qatar fire cause, Qatar fire Press TV, Qatar fire started deliberately, Stratfor, Villagio fire, Villagio fire deliberate
A few months ago when stratfor was hacked and it was discussed endlessly for a few days on the internet, I was struck by the tone of the reporting. In hushed terms, it was described as if a quasi-CIA had been hacked as opposed to a bunch of reporters and interns writing copy. Truly, after reading straftor for a few years on and off, the notion that they were anything other than bog-standard never occurred to me.
Well, it seems that my rating of ‘bog-standard’ was far, far too generous. For they now allege that the real reason for the deadly fire at the Villagio shopping mall in Qatar was because of some kind of Shia splinter terrorist group, seeking revenge upon Qatar for its meddling somewhere in the Middle East.
There are, of course, numerous plausible parts to the story. It is entirely feasible if not certainly true that Qatar as a country has angered a great many people around the region. Many of those angry people are Syrian and Libyan, both of whom have a history, shall we say, of using irregular and asymmetric means of retaliation. The notion that they might attack Qatar is, therefore, plausible. (Let’s forget for the moment that Qatar has been rigorously backing Hamas and – more importantly in this context – Hezbollah for many years).
But, if you’re going to push such a story, really, honestly and truly the very last person that you would wish to quote setting up your thesis is a Sunni Bahraini MP. I mean really. Bahraini Sunni MPs – or rather some of them – spend their lives finding imaginary Shia bogeymen to blame stuff on. It’s practically a sport and an art-form in Bahrain. Nary a semblance of truth, nor a shred of evidence is typically present yet this seldom prevents such gents stoically, studiously, and vociferously ignoring reasoned evidence to the contrary (to wit: the Bassiouni report) and pursuing the ‘Shia are behind everything’ defence.
To me this means that either the stratfor author/intern is:
1) Wholly and profoundly unaware of the basic realities of this region and thus completely untrustworthy and incompetent
2) Schemingly aware of the realities of the region and overtly attempting to push one particular narrative
I’d lean for option (1), but stand ready to be corrected.
‘Aaah’…the useless or Machiavellian reporter would retort…’we note that:
So far, there is no evidence to confirm such involvement.
Well imagine that! Isn’t that just super analysis and journalism? Running a story with the provocative title
In Qatar, Possible Retaliation for Syrian Opposition Support
only to later note that there is no evidence for this?
What other articles could they run with no evidence? George Bush possibly converts to Islam? Saddam Hussein maybe comes back to life? Ayatollah Khameini apparently an avid Twister addict? The mind boggles.
Worse still, this article puts stratfor directly in the same basket as Press TV. They recently ran a story stating that the fire in Doha was the work of the Qatari Opposition and/or the Qatari Royal Family. These stories are worse than Press TV’s usual fare. Don’t get me wrong, its perpetually garbage, but usually there’s a bit more of a serious tone about it, where as these are so egregiously and obviously wrong that one suspects that the authors couldn’t really be bothered to think up a decent or remotely convincing narrative.
Stratfor either need to present some evidence – some anonymous source noting that one Shia person is in custody being worth precisely fudge all – or retract this exceedingly poor article.
On the Doha fire 29, May 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: Doha fire, Qatar, Qatar fire, Villagio, Villagio fire, World Cup Doha fire
A fire at one of Qatar’s largest malls – Villagio – has killed 19 people including 13 children. A tragedy of this scale has not been seen in Qatar in recent times and has been felt deeply by all communities.
While an incident of this size is never to be expected, there is a certain grim lack of surprise that there was such an incident. There have apparently been three fires in the last 18 months at Villagio and Qatar’s other large mall, City Centre, suffered severe damage from a fire only few weeks ago.
Apparently in this incident it seems that the fire alarms only went off in some places; no one was encouraged/told to evacuate; the sprinkler systems malfunctioned; there were no maps for Civil Defence to use to coordinate their efforts; the initial Civil Defence reaction was to send in people without gas masks (!); and the nursery which was so awfully affected was a death-trap waiting to happen on the first floor with only one staircase for access, which was soon burned down forcing the Civil Defence people to hack their way in through the roof.
Why are there such problems?
First it needs to be noted that such an incident, in my view, could have happened anywhere in the Gulf. I don’t believe that such procedures are that much better at, for example, malls in Kuwait or KSA. Nevertheless, this incident happened in Qatar and we must examine it.
Part of the culture of management in Qatar is overly deferential. Overall there is a profound lack of initiative and a box ticking culture pervades. Diktats from on high often come thick and fast with little systematic planning overall. Conflicting policies are common. Yet no one below the elite level would dare criticise such policies for fear of retribution or reputational ‘damage’.
Qatar is a young country. It has the accoutrements of a modern state which can be bought in whole-sale, but the boring, decidedly not interesting but essential rules, regulations, and oversight purviews are sorely lacking.
Moreover, it is a basic human trait that it often takes a tragedy to galvanise people into action. British authorities knew that they had a huge problem with football hooliganism and crowd control in the 70s and 80s but it took the awful events at Hillsborough in 1989 for authorities to actually act. This is just the way that it is.
Qatar’s established media get an F- for their coverage. Late to the story and then patchy in their coverage, they have all been decidedly unimpressive. Believe it or not, QBS radio, Qatar’s key local station, did not lead with this story but with Sheikha Moza chairing a conference at the Convention Centre in its 18:00 bulletin the day after the fire. This is a profound indication of the levels of uselessness that pervade the local media, which are all but irrelevant to meaningful coverage of issues.
Instead it is Doha News, a ‘new media’ blog and twitter based news service, that has rightly received universal praise for its comprehensive coverage. Truly they have put all other news organisations however big or small to shame.
An investigation committee has been announced specifically to look into this incident and into fire safety more generally. There are several counts of criminal negligence that need to be accounted for both in the Villagio management structure itself; in the nursery for its apparent [perhaps I should say, 'presumed' - for we don't really know what happened there yet] lack of response; in the planning ministry for licensing such a nursery with such apparently poor evacuation procedures; in the Interior Ministry generally for its lack of oversight of basic fire safety procedures in such a key location; and in the Civil Defence and the other reaction forces for their seemingly chaotic response to an incident.
I hope that the reaction will not be the public arrest of some Philippine and Indian management-level people alone.
I also fear that there will be new misguided stringent rules. Don’t misunderstand me; tough new rules on fire alarm drills or procedure practice are welcome, but the authorities must resist the temptation to ram through new but ultimately ineffective knee-jerk laws to assuage the need to ‘do something’.
Does this incident have any repercussions for World Cup 2022 in Qatar? Not really.
Firstly, it is over a decade away which ought to give authorities a long time to evaluate such procedures and systems. Hopefully a rigorous approach to this issue will be instilled and in every day usage.
Secondly (and somewhat confusingly) whatever issues were present before this incident will still be present. For example, the desire to simply ignore ticket holders in the Asian Cup final between Australia and Japan and to fill the stadium for cosmetic purposes with ticketless workers to potentially create a security incident out of nothing; that kind of single, absurd decision taken by ‘a Sheikh’ who cannot be questioned will remain for it is ingrained in the culture here. Such decision making – rule by whim as I have dubbed it – can be quick and decisive but intrinsically suffers from a lack of strategic understanding and its consequences can be wide-ranging.
Of course there is no satisfactory way to conclude such an article. Fiendishly bad luck coupled with a seemingly long list of violations of best practice have resulted in an immense tragedy in Qatar. The slimmest of silver linings can, as ever, potentially be seen on the horizon in terms of future improvements in safety, not that this could ever amount to a sliver of comfort to the bereaved. Everyone’s thoughts are with them.
The Arab World’s Unlikely Leader: Qatar 14, March 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: America policy, American Qatar policy, Arab Spring Qatar, Qatar, Qatar policy
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The Taliban and Qatar 4, January 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Central Asia, Qatar.
Tags: America Taliban negotiations, Qatar, Taliban, Taliban office in Qatar, Why did the taliban open an office in Qatar
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After months of negotiations it has been announced that the Taliban will open a representative office in Qatar. Initially, Afghan President Karzai rejected Qatar as the location of the office and even removed the Afghan Ambassador from Qatar, accusing the Doha Government of not consulting the Afghan Government on the matter. Yet at the end of December 2011, Karzai relented, no doubt having extracted some price for his acquiescence.
No details are known about the office yet, but it is unlikely to take on the role of a Consulate or retain any significant official diplomatic capacity for many years and even then not without the explicit approval of the Government of Afghanistan, which would simply not be given under current circumstances.
Numerous previous efforts have been launched but failed. Two of the most recent forays for peace resulted in Western allies being swindled of hundreds of thousands of dollars by a Taliban impostor in November 2010 and a similar scam led to the assassination of the lead Afghan Peace negotiator in September 2011. This event in particular was a further catalyst for the opening of this office.
Now that a Taliban base is established, if it can be staffed effectively it should enhance the chances for finding some kind of an accommodation in Afghanistan. Without the dangerous and difficult spy-games of locating Taliban spokespeople; without the pressures of the in-country dynamics of the Taliban being a furtive, fugitive organisation and with a physical and metaphorical distance from the Afghan Taliban and their associated baggage – not to mention profound ISI-Pakistani influence – hopes are that all will find negotiating easier.
Aside from causing problems for American Diplomatic Service Protection Officers, the representative office in Doha is likely to be a boon for America with negotiating made significantly easier. Indeed, the Taliban themselves will likely seek out the Americans for discussions; they want five of their comrades incarcerated in Guantanamo to be released, perhaps for the quid pro quo of the release of a captured US serviceman.
Qatar is something of a natural choice as a location for the office. The small Gulf State now has a long history of offering up its services in the name of peace. For many years it has supported peace negotiations in Darfur through funding an inexhaustible number of Sudan-Qatar flights along with unlimited hotel accommodation and facilities in Doha as well as getting deeply involved in the negotiations themselves. Also, in 2007 Qatar sought to find an accommodation between the Houthis and the Yemeni government and, with echoes of today’s decision, offered the Houthi leadership accommodation in Qatar in return for concessions.
Moreover, as a small Gulf country, Qatar clearly has no vested interests in supporting the Taliban or the Afghan Government and can be taken by both as a reasonably neutral mediator. Lastly, Qatar is also likely to be funding this entire venture, from the office itself to the numerous return flights that will be needed. Taken together these qualities and Qatar’s pedigree mean that the list of potential countries to host – and likely fund – the office was exceedingly short.
Qatar’s motivation is – as ever – to maintain its place at the centre of the world’s attention. There comes with such attention a certain safety in the glaring lights of the international scene, not something that can be scoffed at by a tiny, exceedingly rich state hemmed in by significantly larger neighbours with whom they do not have the best of relations, in a region of profound instability. More specifically, this exact role that Qatar is playing with this issue is the personification of Qatar’s recent strategy of positioning itself as the key interlocutor between the West and Muslim actors with whom the West has trouble dealing. This exact dynamic can be seen in Qatar’s recent role in Libya, where it hopes to place itself between Western states and the emerging Islamic government, after cultivating relations with, for example, Ali Al Salabi – one of Libya’s most prominent clerics – for many years. So too can one discern such a relationship with Qatar’s attempts to build and use relations with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen.
Step towards peace
Overall, while this move is certainly a step towards brokering some kind of peace in Afghanistan, opening up far greater possibilities of meaningful interaction between all sides, it is but the first step along a long and winding road. Qatari facilitation can be exceedingly useful, but it will still take courage on all sides to take the necessary concessionary steps incumbent upon all actors seeking to close violent conflicts.
Published on RUSI.org