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Apologies accepted? 22, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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After much genuflecting and countless apologetic snippets posted here and there, it seems that the rift between, well, Qataris and the online forum Qatari Living is subsiding. Many Qataris on the Facebook group set up to protest the perceived attack on them and their national day have graciously accepted the offered apologies. Inshallah, this is the end of it…

Qatari anger at criticism of its National Day 21, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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There is a mini storm brewing over various posts at the popular Qatari information forum and website Qatar Living. The website has reams on information on anything and everything Qatari. It is kept current by virtue of people constantly posting in details of new restaurants, reviews of films, cinema times and a plethora of other bits and pieces of information that can be useful. Occasionally, however, some comments posted on the site cause controversy and some Qataris are banding together to get the site banned. Here is sample of one of the latest ‘offending’ comments.

I just returned from a 3.5 hour journey from Qatar Decoration round-about to West Bay. It is Qatar National Day and what should be a time of celebration and pride, presented this country and Qataris in a terrible light of lawlessness, arrogance and disrespect for others, as well as property.

Young Qatari boys were completely blocking traffic; spraying expat’s cars with shaving cream and silly string; blasting their music so loud you couldn’t even carry on a conversation in your own car with the windows rolled up; but no problem because only Qataris matter on Qatar National Day.

Qatari boys in their Landcruisers were waving huge flags that blocked visibility and revving up their engines so high the gas fumes exploded from the tailpipe, hence destroying their engines and polluting the air; but no problem because they can just buy a new one and who cares if they pollute the air when they spend their lives in an air conditioned bubble.

One guy was even driving his car by standing on the door where the window was open with his left foot and steering with his right foot, while his buddy in the passenger seat reached across and operated the gas and break pedals. So what if they endanger their own life or the lives of others? As long as they show off for QATAR NATIONAL DAY!!!!

It took an ambulance 20 minutes to get through a single round-about with their lights flashing and sirens blasting, because these Qatari boys were so intent on showing off they blocked all traffic and couldn’t hear the sirens with their music blasting. No problem if anyone died because the ambulance couldn’t get to them; after all, it’s more important to have a HUGE display for Qatar National Day!

One Qatari kid directed his friends who were on a motorcycle to try to drive between my friend’s car and the one in front of her even though clearly there was not enough room to fit, and he hit her car. Then these arrogant creeps essentially told her to go to hell and drove off while the kid directing them disappeared in the crowd. No problem for my friend’s car, right?

This comment in particular has caused significant offense because it is deemed to be offending Qatar’s National Day. This is the inspiration for the Qatar daily newspaper The Peninsula to run a story seemingly based on “one young Qatari’s” sense of indignation. Thanks to this story, of course, there will be a lot more indignation fairly soon. Of course, it is hardly fair to blame the Peninsula for going for a populist, anger-mongering story: such stories are the daily fodder of tabloids.

Other posts take on more of a racist, abusive tone, viciously disparaging what is described as a lack of culture and other social mores in the small Gulf state.

Issues like this inevitably cause real problems. Qatar is a country that prides itself on mixing its traditions with modern views on education and a forward-thinking, largely humanitarian-based foreign policy. Banning Qatar Living would send a hopelessly negative signal to the ex-pat community and the region more widely about notions of Qatari tolerance.

Moreover, aside from the gratuitous and rude posts seeking explicitly seeking to disparage Qatar, some of these posts are based on a kernel of truth. On the 18th the whole corniche was blocked by young Qataris who, to put it kindly, let their exuberance at celebrating their National Day get the better of them. I do not say this as a disapproving Westerner: pride in one’s country and the desire to manifest that pride loudly is a thing to be admired if anything, but instances such as blocking the passage of an ambulance and the reckless damage of other people’s property is, of course, a different matter.

I do not suppose that there is much chance that Qataris will follow the old of adage of ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’

Indeed, it seems to me that Qatari Living is skating on exceedingly thin ice. Yes, Qatar is a mature Middle Eastern country when it comes to noble ideas of media freedom and the like, but insulting their traditions and – worst of all – the National Day itself, changes things significantly. It does not matter that the authors and editors at Qatar Living apologise and repeat that this was not the original intention. If Qataris believe that despite these protestations their national symbols or traditions have been attacked, I would expect a vigorous reaction. Indeed, all it takes is one powerful Sheikh to take offence and that, as they say, is that.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that if Qatar Living were to be banned this would reflect badly on the ‘strength’ of Qatari traditions and culture. I would have thought that a country comfortable with its history, its culture and its place more generally would not need such a petty reaction against a discussion forum. Indeed, this speaks somewhat to what I wrote yesterday. Qatar is currently engaged in overtly fostering its nationalism and basing it indelibly in its history. The fast pace of change, the influx of foreigners on a massive scale and breakneck modernisation in all areas of life is, I believe, a concern to some Qataris, in case it severs their links to their past. This topic is, therefore, sensitive at the moment, hence, I believe, the harsh reaction to a few paragraphs written by a mildly angry foreigner.

Hat tip: Global Voices Online

Qatar’s National Day 20, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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December 18th was Qatar’s national day. Amid much fanfare, celebration, flag waving, noise, cultural education and national pomp, only the weather appeared to put a slight dampener on what otherwise appeared to be a successful day. Curiously enough, Qatar has only been celebrating its National Day for a few years. Previously, September 3rd was the day of national celebration being the day the British left Qatar to their own devices back in 1971. Yet, this day has been – quite literally, I think – canceled in favor of promoting the 18th December as the day that Sheikh Jassim, Qatar’s most revered semi-founding leader, took charge back in 1878 and founded ‘modern’ Qatar.

It is interesting to ponder the reasons for this change. It seems to me that previously, whilst independence is obviously a ‘good’ thing and something worthy of celebration, it nevertheless does not really speak to Qatar in and of itself. It is not even as if Qatar led some kind of resistance operation to evict the British. Indeed, quite the opposite, Qatar and other former Trucial States were fairly perturbed on hearing that the UK was abandoning them owing to their own financial exigencies. There was, therefore, I would suggest, not too much to make of this day.

Instead, the Emir (for it must have been him that made such a decision) decided to revert back to the famous Jassim Al Thani. A man already familiar and perhaps even something of a hero to Qataris. He took over from his father Muhammad Al Thani, the very first Al Thani, but it is Jassim that gets the credit for the founding of Qatar and, more importantly, its development. Throw in a famous victory over technologically superior Turkish overlords and apparent streak of erudition in Jassim and there are, as has been proven, the makings of a true hero worthy of a National Day celebration.

Jassim’s story was committed to film by Oscar winning director Peter Webber, as I described it briefly in an earlier post. It was a curious film to me as a foreigner. The film appears to centre around a key scene where Jassim vanquishes a local, hated enemy. Jassim battles the leader of these enemy forces on horseback but soon flees back to his own men, looking for all the world as if he is surrendering and running away. The enemy pursues him but, as Jassim nears his men, the enemy turns and rides back to his troops, apparently claiming victory for forcing Jassim to run away. At this point, Jassim then chases him and stabs him in the back without the enemy even knowing he was there. Cue applause in the cinemas. Curious. The film also had some rather interesting takes of aspects of Jassim’s life, but this is hardly surprising: what country’s hero’s life story has not been tweaked or even wholly rewritten?

Just about all events focused – obviously enough – on Qatari culture and traditions. Yet given the change of the day and the millions of dollars that Qatar must have paid to stage the event including a huge and spectacular fireworks display, why does Qatar now feel the need to express and promote these traditional notions and to find and develop an iconic figure from its past now?

The answer presumably is that with the growth levels that Qatar has witnessed in the last decade or so has come a staggering influx of foreigners. Qataris are now a vast minority in their own land. Foreign cultural accoutrement, be they Indian shops, Western chain restaurants, alcohol, churches or Western Universities are mushrooming in Qatar and the vestiges of old Qatar – aside from the new Souq Waakif – are nonexistent. Taking this into account and not forgetting Qatar’s conservative nature, Hamad Al Thani clearly felt the need to root newer generations of Qataris in their collective past: to extend the knowledge of their history and to base their identity not on recently imported ideas or customs or on Qatar being abandoned by the UK some 40 years ago but on indigenous Qatari symbols and traditions.