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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Politics: An effort to ‘nurture creativity’
By William Wallis

When even a low level civil servant can be found driving the latest BMW and
almost every citizen is entitled to a plot of land, Qataris can hardly
complain they have not been provided for.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, you won’t find opposition to government policy
unless you go looking for it. There are no street protests or other forms of
popular pressure driving reform. Nor are there any against it.

However, in a religious and conservative, tribal society where until
recently most women stayed at home there are some who are unhappy about the
pace of change.

Unusually for the Gulf, many government policies are designed to nurture
independent and creative thinking. Ultimately the idea is to prepare a
generation of men and women for a more active role in a fast changing
economy and in politics.

But, as yet, there is no real forum for expressing discontent or influencing
decisions central to the nation’s future. It is the emir’s “vision” that
counts among the country’s 800,000 population.

On the political front and, in particular, the possibilities opening up for
women, this is ahead of much of the surrounding region.

Qatar allowed voting on the basis of universal suffrage long before
President George W. Bush was trumpeting the cause of democracy in the Middle
East.

But there is still some way to go before the government can reconcile its
own rhetoric about democracy with reality.

In theory, say diplomats, the local press is free so long as it does not
criticise the emir, who has taken the unusual step of abolishing the
ministry of information. In practice, they say, the censor still blacks out
more daring copy where journalists have not excised it themselves.

While engineering rapid economic change, the government is attentive to
supporters from the middle ground and quick to isolate less moderate views.
In the mosques, for example, inflammatory preaching is strongly discouraged,
according to diplomats.

The sharp decline in voter turnout between municipal elections in 1999 and
2003 was one sign that Qataris are discerning about the real impact
political reforms have had so far. In effect, the municipal councils have
control over school dinners and the way rubbish is collected but not much
else.

Where popular will does find expression in policy, it tends to be through
more ad hoc channels, says one expatriate resident close to a leading royal.
When Qataris with fast cars began complaining about speeding fines, the
police stopped replacing the batteries in traffic cameras, she says.

Even the more daring advocates of political change, however, believe
parliamentary elections scheduled for next year are a valuable next step.
The assembly will act as an advisory body to the government but real power
will remain for now in ministries dominated by members of the ruling
al-Thani family. Partly, some suspect, to ensure the participation of women,
appointees will fill one-third of the seats.

“Gulf states do tend to be top down and the character of society often
reflects the leadership. In that sense they are not that different from
major corporates,” says a western diplomat.

Most Qataris seem to go along with this contentedly, and some are keen to
grab the economic and education opportunities opening up. But there are also
plenty who are worried.

The most common concern is the pace at which foreigners are setting up in
Doha and the lack of public debate about where this should stop. Expatriates
already outnumber Qataris by as many as four to one.

"When Qataris with fast cars complained about speeding fines, the police
stopped replacing the batteries in traffic cameras"

The government’s close links with the US have also bred some anger in a
region bristling with anti-US sentiment in the aftermath of the invasion of
nearby Iraq. For more conservative Qataris, the rapidly evolving role of
women is a sign the US has brought its social values to Qatar along with its
air force.

“The government decided to open these doors. You can’t fight it,” says a
young Qatari woman who started work herself last year.

“Because we are small, we are united. But as we expand it will be more
difficult to remain so and, in my opinion, we are opening up too quickly,”
she adds.

Among the gilded youth entering the workforce there are other lesser
grumbles. No longer can they spend the long desert summers shopping in
London’s Knightsbridge. If they want private sector employment, they have to
work competitive hours.

A more worrying sign for those western diplomats persuaded by the emir’s
modernising cause, was what has been happening to several thousand members
of a Qatari clan who have been stripped of their citizenship.

One version, as close as it gets to official, has it they held dual
nationality with neighbouring Saudi Arabia - with which Qatar has tense
relations. They were acting as a Trojan horse for Saudi interests, according
to a high ranking government employee.

Another version that is circulating in Doha says they are being punished for
supporting a Saudi-backed counter-coup attempt in 1996, the year after the
emir seized power from his father. By stripping them of their nationality
now, they will have no vote or candidates in next year’s polls.

Amid vague reports on Arab satellite channels outside Qatar but official
silence within, it is hard to tell where the truth lies.

One man, however, who voices open concern about this and other issues is
Abdul Rahman al-Noaimi, a charismatic political history professor who is
preparing supporters for next year’s parliamentary polls.

At once representing the conservative values of strict Islamic culture, he
also strongly advocates a more accountable form of government and more
powers for the new parliament.

He says he has been banned from publishing in the local press.

At his office on the slightly tattier outskirts of Doha, he holds court
among a group of young Qatari men.

“A lot of people are concerned but they are silent. Nearly everyone is
connected in one way or another to the government and their livelihoods
depend on the government,” he says.

“We don’t oppose anything called reform,” he adds.

“What we object to is those things that will harm the fabric of society. The
main problem is the lack of public participation in the decision making
process. We are still not free to express our opinion.”

When Prof Noaimi criticised the emir and the prominent role of his wife,
Sheikha Mozah, in 1998 he was detained for three years. This would be less
likely to happen now, one follower admits.

Few Qataris seem to doubt the benevolent intentions of Qatar’s leadership.
But it is tempting to think that, if there were more democracy sooner, the
pace of social and economic change would slow, if not the speed of cars.
 

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
Diplomacy: Gas industry intricately linked with foreign policy
By William Wallis

At a time of intense anti-US sentiment in the Middle East, the tiny
peninsula of Qatar sticks out. As host to a vast US airfield as well as the
forward base from which US Central Command led the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it
has become an important American ally at a time when neighbouring Saudi
Arabia has tried to establish more distance from Washington.

With the Saudis at their rear, Iraq across the Gulf and Iran sitting on the
same vast gas field on which their future prosperity depends, Qataris are
fond of emphasising that they live in a tough neighbourhood. Given the tiny
size of the population, this makes it more remarkable that, in its foreign
policy, Qatar has managed to chart an independent course. Qatari officials
attribute their strategy partly to commercial interests, but like to repeat
they are nobody’s lackeys.

When Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, the emir, decided to develop Qatar’s gas
reserves after taking power in 1995, he needed both the investment muscle of
US energy majors and the protection of a strong military ally. Saddam
Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, left a lasting impression on
energy-rich Gulf states who relied to varying degrees on protection from
Britain and the US through much of the 20th century. When Saudi Arabia, for
domestic reasons, asked the US to move its regional air base, Qatar quickly
filled the gap.

“The problem with oil is finding it. Once you find it, it’s easy. With gas
you can’t do that,” says a Qatari academic who requested anonymity.

“The amount of money you have to invest in gas production is vast and the
duration of supply contracts is typically 25 years. Your clients need to
know these supplies are secure. We cannot ourselves have a powerful army but
we should have the right environment to develop our natural resources. We
had to ask ourselves ‘can we do it alone?’”

Qatar’s gas industry is now intricately linked to its foreign policy, with
clients in Asia, Europe, the US and, increasingly, the immediate region. The
sheer volume of its natural resources at a time when energy supplies are one
of the world’s main concerns, allows it to juggle different interests in a
manner few countries of its size could dare.

It enjoys close ties with both France and Britain, strong commercial links
to Asia, a rapprochement with Iran, limited trade ties with Israel and
sometimes prickly relations with its immediate neighbours. It tends to “talk
straight” to all, says one western diplomat.

Meanwhile, Qatar’s military alliance with the US has enabled it to step out
from the shadow of Saudi Arabia and assert itself in other ways. While not
exactly breaking club rules, the boldness of its economic and social reforms
have sometimes rankled among other dynastic autocracies nearby. So too has
al-Jazeera, the region’s premier satellite television news station, based in
Doha.

By giving the channel a free rein to report regional events Qatar has
deflected some of the opposition in the wider Arab world to its relations
with the US and relatively moderate stance on Israel.

The channel’s reporting over the past nine years has been a thorn in both US
and Israeli sides. This gives credence indirectly to the official line that,
where Qatar disagrees with Washington, it is not afraid to say so.

Before a suicide bomb attack in Doha killed a Briton in March, some regional
commentators also believed al-Jazeera’s willingness to broadcast al-Qaeda
statements gave its hosts protection from extremists. But as a foreign
policy tool, the channel has often proved a loose cannon. This is
particularly so because few states in the region, and even sometimes the US,
believe the al-Thanis when they protest its independence.

"When Saudi Arabia asked the US to move its air base, Qatar quickly filled
the gap"

Al-Jazeera journalists were recently banned in Iran. They have been kicked
out of Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq. Most of all they have infuriated the
Saudis. Whether there is a link between this and other recent fallings out
with Saudi Arabia is hard to tell. The tribal and religious ties between the
two countries, both of which practice a strict Wahabbi form of Islam, are
strong. But border tensions already existed, as did family rivalries and
mutual accusations of supporting opposition elements.

In response, Qatar has been forging closer links with other members of the
six-state Gulf Co-operation Council, in particular the United Arab Emirates
and and Oman. Construction of a 120 km causeway joining Qatar to Abu Dhabi
across the Gulf, is on the drawing table. By land, the two emirates are not
far, but a thin slice of Saudi Arabia sits in between.

An oil industry analyst in Doha says tensions with Saudi Arabia have also
held up a planned gas pipeline crossing Saudi waters which would link Qatar
supplies to Bahrain and Kuwait.

The Qataris are sufficiently worried, he says, that a large defence contract
they have put out for tender focuses more on protecting the border with
Saudi Arabia than energy installations from terrorist attacks.

“So long as Arab regimes don’t understand that the Gulf is big for everybody
we will continue to have such problems,” says the Qatari academic.
 

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Interesting enough, I do agree with most of what it's saying. I can say the following:

- The ppl need a stronger voice in runnin the country, that'll slowly happen as long as leaders stick to their promises.
- Qatar is forging ahead with closer links to all except Saudi Arabia and I see that things won't get better but more distant. When was the last time these two countries held official individual talks, a while ago.
- These developments goin on in the gulf countries at a pace that Saudi can't follow or let me say isn't willin to follow will only create more distance between itself and the other gulf countries. I say that the recent criticisms of Bahrain and Qatar are just a defensive measure to cover up weaknesses, but I see things bein better for Bahrain than Qatar with respect to ties with Saudi.
- That piece of land that once was the border between Qatar and the UAE has resulted greatly in screwin up ties between the two countries.
- No more big bossin around.
 
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