May 2018

The Doha mysteries

By Zyad Limam
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Blockaded since June 2017 and at the centre of a diplomatic storm, Qatar has not given up its aspirations. The reigning Al Thani family is pursuing a complex project of openness through culture and education, while at the same time seeking to create geostrategic margins for manoeuvre.
 
Here, we are in Qatar, in the heart of the Persian/Arabian Gulf, in one of the richest – maybe even the richest – states in the world and home to around 2.5 million people of whom 300,000 can only be called very privileged citizens (cost-free living, subsidies, excellent salaries, etc.). Per capita income is close to $60,000, one of the highest worldwide, and the Gross National Product exceeds $150 billion (after peaking at $200 billion in 2014), making it a nation on the scale of Morocco or Algeria, clearly more highly populated. Doha, the capital, has not yet acquired that flamboyant, breathtaking, oversized aspect of Dubai or Singapore, but nonetheless, it’s a big city that literally rose out of the sand in less than 25 years. Futuristic skyscrapers are etched into the West Bay skyline. On the other side of the bay there is the inevitable artificial island, an impressive residential complex of buildings and luxury villas called The Pearl. The 2024 World Cup football stadiums are nearly finished and the subway is under construction. The hospitality industry’s flagship brands continue to open palatial establishments. There are also more trendy addresses (as the capital’s inhabitants stress – there’s life before the W, a lively luxury hotel, and life since the W). Education City proudly draws one leading school and international university after another. Clearly, the Qatari Peninsula is a vast open-air building site, permanently under construction.
 
It’s a strange sensation. Despite the immensity of the means, ordinariness and imperfection have not completely deserted the place. Here and there, there is evidence of improvisation. On the outskirts, modest villas, working class neighbourhoods and mom ‘n pop stores have not completely disappeared. The resources are there, but the system often appears to be stretched to the max, edging towards the red zone. As one long-term expat reminds us, Qatar is sparsely populated. Human resources are limited, often “imported” and attempting to maximise their earnings. The projects are numerous, huge and highly ambitious. Time is constantly of the essence. In short, we think big, we build, we make mistakes, we change the plans, we start again and rebuild, without worrying too much about the financial side of things. There are some losses, certainly, but that’s not really an issue.
 
Hamad and the gas field miracle
 
One could be tempted to throw every cliché in the book at this expensive Gulf monarchy. Yet its story is different. In the early 1990s, following the big oil crisis of the 80s, Qatar was a cash-strapped country, in recession, almost unable to meet its payments and where “we had to borrow just to pay wages,” says a current minister. Religious conservatism was the order of the day.
 
After all, the Qataris are officially of the Wahhabi creed, that branch of Islamic doctrine that they share with their powerful Saudi neighbour. The “boss”, Emir Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, is old school. Strictly speaking, Qatar does not have an economic strategy. In 1995, Sheikh Hamad, the ambitious son, took control of the country while his father was on another overseas trip. Emir Hamad had a plan to revive the economy by resuscitating Shell's massive North Dome gas deposit discovered in the early 1970s and never really put into operation. Crucial to the plan was finding a solution, other than pipelines, to transport this gas. Hamad began looking for partners and funding. Some countries, keen to diversify their energy resources, put their faith in the project, Japan and France in particular. The success was spectacular. In two decades, Qatar has become the world's leading supplier of liquefied gas and the fourth largest producer of natural gas (after the United States, Russia and Iran, which shares the North Dome operation with Doha). It is thus also one of the richest countries in the world. QED.
 
 
Sheikha Moza, an influential woman
 
Along with this economic miracle came the rapid desire to loosen the grip of domestic conservatism without really renouncing the Wahhabi dogma. Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned, the high-profile second wife of Hamad from a well-known reformist family, was put in charge of this project. She became head of the Qatar Foundation, created by Sheikh Hamad in 1995 and the epicentre and incubator of reform projects. Under the auspices of this foundation, Education City, a spectacular university campus hosting some the finest American schools (Georgetown, Cornell, etc.) was born. Under her leadership, the Qatar National Library project, a magnificent concrete building designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, became the latest addition to Education city. She involved an increasing number of NGOs like Education Above All (10 million children schooled in the world) and Silatech (an Arab World incubator for young talent). Sheikha Moza has shaken off taboos and freed society of some of its prejudices. Often seen in public wearing colourful kaftans, she travels and speaks freely and has succeeded in persuading a large number of Qatari women to follow her example.
 
It is really quite surprising to see how women are so at ease in Qatar’s public spaces. In schools, universities, companies, and offices, as well as in expat hangouts like cafés and hotel tea rooms. In the evening, couples dine out in restaurants, a very rare occurrence in the region.  Most Qatari women are educated, financially independent and not shackled by the backward rules found elsewhere, like Saudi Arabia. Women are even joining the army. In a society that remains dominated by powerful tribal and patriarchal codes, it cannot be said that all men are happy about this emancipation. However no one really wants to contradict the example set by Sheikha Moza and Father Emir Hamad.
 
A long game and balancing act
 
By cautiously playing the long game and introducing reforms gradually, Qatar is also aiming at reinventing itself as an absolute monarchy that happens to be reasonably modern and open, and an avant-garde in the Gulf. This was the idea behind the Qatar Foundation’s social and cultural transformations and the basis of the strategy that led to the founding of the Al Jazeera news channel in November 1996, a real media revolution in the particularly catatonic Arab media of the time. As we know, the channel played a decisive role during the Arab Spring. At the same time, the emir multiplied Qatar’s “strategic-insurance” political alliances, especially with the United States whose airbase in Al Udeid is the largest outside its borders. Qatar, however, maintained ties deemed essential with neighbouring Iran and also intervened as a mediator in many conflicts, creating not only a multitude of “debtors” and friends around the world but also some powerful enemies. To everyone’s surprise, Sheikh Hamad resigned in June 2013 and handed over power to his 33-year old Tamim, one of his sons from his marriage to Sheikha Moza. This transmission highlights the preeminent role Sheikha Moza played in the political consolidation process.
 
This peaceful handover, above all, highlighted the solidity of the family, a solidity that could have been weakened, as in some other monarchies, by the ambitions of other branches of the Al Thani family. The young Tamim skilfully and comfortably slipped into his father’s shoes and the country continued to tick over without so much as a stutter. The leadership did not veer from its course towards economic development, soft power and political independence. It was the epitome of continuity, with a generational change. Of course, the expression “absolute hereditary constitutional monarchy” remains an essential part of the equation. The emir reigns and governs. He is head of state and head of government. It is still, by definition, difficult to oppose the system politically. But even in terms of public expression, the Al Thanis are willing to take risks. A relative possibility of criticism exists. Municipal councils are elected and have advisory powers while long-promised national legislative elections are due.
 
Soft and hard power
 
The relative emancipation of women, the proliferation of cultural and educational initiatives, a strong desire for openness, a willingness to compete with neighbouring countries as a financial and commercial centre, visa exemptions for more than 50 countries, investment in sport and, of course the World Cup. These developments lead the march towards modernism but not without some difficulties. The clash between modernity and tradition is ongoing and ingrained in a country where sharia law is still the main practice. For the moment, the balancing act is working. The country is not that big so relatively easy to control and the Qataris are determined to succeed collectively, even though some have to hide their unease. The approach has led to a “mixed identity” that appears more natural in Qatar than in other countries in the region. In Doha, Qataris and expatriates are not separated by high invisible walls. There is plenty of interaction as locals and expats meet, see each other in the evenings, and go away on weekends. In the most conservative circles and in some neighbouring countries this permeability, the exchange of ideas that goes with it and the visible and active role of women has not made only fans and followers. However the process is central to the challenges of tomorrow and of Qatar’s ability to make the leap towards real modernity.
 
Big ambitions
 
After spending some time in Doha, people often ask the question: “Why these big ambitions on such a global scale? Why take the risk of coalescing enemies, of looking like the frog who wanted to be bigger than the ox? After all, you could live quietly, richly, privately on your peninsula...”.
Qatari officials often give the same answer to these questions, if with a touch of annoyance. Yes, on the surface, there have been some excesses, especially in ostentatious purchases and spending around the world. But Qatar is a very wealthy country and must manage this wealth to the best of its ability. This is the role of the all-powerful QIA (Qatar Investment Authority). And, in general, most investments have been “paying off”. The bottom line is that the Qataris probably could not live quietly tucked away on their peninsula. Like it or not, despite its size and small population, Qatar is an energy powerhouse. As previously mentioned it is the world's largest producer of liquefied gas, and thus a key player in market stability and supply. Major countries such as Japan, Korea, China and the United Kingdom rely heavily on Qatar’s gas and its giant liquefied gas tankers that crisscross the shipping lanes of world. Rich but fragile, Qatar seeks above all to preserve its independence. The Qataris do not want to be prisoners of their geographical situation, with Saudi Arabia behind and Iran in front. They are looking for room for manoeuvre, not only by increasing political gateways and security strategies but also by investing heavily in soft power, whether it is education, culture, dialogue or Al Jazeera. This soft power is a life insurance policy that is just as effective as the presence of US (and recently Turkish) military bases on its soil, giving them more than enough room for manoeuvre, but hopefully not too much.
 
A sudden, brutal blockade
 
June 5, 2017. The tipping point came suddenly, a bit like the end of the world. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain (and others) severed diplomatic relations and implemented a de facto blockade. This was triggered by a statement supposedly made by Sheikh Tamim, expressing views in support of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and communicated via an official statement by the Qatari press agency. This is suspected of being fake news, the result of the agency in question being hacked. Overnight, air, land and sea transport was diverted, the airspace closed to Qatar Airways planes and the land border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (the only one Doha has) closed. A travel ban was placed on Qatari nationals, with students, visitors and Qatari expatriates summoned to return home manu militari. Then came the list of “thirteen demands” that Qatar had to meet in order to end the crisis, including the immediate closure of Al Jazeera. It was a brutal blow, for business and business relations of course, but also and especially on a human level. In this part of the world, marriages and bonds have been crossing borders for a long time. Family ties are numerous and natural and relations between tribes, ancestral. The blockade made for painful rifts and deep wounds that will take time to heal.
 
In Doha’s opinion, the indictment, carried mainly by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, did not hold water. In living rooms, old disputes were remembered, including the fact that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain still consider Qatar to be a “fiction” with no historical legitimacy. People remembered how, in the 1970s, Doha refused to join the UAE, preferring to go solo and play the independence card. Since then, Qatar and the Emirates have never really stopped being rivals. For most Qatari officials, being of accused of supporting terrorism is an “easy” and “effective” argument used by the Saudis and Emiratis to stir up the opinions of Western countries, especially the United States. This argument also draws attention to the somewhat ambiguous role of Saudi Arabia itself in the global spread of a rigorous Islam. “How can one imagine that a state like Qatar could directly finance terrorist organisations?” said a senior official in Doha. “Of course it’s possible that private circuits exist, and we do everything to render them inoperative. For the rest, the charges do not hold. Yes, we supported Gaza at a time when no one wanted to help Gaza. In Egypt, our support dates back to before the Muslim Brotherhood, to which the generals of the transition could easily testify. In Syria, we did not hide our opposition to Bashar. We warned him several times before about his policy being a stalemate.”
 
Qatari authorities also consider the accusations about Iran an equally weak argument. As the same official points out: “We cannot do without the Iranians, they are there, in the Gulf, for eternity. Iran is, above all, the external enemy that Saudi Arabia needs to encourage its neighbours to close ranks. As for the Emirates, Dubai is the economic capital of Iran. Iranian money fills the coffers of Dubai banks. If we take a closer look, we see that Iran is, above all, a problem for Israel. And for Israel’s allies, which means the United States.”
 
What of Al Jazeera? “Al Jazeera has been around for 20 years. It has brought a new, necessary voice. It expresses diverse points of view. Our opponents also have news channels that show no hesitation in fuelling crude anti-Qatar propaganda. But they do not necessarily have many listeners.”
 
At the heart of the crisis
 
There is no real mystery for the Qataris. The purpose of the blockade is clear: it is the pure and simple “vassalage” of the country, both political and financial, and an attempt by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to impose their law on the entire Gulf region. “What they really want,” says a source close to the palace, “is a regime that accepts their orders and their decisions in terms of international politics, and that agrees without hesitation to write big cheques at their bidding. Qatar is too rich to be independent. For the Al Saud family, the Gulf is a private preserve, and it wants a family that is under its orders in Doha.”
This Saudi determination is not new, and has been, to a large extent, exacerbated by the Arab Spring and Doha's diplomatic activism, and its active support of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. With the fall of Morsi in Cairo, there was a general spirit of settling scores. In March 2014, a few months after Sheikh Tamim took over from his father, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Doha. The crisis was relatively brief, due mainly to the fairly firm intervention of the big American brother and Barack Obama’s diplomacy. Obviously, many things have changed since, with the emergence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and, in particular, the election of Donald Trump. Clearly, this American president is close to Riyadh and, with his monochromatic view of the stakes, was easily convinced by the Saudi arguments, the talk of terrorism, the anti-Iranian position and the prospect of very interesting weapon sales. And some of his famous tweets were very damaging for Doha.  
 
New nationalist fibre
 
The aim was probably to get Doha to fold in a few weeks. But Qatar turned out to be much more resilient than expected. The reorganising of all the country's supply chains came at a heavy cost, but the financial means were there and the crisis served mainly to painfully and urgently reveal weaknesses and dependencies. It was, in a way, an electric shock. Since June 2017, the country has taken numerous measures to diversify its economy, increase its self-sufficiency and, above all, maintain its attractiveness to the outside world. An example of this made history when a Qatari businessman airlifted 4,000 cows into the country and within a few months had helped to launch a viable dairy industry.
Reforms in the business environment mean that the country is now open to foreign investors (which may in some cases hold 100% of a local company's shares).
 
The country's diplomacy, embodied by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohamed Bin Abul Raham Al Thani, has been skilful and outward looking, without making any concessions. Moreover, the famous Dolphin pipeline, which provides 80% of Dubai’s energy, is still active. Despite pressure from the Saudis, Qatar has not been isolated and most friends have remained faithful albeit discreetly in some instances, even those in the Gulf, such as Oman and Kuwait. The Emir Tamim has travelled to Africa, Asia, and Europe. In the United States, he was just about greeted with open arms. In April 2017, the country was able to borrow nearly $12 billion from international capital markets.
 
Politically, the blockade even generated a Qatari passion for its own people and residents of the country, triggering an unprecedented “nation building” phenomenon. Citizens, expatriates, foreign workers – everyone discovered their nationalist fibre in the face of danger and brought out their flags. There was a palpable will to hold firm and an atmosphere of “us against the world”. Everyone closed ranks around the Emir Tamim, a youthful head of state whose popularity has grown and who has been made stronger by the ordeal.
 
Astronomical costs
 
Still, the cost of the blockade and the crisis is staggering but not all of the economic consequences are on the Qatari side. Saudi and Emirati companies have been strongly impacted by the closure of one of the region’s most ambitious and solvent markets. From banks and shops to infrastructure (especially in terms of the World Cup), all sectors have taken a hit and the growth of the entire region is likely to suffer. The crisis, the divisions, the rifts accentuate the global mistrust of investors who see the Gulf as a single economic entity. For Saudi Arabia, which is facing a dangerous phase of economic and political transition, this is not necessarily good news. Not to mention the astronomical bill Riyadh and Doha had to foot to cover the cost of lobbying and buying arms to stay in America’s good graces.
Donald Trump can congratulate himself on having won on all fronts with the signing of numerous contracts with all countries concerned. 
 
Strategically, the effects have been negative for everyone. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates did not succeed in drawing many people into their battle and patience amongst the international community is wearing thin. Iran has regained its position as a key player in Doha, which was previously not that obvious. Turkey, Saudi Arabia’s big Sunni rival, has made inroads on Qatari territory and on the shores of the Gulf. Qatar, despite its resilience, has had to mobilise too much of its strength and resources in a seemingly endless struggle. Last but not least, the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), which was already ineffective, has ceased to exist.
 
In conclusion, a more serious outcome is the image portrayed to the world of the eternal divisions between Arab nations and their incapacity to unite over even the smallest issues or engage in dialogue. The world is left with a perception of an Arab world in constant rivalry, whether amongst Gulf countries, the Maghreb, or the Middle East, often at the instigation of big powers, including those in the region and an Arab world with little influence on the international scene or the strategic stakes in their region. 
 
In this part of the world so richly endowed by providence, true modernism, true reformism, would have to be part of a truly collaborative and progressive approach to overcome the enmities of the past and the sterile conflicts of ambition. Negotiating the lifting of the blockade on a basis acceptable to all would be an encouraging first step.
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