Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Qatar’

The Syria Dilemma

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th August, 2013

Bashar al-AssadSyria casualtiesBritain’s armed forces are preparing themselves for an armed strike against Syria, following the recent use of chemical weapons inside the country, probably by the Assad regime’s forces. As I said in a live interview on the al-Etejah (Iraqi Arab) TV channel last night, the justification for the UK, US, France and maybe Germany taking such a step, along with sympathetic Middle Eastern countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, without UN approval, would be the relatively new concept within International Law, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), about which I have written extensively. This asserts that if a government is unable or unwilling to protect its own people, then the international community has a responsibility to intervene on humanitarian grounds, providing there are reasonable prospects of success. Of course it would be preferable if the UN Security Council backed such a move, but that is currently impossible given the fact that Russia and to a lesser extent China are standing behind Bashar al-Assad — though in China’s case this is mainly because of its strong belief in the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. The humanitarian need in Syria is self-evident. More than 110,000 Syrians have been killed, a high proportion of them civilians. There are now between four and five million Syrian refugees and whole swaths of cities such as Aleppo and Homs are a wasteland. Yet still Assad and his thugs continue to try to pound the people into submission. The situation is complicated by the fact that this is not a fight between good and evil, however. Evil the Assad regime certainly is — and has been for over 40 years — but the disparate rebel forces contain some pretty unpleasant characters and radical groups that seek to impose an alien, fundamentalist creed that is alien to the modern Syrian secular society. But things have now reached a stage at which the world cannot just sit by and watch a people and a country be annihilated. The problem is what exactly should be done, now that what President Obama described as the “red line” of chemical weapon use has been crossed? The imposition of a no fly zone is one obvious option, or carefully targeted use of cruise missiles against the regime’s military installations. But there is no guarantee of effectiveness. What certainly needs to be avoided is sending foreign — and especially Western — troops on the ground, which would not only lead to heavy casualties but also risks turning some of the anti-Assad population against the intervention. Russia meanwhile has warned the West against intervention. But I think the momentum now is unstoppable. Unless the Assad clique stands aside — which it has shown no willingness to do — Syria is going to be the latest in a string of Middle Eastern/North African Wars. And the poor United Nations will look even more impotent and marginalised than ever.

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Qatar UK 2013 Concert

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th May, 2013

Qatar UK 2013Wael BinaliThis year the Gulf state of Qatar is collaborating with the United Kingdom in an extensive programme of cultural events, the spirit of which was captured tonight in a Musical Celebration at the Cadogan Hall off London’s Sloane Square. The concert provided an eclectic mix of both traditional (Handel and Elgar) and modern (David Heath) British as well as contemporary work by the Qatari-Lebanese film score composer Wael Binali. It was not surprising that the style of the last-mentioned sounded familiar as he has written music for a number of movies and TV specials; conveniently for that business he lives in West Hollywood with a menagerie of pet-companions. His work is orchestral, in the best sense of the word, and atmospheric, conjuring up the sounds and sights of Arabia while remaining accessible to a Western audience. I confess I was completely unfamiliar with the work of David Heath (no, not the Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome), but was fascinated that it reminded me of stuff I used to write as a teenager (only Heath’s work is infinitely better) when I briefly studied musical theory and composition at the Northern School of Music. Apparently one of Heath’s main inspirations was the African-American saxophonist and jazz composer John Coltrane, plus a healthy dose of religious mysticism, and in the world premiere performance of his piece “Hope Springs Eternal” tonight the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was joined by the Royal College of Music’s Vigala Singers. We in the audience were spoiled, as there were also world premieres of Wael Binali’s “Earth”, “Journey to the Oasis” and “Shafallah Suite 3: The Oryx and the Unicorn”. Qatar has of course used a sizeable chunk of its oil and gas revenue to turn itself into something of a world cultural hub in the Arabian Gulf; indeed, the Chairperson of the Qatar Museums Authority which organised this evening’s event as part of Qatar-UK 2013, Sheika Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, is the Ruler’s daughter.

Link: http://www.qataruk2013.com

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Aid for the Children of Palestine

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th November, 2012

When the Welfare Association* conceived the idea of a fundraising gala dinner in aid of disadvantaged children in Palestine, to be held at the Bloomsbury Big Top in central London, they can have had no idea that that event this evening would coincide with renewed fighting between Gaza’s Hamas and Israel, in which several Palestinian children have already been victims. The Middle East, which I have been following for well over 40 years, is an unending tragedy, complex and multi-dimensional. But any objective observer must come to the conclusion that in all of this chaos the Palestinians have been the big losers. And as so often in conflict situations the humanitarian burden falls most heavily on those least able to bear it. So this evening, around 600 people gathered under the big top to be entertained by trapeze artists and acrobats, the Palestinian-Jordanian singer Zeina Barhoum and other musicians, but most important, to demonstrate solidarity with the children of Palestine — tens of thousands of them disabled or else traumatised by conflict — whose lives can be eased thanks to projects for which a healthy six-figure sum was raised. Clare Short, the former Labour MP who nobly resigned from the party in protest at Tony Blair’s illegal war in Iraq, made a short speech, but those of us who were there needed little reminding of the necessity and urgency of the cause. It was good that many young people who have high-earning jobs in the City were there, to bid at auction for works of art by Andrew Martin, Alexander Mcqueen and others. Barclays Bank was also a ‘platinum sponsor’. Coincidentally, the Arab League held an emergency meeting in Cairo today to discuss how to react to the current crisis. The Qatari Foreign Minister warned about the potential emptiness of yet another declaration. At least tonight those at the Welfare Association dinner made a real contribution that will get to those who most need assistance.

*Link: www.welfareassociation.org.uk/

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What Kind of Intervention in Syria?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th October, 2012

This evening I took part in a lively and well-attended debate at the University College London (UCL) Debating Society, speaking on behalf of a proposition in favour of international intervention in Syria. I pointed out that there already has been intervention of various kinds on both sides of the conflict for several months, with the Russians, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah notably helping the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad try to cling onto power, while countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — not to forget jihadis from all over the world, including the UK — have backed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or other armed opposition groups, including the Muslim Broherhood. So the real question to answer is: what sort of intervention is desirable? I emphatically ruled out an Iraqi-style US-led invasion (which I, along with the Liberal Democrat Party, vociferously opposed in 2003). But I also excluded a Libyan-style intervention (which I did support), as the situation on the ground in Syria is so utterly different; as Syria’s population density is much greater and there are no big centres of opposition strength, such as Benghazi. No great military intervention would be likely to achieve much except raise the casualty levels, which probably top 35,000 deaths already. On the other hand, the world cannot just stand by and watch Assad and his cronies slaughter the Syrian people (and destroy the country’s rich cultural heritage in the process). We are morally and legally obliged to do something, now that the Responsiblity to Protect is part of International Law, i.e. that when a leader is unable or unwilling to protect his own people then there is an obligation on the international community to come to their aid. I argued that Lakhdar Brahimi’s new plan — which involves a ceasefire and a UN-organised peacekeeping force — should receive strong international endorsement as a good starting-point. I believe even Russia could be won round to this, as Moscow is desperate for some face-saving exit from its current embarassing alliance. Today, even Assad said he would go along with the plan, though the FSA has turned it down. A ceasefire is an essential step in the direction of a workable and lasting solution, but clearly the departure of Assad and some of his closest associated would have to be part of the package.

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Bend It Like Beckham

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th August, 2012

Bend It Like Beckham is a film I have always wanted to see but somehow missed when it was on general release. So I was delighted that the organisersof the Doha film season showing at Bayt Qatar — Qatar’s Olympic House in London — included it in their programme of sports-related movies this afternoon. It did not disappoint. As well as paying homage to the Beautiful Game (as played by young women) it is a rich mix of social satire and the questioning of gender stereotypes. The Sikh family who have the misfortune (in their eyes) to have a daughter who is gifted at football live the aspirational life of East African Asians who fled to Britain from Idi Amin’s purges and settled in the flight-path to Heathrow Airport, finding employment there. The mother is a sort of Asian Hyacinth Bucket, desperately keeping up appearances, while her hen-pecked husband tries to maintain a brave face having suffered racial humilation when he first arrived in the UK but now to his relief being increasingly accepted in contemporary multicultural London. There are some good send-ups of Indian popular culture as well as the sometimes oppressive nature of South Asian families, but the English mother of the football girl’s best friend — and then love rival — is a scream of a caricature of someone who is trying hard to be politically correct and modern but who falls back into knee-jerk conservatism when she fears her beautiful blonde daughtyer might be a lesbian. It could be said that director Gurinder Chadha over-spiced the dish by cramming in too many different story-lines and cross-cultural misunderstandings. But the film was rightly praised when it came out and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who has not yet seen it.

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Iftar at Bayt Qatar

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th July, 2012

Many of the competing nations at the London Olympics have hired prestigious venues as their ‘House’ for the length of the competition, as a base for nationals, supporters and guests, with all sorts of events taking place, as well as screenings of the sporting events themselves. This evening I was at Bayt Qatar, the House of the Gulf State of Qatar, which in normal life is the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in Savoy Place, overlooking the River Thames. Part of the ground floor has been converted into a mock-up of Doha’s Souq Waqif and there’s a Sports Bar, offering what you would expect there. As a member of the executive Board of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) I was  not only invited to the iftar (fast-breaking) dinner — Lebanese food courtesy of Harrod’s, now in Qatari ownership — but was also given membership of Bayt Qatar for the duration, which is something I am likely to make use of when I’m in that part of town. After dinner in the 3rd-floor restaurant and a refeshing breather on the terrace, with its fantastic sweeping view of the Thames, I attended a concert in the on-site theatre, starring Qatari singer Fahd Al Kubaisi, Italian tenor Tino Favazza and the zany Spanish gypsy guitarist and singer José Galvez, who wowed the children in the audience by throwing himself around the room like no adult they have ever seen. The finale for me (though not the concert) was a fusion medley of Arabic, Greek, Russian and Cuban influences by the Chehade Brothers. There was a great backing band all the way through, really getting into the spirit of things. Other events at Bayt Qatar over the next fortnight include fashion shows and film screenings.

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UNCTAD Comes to Doha

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th April, 2012

Next week, the futuristic Qatar National Convention Centre will be hosting the 13th quadrennial gathering of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development — the first time such an UNCTAD event has ever taken place in an Arab country. The theme of the conference is “Development-centred Globalisation: Towards Sustainable and Inclusive Development” and a Civil Society forum, bringing together non-governmental organisations of all kinds from around the world, will run in parallel, as has recently been the practice at such international conventions. Qatar has the honour of having the highest per capita GDP of any country on earth: now breaking the US$100,000 per annum barrier. Thanks to its wealth, despite its small population the Gulf state has been able to punch way above its weight. Moreover, under Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar has pursued a unique path in global diplomacy, sponsoring all sorts of international initiatives, unafraid to align itself with some of the Arab Spring movements in North Africa and the Middle East (including in Syria), while at the same time positioning itself as a global venue for events and conferences. It is currently following up its successful football World Cup bid with an ambitious campaign to try to get the 2020 Olympics sited in Doha, though if the Olympics & Paralympics bid is successful these would be held in October/November 2020, rather than during summer, for important climate considerations. Attracting UNCTAD, meanwhile, is a definite coup and is likely to help forge new relationships between Qatar (and the wider Gulf) and emerging economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The world is a significantly different place from that when UNCTAD was set up in 1964. It’s not just that the East-West divide betwen Communist and capitalist states has evapourated, the North-South divide betwen rich and poor countries is no longer so clear-cut, with even many sub-Saharan African countries now enjoying bouyant economic growth. Of course, UNCTAD XIII in Doha will have to take into acount some of the fallout of the global economic crisis. But it won’t only be the host Qatar that will be feeling in a much more optimistic mood than is evident in most of Europe and North America. Moreover, of all the UN institutions, UNCTAD remains one of the most idealistic, as reflected in a comment from its Special Advisor, Kobsak Chutkul, reported in today’s Qatari Press, “Qatar is bringing everyone, from all sectors of society, from all countries around the world, under one roof, under one big tent of humanity!”

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Engage with Iran, Don’t Isolate It

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 11th April, 2012

Iran has said it supports the UN special envoy Kofi Annan’s Peace Plan for Syria, which is a welcome development and highlights the fact that any workable settlement may only be possible with Iran’s active diplomatic engagement. Tehran has long been Bashar al-Assad’s closest ally and one of the reasons it was able to endorse the Annan Plan was that that does not call for the removal of Assad, even if that is what many Syrians and Western countries, including Turkey, would prefer. So far, the Assad regime has remained deaf to pleas to end the assaults that have cost thouands of civilian lives as well as fuelling an inevitable armed opposition. But if Assad will listen to anyone, it would be the Iranians. And there is a wider point at stake here. Iran historically was a major regional power, indeed once the centre of a great empire. Recently, it has been trying to reassert its influence, not only in Iraq, which now has a Shiite-led government, but more widely. However, the policy of Washington and the EU — not to mention Israel — has been to isolate Iran and indeed subject it to punitive sanctions, because of the country’s nuclear programme, which may or may not be working towards the production of a nuclear weapons capability, according to who you believe. Certainly Iran’s Gulf neighbours don’t want to see a nuclear-armed Iran and two of them — Bahrain and Qatar — play host to US military forces. However, most of the Arab states in the Gulf are nonetheless engaging with Tehran, as they recognise that whatever differences they may have with the current government there, engagement is more likely to produce a modus vivendi than belligerency. This is a lesson the West could usefully learn. Of course there are many aspects of the Islamic Republic which leave Western governments uncomfortable, not least regarding human rights and President Ahmadinejad’s comments about the Holocaust, but that should not blind people to the fact that through engagement it is possible to work with countries which have totally different political systems or religious beliefs towards achieving common aims.

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Doha: Town Centre Versus City Center

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd April, 2012

Since Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani acceded as Emir of Qatar in 1995 the face of the country’s capital, Doha, has been transformed. Several of the souks around the old town centre have been renovated or reproduced and some traditional streets lined with cafes and restaurants have been pedestrianised, notably around the Souq Waqif. But all the high-rise building has been concentrated much further round the bay at what’s now referred to as the City Center — the suitably Americanised name of a huge shopping mall located there, which houses an ice-skating rink under its tallest atrium. A cluster of tower blocks — some really distinguished architecturally, others less so – have been erected in the area, but not in a depressingly straight line as along Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road. There are curving avenues and short streets running betwen Doha’s skyscrapers, just as the main road along the corniche is an elegant arc. The Corniche used to be quite narrow when I first came to Doha 20-odd years ago, but is now an 8-lane highway. But people still jog or walk along the seaside paths. The Sheraton Hotel, which opened in the 1980s, was the emirate’s only building of real note at the time, but now has been joined by other remarkable edifices, not least the Museum of Islamic Arts, designed by I M Pei. Between the town centre, with its deliberate Old World charm, and the brasher modernity of the City Center lie a series of parks and government buildings, including the massive Emiri Diwan housing the Ruler’s offices. Outside of the unbearably hot summer months, walking around Doha is far more pleasant than in several other Gulf cities and the contrast of its two poles — what one might call a tale of two cities in one — adds to the attraction.

 

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Turned Away from Bahrain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd April, 2012

Over the past 20 years or so, Bahrain has been one of my favourite ports of call. When I was working in Kuwait for extended periods in 2004-2006, in particular, I often used to pop down for the weekend, as Manama was so friendly and relaxed. But alas things have changed somewhat since the events of early last year. This morning I flew in, hoping for a couple of days of winding down before doing some work elsewhere in the Gulf only to find that nowdays even those of us with European passports don’t just hand over 5 dinars and get a visa in 30 seconds. A significant number of people coming in on my flight (and those following) were taken aside while their documents were consulted against the Immigration Department’s records. My passport was held for almost four hours before a senior officer came out, bearing documents from my file, including printouts of tweets I published last year experssing dismay at the crackdown on demonstrations at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout and the security forces’ intervention in a major hospital where some of the wounded were being treated. Politely but firmly the officer said I would not be allowed into the country, adding that “no-one has been killed in Bahrain” and that “the doctors who were taken away were revolutionaries who were trying to overthrow the King.” Doubtless one day objective history will set the record straight; at least I hope so. Anyway, I had some hasty rearranging to do and moved on to Doha in Qatar. Apparently I have now joined (Lord) Eric Avebury and others who have campaigned on human rights issues relating to Bahrain in becoming persona non grata there. It’s a shame, because I still consider myself to be a true friend of Bahrain and of the Bahraini people. I can now only look forward to a time when it might once again become a more open society. And in the meantime, Qatar — home to Al Jazeera, amongst other things — will now become my default Gulf destination of choice.

 

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