Qatar the Trailblazer
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th February, 2012
The Gulf state of Qatar may be one of the smallest countries in the world population-wise, but since Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani became Emir in June 1995, it has not only rocketed to regional prominence but has also claimed a place on the international stage. When I first started coming here 20 years ago, in the wake of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the capital Doha was a sleepy backwater whose most remarkable features were the Corniche that ran alongside the central bay and the Sheraton Hotel — shaped like a decapitated Egyptian pyramid — at one end. Both of those landmarks still exist, though extensively refurbished, and the Corniche road is now a 6-lane highway. Roughly half way along is the striking Islamic Art Museum with its exquisite collection of pieces from across the predominantly Muslim world. Through its huge main windows one gets a good view of the skyscrapers that have sprung up over the past decade further round the bay. But it is not just the beautiful architecture and the rapid rate of growth that have put Qatar on the map. The Qatar Foundation, celebrating 15 years in operation and headed by the Ruler’s second wife, Sheikha Mozah, has funded many significant projects in the Arts and Sciences as well as community development. Sheikh Hamad meanwhile has not only overseen Qatar’s transformation into the most intellectually stimulating of the Gulf States — housing Al Jazeera TV, notably, as well as several overseas campuses of American universities and even a branch of Sherborne School — but has also blazed a trail in international diplomacy. Qatar predictably espoused the cause of the Palestinians, but far less predictably has become pro-active in encouraging the departure of dictatorial regimes in the movement dubbed the Arab Spring, the latest example of that being urging Syria”s Bashar al-Assad to step aside. Doha has become a major conference centre — I have been attended one on Jerusalem this weekend — and of course now rivals Dubai as a regional airline hub. Qatar Airways has grown from a very modest affair into a premier global airline. Having vast revenues from oil and particularly gas, as well as small population, has given Qatar an opportunity other countries can only envy. But what is interesting is the way that this has often been used constructively. Moreover, with both the Middle East and the Gulf in a state of high tension, we can expect Qatar increasingly to play a mediating role.