Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Doha’

Resurrecting Heritage

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 5th November, 2017

50A7EEC0-E10B-4108-B0DD-F23EE99C4BB1Tourists who visit Britain often sigh that half the country seems to be a museum: a cornucopia of historic buildings, gardens and magnificent vistas. On that count, Italy is even more spectacular, let’s admit it; I will never tire of discovering fresh antiquities and stunning palazzi in Rome. But here in the Gulf, where I am once more at the moment, heritage is often harder to find. Of course, with the notable exception of majestic Oman — with its castles and forts and jewel of a capital, Muscat — the Gulf states are relatively modern, and in the case of parts of the UAE in particularly, aggressively modern, championing the new and the awe-inspiring. Yet even in Dubai there is now a realisation that both for its intrinsic value for the local population and to lure visitors, emirates and their cities need to treasure what heritage they have. Or, in some cases, resurrect it.

9778D95D-F65F-4AC0-9023-3BB6F5852BABThe most impressive example of that resurrection is the Souq Waqif in Qatar’s capital, Doha, with its pedestrianised streets, reconstructed market shops and sidewalk cafes. Critics may sneer it is more Disney than authentic, but hats off to the Qataris for a noble effort that is a pleasant place to stroll or stop off for a juice on a cooler evening. Here in Dubai, where I am now, a massive amount of regeneration work in one if the historic districts of Bur Dubai, Al Shindagha, is underway — frustratingly cordoned off at the moment — as new wind towers are erected, pathways laid and old buildings restored. At least UAE does have some vestiges that can be rescued. Others in the region are not so fortunate. Virtually all of Kuwait’s heritage was demolished in the 20th century — the Iraqi occupiers in 1990-1991 adding their own dose of destructiveness while they were there. It is fine being modern, even ultra-modern, but a country’s identity is only retained if one foot is kept firmly in the built past.

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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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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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The Doha Declaration on Jerusalem

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th February, 2012

The Jerusalem conference which ended in Doha, capital of Qatar, last night produced a Declaration which referenced at least some of the issues raised in the conference’s four working groups: (1) History of Jerusalem, (2) Jerusalem and International Law, (3) Israeli violations in Jerusalem, and (4) the role of civil society organisations in the defence and protection of Jerusalem. I attended the last-mentioned (along with many other Christians and Muslims and a small number of anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews), for which I had produced a paper on the role of NGOs in Britiain in raising awareness of issues relating to Jerusalem. A lot of the discussion in that group focussed on house demolitions, the difficulty Arabs have at getting building permits in East Jerusalem and the way Palestinians in the West Bank have had access to Jerusalem hampered or even blocked by both the Security Wall and the lack of necessary papers issued by the Israeli occupatin authorities. Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani financed the conference, as well as opening it, so it is not surprising that he figured prominently in the final Declaration, the English version of which was published by the Gulf Times newspaper today as follows:

The International Conference for the defence of Jerusalem was hosted by Doha, the capital of the State of Qatar, from 26 to 27 February, 2012, in implementation of the resolution no. 503 of the 22nd Arab Summit held in Sirte on 28 March 2010.

The conference was held under the slogan “Support the Steadfastness of Jerusalem”, under the auspices and attendance of HH the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, in the presence of the President of the State of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas, Arab League Secretary General Dr Nabil al-Arabi, Arab Foreign Ministers, heads of international and regional organisations an bodies, organisations and federations advocating human rights, clerics, as well as intellectuals, legal, political and historical figures who gathered in a historic global mobilisation to express solidarity with the Palestinian people in the city of Jerusalem and their legitimate rights.

The Declaration welcomes the invitation of HH the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani to use Jerusalem’s freedom as a fulcrum of all Palestinians and an incentive for achieving reconciliation and ending division. The Declaration appreciates and supports the proposal of HH the Emir to go to the Security Council to adopt a Resolution for the formation of an international commission to investigate all Israeli actions taken since the 1967 occupation of Jerusalem with a viuw to erase its Arab and Islamic features. It also welcomes HH the Emir’s invitation to prepare a comprehensive strategy for the various sectors and projects that Jerusalem needs, and Qatar’s willingness to participate with all its capacities in accomplishing this strategy and putting it into practice. It emphasizes that Israel breaches International Law to forcefully displace the people of Jerusalem through Judaisation schemes, the denial of justice, obscuring history and heritage, land alienation and property confiscation. It expresses deep concern about the ongoing Israeli works including excavations in Al-Aqsa Mosque and around the Old City, which seriously affect the distinctive character of the city at the religious, cultural, historical and demographic levels, and are contradictory with the decisions of the decisions of UNESCO and UN resolutions related to the city’s territory and the rules of International Law and especially the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property of 1954.

The Declaration calls on international powers who remain silent towards Israeli violations to assume their responsiblity and compel Israel to implement all UN resolutions relevant to Jerusalem. The Doha Declaration calls on the UN and its relevant institutions to shoulder their responsiblities towards Jerusalem and its people; to ensure that they enjoy all their civil, economic and social rights in their city; and to preserve the city’s sacred sites, historical monuments and human heritage.

 

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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.

Links: http://www.qf.org.qa and http://www.qatarvisitor.com

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Doha Conference on Jerusalem

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th February, 2012

Jerusalem is known as the City of Peace, yet for so long over the past two millennia it has been the focus of strife. The three monotheistic religions all claim a crucial stake in Jerusalem’s spiritual heritage and two peoples — Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab — see the city as their natural capital. The ideal solution would be to share the place equitably, of course, but prospects for that look as bleak now as at any time since the 1967 War, when the Arab defeat led to the occupation by Israeli forces of East Jerusalem and the West Bank (and more). Since then, as has been underlined by several speakers at the high-level International Conference on Jerusalem which opened in Doha, Qatar, today, the Israelis have acquired increasing amounts of land in and around Arab East Jerusalem, through purchase, confiscation or other means. The (justified) complaint of the Palestinians is that East Jerusalem has effectively been cut off from the West Bank, by a mixture of illegal Jewish settlements and the so-called Security Wall. And the judification of the city continues apace, as the pressure on Arabs — both Christian and Muslim — to move out grows. The entire Arab world stands in solidarity with the Palestinians in their plight, but as the Emir Of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad, declared bluntly this morning, this has failed to resolve the situation. Israeli violations of International Law are manifold, yet Israel seems to get away with this with impunity. As several speakers today pointed out, so long as the United States continue to give Israel carte blanche it is difficult to see an early solution. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), in his contribution, emphasized that there will be no new summit-level negotiations with Israel so long as it keeps on expanding settlements, and if things go on in the same way much longer I fear there will be no viable two-state solution possible. We may already have passed the point of no return. But as Afif Safiah, Palestinian global diplomat, said this afternoon, echoing Gramschi: ‘We need to overcome the pessimism of the mind with the optimism of the will.’

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Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera and the Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th October, 2011

The Arab Awakening has been an emotional experience for many people in North Africa and the Middle East; I confess I too wept on 11 February when the announcement finally came in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down and a great roar went up from the crowd, who were just finishing their prayers. All this seen live on Al Jazeera, of course, the Qatar-based channel that streamed the Egyptian Revolution. This evening, at City University in London, the recently retired (or evicted?) Director General of Al Jazeera, the Palestinian-born Wadah Khanfar, admitted while giving his largely unscripted James Cameron Memorial Lecture that he too had wept twice during the events of the recent months. Once was when his car ran into a celebrating crowd on the Corniche in Doha on 11 February and people who recognised him entered his car and kissed him to thank him for the contribution to the Arab Spring (if one must call it that) of freedom and democracy by his channel. The second time was when an Al Jazeera reporter who had been arrested and tortured in Libya by Gaddafi’s thug apparatus came back to Doha after his release and presented Wadah Khanfar with an apple, which had been given to him by one of his jailors, who had brought it from his garden and who apologised for his treatment, thanked him for what Al Jazeera was doing and said that he and the other officers had only done what they had done because the regime was holding their wives and children hostage.

After the lecture, I asked Wadah if the fact that he had been replaced as Director General by a member of Qatar’s ruling family might signal a change in editorial policy. He said no, and I would like to believe him. But there is no doubt that several rulers in the Gulf were very angry about Al Jazeera’s initial reporting of the crackdown against demonstrators in Bahrain. And I fear that if the Arab Awakening does eventually sweep through the GCC states, Al Jazeera might be emasculated and then die.

 

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Rehabilitating Alan Turing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 3rd September, 2009

Alan TuringI spent the past couple of days at Sherborne School in Dorset, briefing teachers who are going out to Qatar tomorrow to open a branch of Sherborne in Doha. As the Headmaster was showing us round the (English) school, I was delighted to hear him pay tribute to old boy Alan Turing, who was a key figure in cracking the Nazis’ enigma code at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, but later commited suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide, following his prosecution for gross indecency and his chemical castration. The man who even Time magazine once cited as among the 100 most important men in the 20th century has consequently never truly been accorded the public recognition he deserves in Britain — particularly when one considers how important he was in the development of modern computers. It is terrific that Sherborne School now portrays him as a hero to the boys, warts and all.

Meanwhile, thanks to the hard work of John Graham-Cumming, author of The Geek Atlas, an online petition to Gordon Brown (as Prime Minister) to ‘ap0logise for the persecution of Alan Turing that led to his untimely death.’ Well over 26,000 people have already signed and the petition is open for another four-and-a-half months. Oscar Wilde has long been accorded the stellar position he deserves in the British literary firmament. It would be fitting that Alan Turing achieves the same happy outcome in its scientific equivalent.

[Postscript 12 September: Gordon Brown has indeed now issued an elegant and sincere apology. Thank you, Number 10!]

Link: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/turing

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