Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Qatar’

Is the GCC Unravelling?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th November, 2017

C0F4FE57-2826-47BC-B8AE-6C6F8B4B45BCThe Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, more commonly known by its previous name, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been in existence since 1981 and aims at a degree of economic integration between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman as well as cooperation in other fields, but some of its more ambitious plans have been quietly shelved. Following the launch of the euro there was talk of moving towards a single GCC currency, to be called the khaleeji (Gulfi), but Oman said it would need to opt out and enthusiasm waned elsewhere. Then at the time of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, tentative moves were made to bring two other Arab monarchies, Jordan and Morocco, into the fold, despite neither being in the Gulf. However, the one obvious geographical absentee absentee is Iraq, which overthrew it’s short-lived monarchy in 1958, was never a serious contender while Saddam Hussein was in power and has been equally unpalatable to the Sunni Arab monarchs since Shia-dominated governments have been in charge in Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion. When there was stronger than usual unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shi’i population in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help the Al Khalifa monarchy quash it. Since then, Iran has been the focus of much of the GCC’s animosity, notably from Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as Tehran’s rival for regional hegemony. But since this summer, another deeply complicating factor has emerged: the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, mainly because of the activities of the Doha-based TV channel, Al Jazeera, and Qatar’s alleged cosying up to Iran (with which it shares a gigantic gas field). Kuwait has been trying to mediate, while the wily ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, is keeping well out of it. The Saudi Foreign Minister the other day downplayed the importance of the row, but it has inevitably made the facade of GCC unity crumble. And if the standoff continues for long, the GCC would be in real danger of unravelling.

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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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Keepers of the Golden Shore

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th February, 2016

Keepers of the Golden ShoreThe transformation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from impoverished sheikhdoms along the Trucial Coast to a dynamic post-modern society with one of the fastest rates of economic and population growths in the world is surely one of the most remarkable development trajectories of the second half of the 20th century. As a country, the UAE has only existed since 1971; previously, the seven emirates had survived with often indistinct borders between them drawn in the sand, all under the tutelage of Great Britain as the protecting power. It was largely thanks to the UK’s cost-cutting decision to withdraw from East of Suez that concentrated the minds of the local rulers that they would do better in an uncertain world as a single identity rather than as seven, though Ras Al Khaimah dragged its heels for a while. Bahrain and Qatar could have been part of the new enterprise but decided to go their own way. Subsequently, oil revenues helped Abu Dhabi become the strongest kid o the block, though Dubai’s embracing of economic diversification and in-your-face self promotion has made it the one emirate of which that everyone has heard.

UAE 1950sIt would be tempting to think that the above is all the really matters when one considers the history of the UAE, but as Michael Quentin Morton’s new book Keepers of the Golden Shore (Reaktion Books, £25) recounts, archaeological findings show significant human activity in this region at a time when the climate was more benign than it is now. Moreover, pearl fishing brought periods of prosperity to Gulf communities, albeit unevenly distributed, for several centuries. But the bottom fell out of the pearl market around 1930 in the face of competition from Japanese cultured pearls and the impact of the Great Depression. The following two decades, including the Second World War, were a period of great hardship for Gulf Arabs, including widespread malnutrition, causing some local people to leave. The subsequent exploitation of oil dramatically changed that situation so that now the UAE’s hunger is for overseas migrant labour and the newest and flashiest of everything.

Sheikh ZayedQuentin Morton, who grew up in the Gulf, writes with calm authority and rational judgment about the often passionate rivalry between the various emirates and their ruling families, several of which engaged in fratricide and other dastardly acts. He rightly underlines the particular significance of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan (1918-2004), ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE, without fully explaining his charisma. I was in Bahrain when Zayed died and the public mourning even there was dramatic and sincerely felt. Perhaps because he does not want to get his book banned in the UAE and neighbouring countries, the author is a little circumspect in his treatment of the bloody suppression of the Pearl roundabout protests in Bahrain in 2011. But for anyone who wants to understand from where what is now the UAE emerged and how that happened this is a most useful and readable account..

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Britain Right to Target FIFA’s Blatter

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st May, 2015

imageimageThe fact that Sepp Blatter’s re-election as President of FIFA failed to get a winning two-thirds plurality on the first round goes to show that a growing number of countries’ football bodies are unhappy at the way the pugnacious Swiss has presided over years of corruption and shady dealings. Though he is not one of the senior FIFA officials currently under investigation by the US Attorney General and the FBI, he should have accepted that the buck stopped with him, meriting his resignation. Instead, his challenger, Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan, withdrew instead of pushing the vote to a second round. The margin was too great to overcome, as so many countries around the world that have benefitted from FIFA’s largesse (including, allegedly, bribes and kickbacks to their soccer officials) were bound to give Blatter their support, as did France, shamefully. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a warm congratulatory message to Blatter on his getting a fifth five-year term. Two of a kind, I can’t help thinking. I was pleased to see the UK Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale, come out very strongly against Blatter’s FIFA reign in the Sunday Times today, and that newspaper’s long investigation into FIFA’s dodgy side deserves applause. Blatter himself observed snidely that Britain has sour grapes because it did not win either of the two forthcoming World Cup slots, but this only goes to show how out of tune he is with universal morality. Qatar did get one of those fixtures, in a still controversial decision.

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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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