While my interest in Pipelinistan remains strong – what with all the shifting alliances and the emerging importances of Iran, Russia, an enlarging Europe and generally who likes whom today – it’s not my only interest. It is – of all places – Qatar which is becoming interesting, as it is steady as a rock and smack dab in the center of all the Middle-East-y, oil-y and shifting international political hubub. Qatar is friends with everyone’s enemies, and deeply in everyone’s pockets. It hosts one of the US’s largest military bases, while being best buddies with Syria both diplomatically and economically, and at the same time maintaining economic ties with Israel and Iran. The only country Qatar doesn’t get along with is its enormous and nosy neighbor, Saudi Arabia. The pint-sized gulf state might suffer from a perplexing lack of the letter U, but that’s about all it lacks, with 15% of the world’s gas deposits and having one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world.
Not only that, but its current head of state, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has been busily liberalizing and democratizing the country since he ousted his dad in 1995. Sons usurping fathers is not so uncommon in emirates and monarchies, but Sheikh Hamad didn’t exile him or have him killed, he took his dad to court to try to get back some of the public money reportedly stolen during the father’s reign. That is certainly un-emir-ish enough to make one sit up and take notice. Giving women the vote and allowing them to serve in public office, removing restrictions on the media, providing a total welfare-state, with free health care and education along with a slew of other liberal-sounding moves may sound pretty promising (if you like democracies, which I’m not saying are necessarily required for progress), but we can’t ignore that all that stuff only applies to Qatar’s 800,000 or so citizens, who are outnumbered by foreign workers. As I understand it those stories about Philippine nannies being kept as slaves and thoughtless laborers being beheaded for supposedly casting aspersions on Islam are at least somewhat true. Lest we get too starry-eyed here.
Without most of us every really noticing it, Qatar is, all of a sudden Important rather than just the oddly iconic land of black-clad, anonymous women staving off boredom in glitzy malls and white-clad, distant-father types with bulging wallets. If you think about it, though, you’ll realize that the capitol Doha pops up in a wide variety of news reports, from the World Trade Organization’s Doha round, to the Asian Games, the home of Al Jazeera, and last week’s Doha agreement which un-assundered Lebanon. And speaking of black and white, it is Doha which is “moving the region away from the black and white dichotomies of the higher Bush years,” according to Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. And he should know. Whether the black-and-white thing is oxymoron or a conundrum is a matter for linguists and not news-botters, Qatar’s move toward center stage of world politics is something to watch.