Qatar becomes a convention haven
Sadly, many in Asia have an inferiority complex towards Europe, which is why so many Asian businesspersons buy overpriced European companies. An example is India’s Lakshmi Mittal, who purchased the steel company Arcelor for a huge sum, only to lose more than $12 billion dollars since then. Mittal has followed in the footsteps of several from Asia, especially the Japanese, who have overpaid for European assets in a manner that can only be described as “recklessly romantic”. They have been reckless in their spending because of their romantic view of Europe, a perspective that these days is far from the reality of a continent that sees Asia only as a market for its produce rather than as a partner, the way North America is. Because this fascination with Europe is so widespread, it is understandable that the Saudi organisers of the Interfaith Conference chose Geneva. However, that fact made it a nightmare to get visas, with Swiss embassies across the globe reluctant to give even 10-day single-entry visas to the participants from the developing world. This despite the fact that citizens of poorer countries have more than $ 2 trillion of illegal funds parked in Swiss banks, half of which is accounted for by nationals from India and their foreign relatives.
In contrast to the visa hassles of the Swiss authorities, this columnist (who was one of those invited by the Doha International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) to participate in the October 24-26 meeting, did not have even a photocopy of his Visa on Arrival when he landed at Doha airport. However, that was no problem. The officer manning Immigration made a few clicks on his computer after scanning the passport, and smilingly stamped on it to indicate entry. In these days of electronic communication, paper visas are an anachronism. However, except for some of the GCC countries, this columnist has not had the benefit of such visas when he travels. Paper visas are a must in the US and the EU, despite their technological prowess, plus the fact that these days, bio-identification is commonplace. Once the eyes have been photographed and fingerprints taken, that ought to be enough to gain entry, rather than squander time, effort and paper on a visa. In the case of the Swiss visa, this involved a two-hour visit to the Swiss embassy in New Delhi, where the staff had the temperament of Doberman Pinschers and the giving of a 10-day single-entry visa was treated as a big favour rather than as the insult that it represented.
Hopefully, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will stop his officials from holding almost all their major conferences in Europe, especially in Switzerland, and encourage his team to hold them in more convenient locations. Qatar would be a good choice. Just five years ago, Kuwait was the most dynamic and progressive of the GCC countries. However, it seems to have suddenly lost its elan and become conservative and un-inviting. In contrast, Qatar has worked hard at becoming an international “Intellect Hub”, not least by nurturing the Al Jazeera television news channel, which has become among the best in the world, including in the English language. Although the substantial presence of Europeans in the channel means that some of its news reports are skewed in the same direction as reports from EU outlets in France, Germany or the UK, yet very often the channel offers a perspective that is far less biased than that preferred by CNN or BBC, who are very selective in what they highlight. For example, neither is paying attention to the widespread looting and murder-taking place in Libya after the murder of Colonel Kadhafi. Nor do they mention the immense destruction of lives and infrastructure by NATO bombardment of Libya. These days, many millions are suffering the loss of electricity, water and essential supplies because of the dislocation caused by the NATO-induced conflict between two groups of Libyans.
The 300,000 Qatarese are a polite and hospitable people, fully reflecting the ancient traditions of the Arab world. They treat outsiders with respect, avoiding the condescension shown in some GCC locations towards guests from the Third World. More than two hundred major international conferences take place in Qatar each year, which is why the sheikhdom has achieved an international profile that is much bigger than its size warrants. In the streets of Doha, there is none of the restiveness found in Cairo, although here too a few from Egypt were of the view that changes needed to be made in the governance structure, as they are attempting to do in Egypt. Indeed, Egyptians and Palestinians seem to be the most ardent change agents within the GCC, constantly talking of political reform, wherever they be located. In contrast, guests from the Subcontinent go about their daily lives unconcerned by such thoughts. Of course, they are South Asian and not Arab the way Egyptians and Palestinians are, and hence will not have the passion for local events that the latter possess.
Qatar is paying a lot of attention to education, and the 21st century has seen the setting up of Education City, where universities from abroad have been given facilities. However, the colonial hangover is clear from the fact that these institutions are from North America or Europe, when the direction of growth is shifting eastwards. Qatar would do well to have a “Look East” policy, thereby giving up its reliance on just the West in all matters educational.
The Arab world is a young world, which is why luck ran out for Hosni Mubarak and Colonel Kadhafi, who have both held high office for four decades. The majority of the population in both countries do not remember a time without Kadhafi and Mubarak. The mistake both made was to indulge their sons. It was when Mubarak sought to make his son Gamal the next President of Egypt that the military silently changed sides and backed those who sought his removal. In the case of Kadhafi, it was his following the advice of his Europe-obsessed sons that led to his downfall. The Libyan leader surrendered his WMD and his intelligence assets, thereby making him helpless in the face of NATO. Interestingly, there are numerous reports of his having bribed several EU leaders, including some in France. These must be relieved that the man is dead, killed in a brutal fashion after a French jet bombed his convoy, forcing him onto the deadly streets of a city awash with irregular forces commissioned to hunt him down. Interestingly, Qatar was the GCC state that gave total backing to the NATO operation. These days, a major conference is taking place in Doha, where the subject of discussion is the future of Libya. It is no secret that the “Free Libya” media operates from Qatar, as do several members of the National Transitional Council. Whether it was a wise decision to get so deeply involved in the Libyan civil war will become clear in the years ahead. For now, Qatar is enjoying its newfound prominence, as one of the intellectual centres of the Arab world.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.