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An oasis of calm: Middle East heats up, Qatar stays cool

By BAYLY WINDER | September 27, 2012

These are tense times in the Middle East. A new government in Cairo is testing the waters of democracy. The Syrian regime is in the midst of a bloody and protracted conflict with anti-Assad forces. Iranian leadership remains determined to pursue the nuclear route despite draconian sanctions and intense diplomatic pressure. Netanyahu continues to spew belligerent rhetoric from his perch in Tel Aviv.

Yet, all is well here in Doha, Qatar. A tiny Gulf state in the shadow of Saudi Arabia, Qatar has been blessed with a winning combination. It ranks 12th in the world in proved oil reserves, third in proved natural gas reserves and is home to approximately 300,000 citizens. Being the wealthiest per capita nation on earth is certainly helpful in terms of building up immunity to the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring. Furthermore, the population is fairly homogenous. Unlike nearby Bahrain, there are not many Shiite Muslims here to challenge a Sunni monarch.

But Qatar has not only emerged unscathed from a period of unprecedented regional turmoil. It has also maintained a unique momentum in international dealings and knowledge-based development.

The notion that the center of Arab power has shifted to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — the political and economic union of Arab states bordering the Persian Gulf — has enjoyed increasing popularity. In the past couple of decades a dizzying number of petrodollars fueled this transition. Amongst the GCC members, Qatar serves as a model of positive investments and a diplomatic disposition. Since Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani overthrew his father in a palace coup in 1995, Qatar has evolved from a dusty backwater into a dynamic international player.

The most ambitious educational experiment in recent memory lies in the outskirts of Doha. Education City is a sprawling collection of universities, schools and research centers backed by the tremendously well-endowed Qatar Foundation. A state-funded nonprofit organization, the Qatar Foundation is chaired by Sheikha Moza — one of the Emir’s wives and probably the most powerful woman in the Arab world. Her vision has resulted in satellite campuses of prestigious institutions such as the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Weill Cornell Medical College and University College London. The result is a cluster of state of the art buildings and an impressively diverse student body.

Across the street from Education City is the Sidra Medical and Research Center, a behemoth structure in its final phase of construction. Upon completion, Sidra will have an endowment of $7.9 billion and an all-digital technological edge.

Qatari foreign relations have been surprisingly robust and have made Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al-Thani a power broker in the diplomatic arena. The Qatari government played a dominant role in negotiating peace in Sudan and aiding Libyan rebels in their victory over Gaddafi. In Syria, it has been notably active in providing ammunition and money to the opposition. Although state-run Al Jazeera appears to have lost some credibility in the past year, it remains the most popular and distinguished Arab news source. Furthermore, Qatar has managed to foster more civil relations with both Iran and Israel than its GCC neighbors.

Despite all of its triumphs, Qatar is still susceptible to the ills of a typical Gulf country. Qataris consume energy at a ludicrous rate, depend on an army of poorly treated migrant workers and spend money in a fashion which lends itself to slush funds and nepotism. Women do not enjoy the same social freedoms and legal privileges as men do. The state has a hand in virtually all business ventures.

Yet, the Qataris appear content with the current pace of liberalization. Relative to the other rulers of the GCC, Sheikh Hamad is progressive and bold in his vision. In a neighborhood where artificial islands and grandiose malls are around every corner, projects such as Education City are a welcome addition to the landscape of the Persian Gulf.

Bayly Winder is a junior Political Science major from Princeton, N.J., studying abroad for the year in Qatar.  He is the Middle East columnist for TheNews-Letter.

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