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Analysis: Kudos to Qatar

Oct. 25, 2012 2:41 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 28, 2012 5:07 P.M.)
By: Daoud Kuttab
Discussions about pan-Arab issues these days undoubtedly include the name of the Gulf country Qatar, repeated in various contexts, often negative. Qatar is behind this or that conspiracy, it is a US puppet, an Israeli collaborator the brain behind this or that problem or conflict.

Wherever there is an issue or a problem in the Arab world that one cannot easily explain, Qatar is often used to explain the unexplainable.

I happen to differ. I am impressed with what this tiny Gulf emirate has done since its ruler, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, took over the reign of power in a bloodless coup while his father was away, in June 1995. Since then, Qatar has become a household name in the Arab world and much farther.

I am impressed with Qatar because it has tried to do something with the resources it has for the larger good. To be fair, the country and its leadership have the clear goal of elevating the name of their country. For the most part, their effort has a selfish angle; almost every action or activity has to have a Qatari angle or location. That is not shameful. Countries should put their own interest first.

But what Qatar has done for the Arab world goes much further than this narrow view. It is true that the country is blessed with much money, but so are so many other countries in the region and outside, yet none leveraged its resources for a larger good than Qatar.

While it is easy to criticize or find a problem with every action of the Qataris, one cannot ignore that they at least are trying to do things, unlike so many who just complain and do nothing.

When it comes to media, Qatar has done more to advance free media in the Arab world than anyone. Al Jazeera broke so many taboos in the Arab world and introduced a level of professionalism that forced many in the region to follow suit.

I remember that before Al Jazeera came on air, one would never see a live interview on any Arab TV. Arab rulers would not allow their state-run TV to take a chance of what a guest might say (they were confident that their anchors would toe the line). Al Jazeera shattered this attempt at restricting free voices.

Sure, Al Jazeera has become sensational and has lost some of its professionalism, but its impact as a front runner cannot be denied. The same can be said about the contribution of Al Jazeera International, which helps reflect Arab voices and positions to the rest of the world in English. It has become an indispensable source for the whole world now.

Money cannot buy that. You need leadership, one that gives space, albeit not absolute, to media professionals. Even in sports, Qatar’s ambitions and dream produced impressive results.

But perhaps the biggest success of Qatar is to have become visible in the political and diplomatic fields. While this tiny country has the largest US air base, it has not shied away from taking strong positions throughout the Arab world. It has been a strong advocate of the Arab Spring, led the fight for the liberation of Libya from Gadhafi and is a key player in supporting the rights of the people of Syria.

In Lebanon, Qatar’s diplomacy secured an agreement that averted another civil war in the country. The Qatari diplomatic machine has been active in Arab League and general Arab policy over the past years, but especially this year, when it took over the rotational head of the Arab League.

Qatar has also been active on Palestine, to the anger or pleasure of different groups and at different times. A supporter of Palestinian rights from the beginning, Qatar has tried to keep good terms with all parties, with the Palestinian and even with the Israelis, and of course with the US and other internationally influential players.

This week, the Qatari ruler made a historic and unprecedented visit to Gaza. This was the first visit by a head of state to Gaza since the Israeli army withdrew and since the Hamas-led government took over. The trip is a big boost for the people of Gaza and will surely be reflected in the coming years in various construction projects.

Some said that the visit is a payment to Hamas for its decision to leave Damascus since the revolution against Bashar Assad. That may be partly true, but the most important aspect for Qatar can and will be if it can succeed in bringing together Palestinians.

Speaking at the Islamic University in Gaza, the Qatari leader called on Palestinians to unite and, at the same time, impressed on them the need for a reasonable negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel.

These words of moderation have been spoken by many and often, but when they are said by an Arab head of state in Gaza, they resonate much more.

Since 1995, Qatar has certainly left its mark on the regional and world maps. Bringing about reconciliation between Palestinians and playing a role in Palestinian-Israeli peace will certainly give this Gulf country a deserved unprecedented status worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Daoud Kuttab is a journalist and former professor of journalism at Princeton University.
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