It was a surreal sight to behold -- a Muslim woman bedecked in black abaya and full veil whilst hobbling on Louboutin red soles in a Doha market where Bedouin were selling spices and fabrics next door to Sri Lankans peddling designer jewelry. Then again Qatar is the land of contradictions. From its open-minded culture to its audacious foreign policy, the little kingdom continually bucks trends while defying stereotypes typically associated with austere Islamic societies.
I came to appreciate the depth of Qatar's global influence while covering the Doha Inter-faith Dialogue Conference in Qatar last week (a report of which can be found here). Qatar's leadership team has applied vision and imagination in not only trying to bridge gaps between world religions but in trying to stabilize the Middle East, and its forward-looking domestic policy has made the monarchy seemingly immune to the Arab Spring vicissitudes plaguing its Levantine and North African brethren.
Outside of Qatar being the home of Aljazeera and winning the 2022 World Cup bid, many in the West are unfamiliar with the country's profile. Qatar is the richest nation in the world per capita with one of the world's fastest growing economies, primarily driven by the fact it sits on the world's largest known natural gas field.
Although many Qataris adhere to the conservative Wahhabi Islamic tradition in personal matters, society at large is relatively liberal and culturally tolerant. After undergoing dramatic westernization since 1995 when the current Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, ousted his father in a bloodless coup, Qatar has allowed full rights to women and permitted political representation at the municipal level.
Its wealth, spread amongst a small native population of just over 300,000, has been integral in preempting dissent. U.S. President Barack Obama was caught on tape earlier this year explaining Qatar's ability to avoid mass protest: "There's no big move towards democracy in Qatar. But you know part of the reason is that the per capita income of Qatar is $145,000 a year. That will dampen a lot of conflict."
Despite its riches Qatar has shown no signs of resting on its laurels. The al-Thani regime has prudently invested heavily in research, technology and education to diversify the economy and produce a highly-skilled workforce. On the outskirts of Doha sits the 2,500-acre Education City which houses the Mideast branches of top-ranked American universities such as Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern.
Nominally a constitutional monarchy, Qatar certainly has issues to address, especially when it comes to freedom of speech. Just months ago an anti-regime blogger was "disappeared" by Qatari security forces, a story reported, ironically, by state-owned Aljazeera.
Although power is heavily-consolidated in the hands of the royal family, most Qataris don't seem to mind. Yet the monarchy illustrated its vision again on Tuesday by announcing Qatar would hold elections for its advisory council in 2013. Justin Gengler from the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute in Doha applauded the move in a Foreign Policy piece:
Qatar's decision is an entirely proactive one. Indeed, as indicated by the results of several recent, scientific public opinion surveys, its citizens are quite pleased with their current political system -- and have little interest in changing it any time soon.
Shadi Hamid from the Brookings Institution's Doha Center said in The Atlantic how this was yet another example of how Qatar was "ahead of the curve" in addressing issues that have fomented Arab Spring uprisings, calling it "Qatari exceptionalism."
Qatar's independent foreign policy is founded on a novel theory that regional peace and stability is in its best interest. Qatari diplomats led an Arab League delegation just this week aimed at brokering peace in Syria. Last week, according to the Guardian, Libyan leaders disclosed that Qatar basically planned the battles that toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It will also play a crucial role during the post-Gaddafi transition as Qatar has been chartered with disarming militias and integrating disparate rebel units into Libya's newly established security institutions.
The monarchy has hosted talks in Doha to ease conflicts in Lebanon and Darfur and has tried to soothe tensions between Riyadh and Tehran in the wake of the uncovering of an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi diplomat.
However, Doha's independent-mindedness has also aggravated its Saudi neighbor, especially its outreach to Shia Iran and its efforts to make peace between Palestine and Israel. Aljazeera's aggressive coverage of Saudi human rights abuses forced the House of Saud to freeze relations with Qatar in 2002. All of which discredits accusations levied by neoconservatives at The American Spectator who claim Qatar has a hidden pro-Sunni Islamist agenda.
Despite all of its accomplishments Qatar is positioned to do even more for global peace and security, because perhaps the road to peace in Afghanistan can run through Doha. Qatar is a nonaligned, enlightened Muslim country with a penchant for resolving political and religious strife, making it an appealing interlocutor to a wide range of moderate and conservative factions across Afghan society's ethnic, tribal and sectarian mosaic.
Many find the Qatar narrative a bit hard to ingest, which is fine by the Qataris because healthy skepticism has actually led to measurable change. This is a product of the fact Qatar's spirited Emir has a knack for, and evidently revels in, flipping conventional wisdom upon its head.