THE BLOG

Qatar's Controversial Open-Door Policy has Helped in its Bid to Be Seen as an International Player

Cross-posted from QatarVisitor.com

Qatar has a history of helping countries in need -- sending relief teams to Haiti after January's earthquake, donating millions of dollars to the Palestinian effort and even opening its doors to the Lebanese during the 2006 war with Israel.

But some experts say that what draws the most international attention for Qatar is a different type of generosity -- its unspoken policy of granting asylum to high-profile refugees, including relatives of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Tiny, resource-rich and host to a US army base, Qatar has the necessary wealth and might -- and thus the security -- to welcome any guest whose home countries don't want them, whatever the reason.

But its controversial open-door policy isn't without a greater purpose.

"It is right in line with the other things they're doing," said Jennifer Heeg, a political science professor at Texas A&M University in Qatar. "Trying to broker a peace in Sudan, successfully brokering peace in Lebanon, all of the sporting events they're having, building the Pearl - this country is embarking on a major-reputation building project."

Humanitarian purposes

Some say that behind the nation's desire to become a major global player is a simpler aim - helping people in need.

"I think there's a humanity element," said Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud, a 49-year-old veteran Qatari journalist. "The Muslim countries used to be a safe haven for people... but it's not like that anymore. The world is becoming a very dangerous place to live in."

According to Al-Mahmoud, Qatar's open-door policy began about a decade ago, with the arrival of Hamas leader Khaled Mishal, who was expelled from Jordan in 1999.

Since then, Qatar has served as a sanctuary for a number of politicians, artists and others seeking political and humanitarian asylum.

The latest exile to come under this conservative country's wing is Indian painter M.F. Husain, who was conferred Qatari citizenship in March.

The 95-year-old, arguably one of India's greatest artists, faces numerous obscenity charges in his home country, which he left in 2006 after nude paintings of Hindu deities he produced in the 1970s were brought to light, spurring protests, vandalism and threats.

Here, Husain has been working on a project involving the history of Arab civilization at the behest of the country's first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Misned.

Ruben Banerjee, a Doha-based journalist who has worked in the Gulf for nearly a decade, said in an editorial in the Hindustan Times that Husain's case fits well with Qatar's state policy of "being in the limelight."

"Carving a niche is obviously the goal. And Qatar's position as an unlikely melting pot is cemented by its open door policy, taking in all those in dire need," he said.

"Husain has accepted Qatari citizenship and by offering to embrace this Indian artist, Qatar has proven to be bold and different. That is what Brand-Qatar is all about."

Al-Mahmoud, former editor of Qatar-based Al Arab newspaper, took issue with Banerjee's assertion.

"It's not really a show - it's not really fair to say," he said, citing the example of Omar Bin Laden, one of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden's 19 sons, who made his way to Qatar in 2008 after unsuccessfully pleading for asylum in Spain and being turned away from Egypt.

"When he came to Doha ... there was no news about him anywhere. If it was for show, then somebody would speak about it," Al-Mahmoud said.

The passage of late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's relatives into Qatar after the US invasion in 2003 was a similarly quiet affair.

Second chance

Many relatives of famous - or infamous - world figures have settled here in an effort to live normal lives.

Take Omar Abdel-Qader, Mishal's son. The 20-year-old, whose father now leads Hamas from Syria, works in Doha and aspires to be educated here.

"Life here is comfortable - I like Qatar so much," he said. "I feel good here, the sea is next to me. I love the sea."

Though it is impossible to escape the celebrity of his family, Abdel-Qader said he has found acceptance in Qatar. On occasion, however, there are some awkward conversations.

"Most people here know who I am, but it's okay for me," Abdel-Qadar said. "But sometimes people maybe be afraid, because they think that my father is a terrorist and he's not."

Hidden dangers

Qatar's open-door policy has had repercussions.

In 2004, for example, former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who had been living in exile in Qatar for three years at the time, was killed in a car blast following Friday prayers.

"Sometimes, this can backfire," Al-Mahmoud said. "It's not always a safe thing for the government. Once you give people political asylum or humanitarian asylum, sometimes you have to deal with the consequences."

But that doesn't mean, Al-Mahmoud added, that the risks outweigh the benefits. "I think it's a good thing," he said. "We cannot ignore the agony of other people."

Shabina S. Khatri is an American journalist freelancing in Doha, Qatar and has previously written articles for Global Voices Online, Al Jazeera English and the Wall Street Journal. E-mail her at shabina.khatri[at]gmail[dot]com or follow her on Twitter.