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Doha: a city of contrasts

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Doha may not have experienced the Arab Awakening, but the Arab Awakening has experienced Doha. The international political life of this city is in overdrive.

Michael Stephens
29 May 2012

Doha is not the sort of city one might have expected to become the hub of so much influence in the Arab world. It lacks the imposing size of Riyadh, the glamour of Dubai or the history of Cairo, and in many ways still exudes a sense of being the small, albeit wealthy town that seems content to allow the material benefits of globalisation to flood into it without much reaction.

The city sits in a nation untouched by the turbulent forces of the Arab Awakenings, and daily life continues uninterrupted. Politics is not a topic of discussion for the vast majority of Doha’s citizens and residents, simply because it does not need to be. The country is rich, rich beyond one’s wildest imaginations, excesses of wealth are on show for all to see as Qatari citizens impress each other with fast cars, diamond cuff links and the latest must-have items.

Money has lubricated the squeaky wheels of social change in the Emirate, allowing for a population that appreciates what it sees as the benevolence of the ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and in return remains for the most part quiet and undesirous of political change.

This state of civic passivity and lack of local political action sits in stark contrast to the other Doha I experience which is incomparable to anything I have seen in the Arab world. The international political life of this city is in overdrive, and every corner of the Arab world comes to be a part of it.

Not two minutes drive from one of Doha’s monuments to consumerism - the City Centre mall - sits the Sheraton Hotel, a place where on any given day one may find delegations of Palestinians, Syrians, Libyans Iraqis, Saudis, Tunisians and even the Taliban. Indeed it is not unusual for those with a keen eye to see Arab leaders sitting over a coffee discussing the latest developments in their country with a delegation of western or Chinese diplomats. Doha is becoming a bridge between East and West.

It is the dream envisioned by Sheikh Hamad, the creation of a politically stable, quiet area of the Arab world where his Arab brethren in not such fortunate political circumstances could come and discuss issues in safety and security, and most importantly meet those who could do something to help.

So far everything is going to plan. Qatar has made a name for itself as a hub of intellectual life in the Arab world. Think tanks such as my own and the highly respected Brookings Institute contribute to the debates of the day, sitting alongside the Al Jazeera television network and its seemingly ubiquitous presence in Arab households across the world.

The effects of these ideas emanating out of Doha have yet to be fully understood. Doha’s political actors operate in a goldfish bowl not unlike the beltway mentality that pervades Washington DC, where insularity can create a hive of intellectual thinking and creative ideas that run the risk of becoming dangerously detached from the nations they are affecting.

But Doha is not Washington DC: it is an Arab city, in the Arab world, and cannot afford in the long run to ignore this fundamental reality. This is both the source of Doha’s strength and ultimately its weakness, because in the Arab world, no country is neutral, no national agenda free. History and religion weigh heavily upon the 300million inhabitants that comprise it, whether they wish it or not. Therefore whilst plotting this new course of activism and political engagement, Doha has begun to become embroiled in these historical and religious complexities in a way that it never was before.

The Arab Awakening will not come to Doha. Qatari citizens remain by and large removed from the fires that rage around them. But the forces unleashed by this tiny emirate may yet return to haunt its dynamic and peaceful capital.

This is a column for Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.

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