Fires and politics in Doha, a worrying combination


No smoke without fire? Events in the Arab world are becoming more and more interlinked, and more and more - sectarian tensions cloud thinking.


Michael Stephens
25 June 2012

The recent tragic fire that struck Doha’s Villagio mall was a soul-searching time for Doha’s citizens and residents: that 13 of the 19 deaths were young children was especially shocking. A mixture of grief, anger and disbelief was felt by Qataris and expats alike, indeed rarely has a sense of unity in a normally divided society been so palpable, and indeed touching.

The general consensus is that gross negligence was to blame for not only the fire’s cause, but also the myriad of factors that prevented Qatar’s civil defence teams from being able to do their job adequately. Problems ranging from lack of available floor plans, locked emergency exits, defective sprinkler systems, and inadequately trained mall staff all led to a nightmare situation in which deaths occurred which were clearly preventable.

But something more sinister has arisen since the time of the fire that even outweighs the criminal neglect and poor standards which led to it, and a number of other fires that occurred in the city in following days. Quickly rumours began to spread that shadowy agendas lay behind the fires, driven by Syrian/Hezbollah and Iranian desire for revenge against Qatar for its role in trying to topple the Assad regime.

The rumours first surfaced in an article by Stratfor, an intelligence organisation cultivating contacts around the middle east to give its clients the latest ‘raw’ intelligence on current events. Central to this mischievous piece was a statement made by Bahraini MP Salman bin Hamad al-Shaikh in which he declared Syrian and Iranian intelligence operatives responsible for the fire.

Having researched these rumours, I can categorically say they were false. There was no Iranian or Syrian involvement, and no Lebanese Shia citizens are in custody for arson.

Suddenly a tragedy which had affected Doha’s residents deeply began to take on the marks of political agendas outside Qatar’s borders. This became clear to me in a recent trip I made to Bahrain when I was asked on numerous occasions, often by senior Bahraini figures, about the suspected foul play involving the Villagio fire. Many Bahrainis found it difficult to believe that there was no foreign hand at work, no Syrian or Iranian agenda to destabilise and punish Qatar for its foreign policy.

This was a worrying revelation because it has become clear the extent to which events in the Arab world are becoming more and more interlinked, and how sectarian tensions cloud thinking to the extent that rational explanations for domestic events can become side-lined in favour of belligerent rhetoric that fits all too conveniently with an individual’s world view.

That Qatar has met with increased Syrian, Iranian and Russian ire for its hard stance against Assad is not in doubt. One need only see the plethora of rumour-mongering articles published by Press TV and Syrian official news sources, suggesting everything from Qatar’s involvement in funding terror against Shi’ites in Iraq to the somewhat amusing claim that a coup had taken place in Qatar and that the Emir had been ousted.

But fierce overreactions and falsifications in the media are not the same as deliberately starting fires to burn little children to death. Indeed those who do not see the distinction must begin to look at themselves and question whether the tense Sunni-Shia and Gulf-Iran divides are not causing them to believe rumours and conspiracies that perpetuate and exacerbate already tense dynamics.

That the Syrian issue has blown back onto the Gulf was inevitable, such is the depth of regional and international interference in Assad’s beleaguered country - agendas from all parts of the Arab world being played out within its wartorn borders. But it appears that the Gulf and the Levant are in danger of fuelling each other’s sectarian and political problems. The biggest victim of course is the truth, which is that 19 deaths are not seen by foreign nations for what they are, a tragic loss of innocent lives, but instead viewed as a justification for suspicion and fear of others. A truly saddening outcome if ever there was one.

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