Last week’s Arab Summit in Doha was a fascinating whirlwind of events. As I have argued elsewhere despite many ups and downs and moments of intrigue the summit was considered to be a rare success for an organisation famed for its inability to do just about anything. The Syrian circus left town as fast as it had arrived, and us Doha politicos await its inevitable return in the coming months, with who knows what new developments.
The one thing that really stayed in my mind was not the Syrian question, but seven minutes during the closing press conference of the summit when Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim (HBJ) went to town on a seemingly unsuspecting journalist who had asked a question regarding Qatar’s influence in Egypt. It was an absorbing piece of showmanship from Qatar’s top diplomat.
The summit gave me a couple of opportunities to observe HBJ up close, and love him or hate him, there is little doubt he has a way of dealing with the media that few statesmen in the Arab world possess. Smiling, always measured and in control, his command of English is strong enough to crack jokes and to skirt around the edges of questions he doesn’t like. His points can be bitterly acerbic at times but they are phrased in such a way that it almost looks like he’s paying you a compliment.
So when the consummate showman dedicated seven minutes of a half hour press conference about the Arab League to answering a question about Egypt, it’s time to pay attention.
The problems stemming from the Qatari Egyptian relationship have been all too evident in recent months, and to be honest have not been that positive for the image of the Gulf Emirate. This combined with a plethora of rumours, some of which originated from very reputable media sources regarding Qatari mega-purchases of the Pyramids and the Suez Canal.
HBJ took these accusations head on in his usual style making jokes about the ridiculousness of the charges before thrusting the poniard in to see off the allegation, “people say we were looking to rent out the pyramids for $200bn, what kind of value for money is this, maybe we’d consider it if it were $2bn” he joked, before saying “how many baseless accusations are made against us?…like the Suez Canal, we have never even considered buying the Suez Canal”.
Rumours swirled around Qatar recently that the Royals had hired a big shot PR firm to distribute rumours about Qatari mega-purchasing, essentially to get Qatar back into the world’s good books. Rather than focus on Qatar’s assistance to rebels in Syria, and Libya, the world should focus on the one thing about Qatar it does like, namely its money. Big spending sprees on popular brands, shops and football clubs do far more for the image of Qatar than their assistance to anti-regime forces across the region.
I often wonder how rumours start in the Gulf or in the Middle East in general, and why people are often so gullible as to believe them in the complete absence of facts or evidence. Occasionally mischievous reporting is clearly to blame, but the truth is usually far more benign, the Chinese whispers in secretive societies goes into overdrive with the tiniest fact growing and multiplying to a grossly bloated myth, with Blackberry Messenger often the vector.
But here was HBJ trashing rumours about Qatari big spending rather than playing them up. Clearly the rumours, if true, are more limited in scope than Doha’s chattering classes might have us all believe. But the refutation was more than simply an indication that the rumours might be wrong, it was to try and set the record straight, and it is obvious that the ruling elite has had enough of the accusations and decided to fight back. The choice of timing presumably had to do with the fact that since it was the Arab League Summit, it gave HBJ the biggest possible audience with some 100 journalists and TV networks present.
What happened last Tuesday evening was a fascinating example of Qatar moving away from its traditional mode of silence to address the problems it is facing. As ever we were treated to a big fanfare and a summit, which is something Qataris like doing. But it wasn’t all show. I doubt very much that HBJ had pre-planned the questions, at least it didn’t seem that way from the way the press conference was handled, so on a spur of the moment decision he took the bull by the horns and decided enough was enough. This was I presume with the full backing of the Emir.
Sometimes it is easy to think that Qatar is interfering and expanding wherever it can, simply because it possesses the means to do so. HBJ’s performance at the press conference clearly showed that this is not the case. Qatar is becoming picky about when and where it interferes.
Furthermore the Qatar-Egypt axis is fast becoming the critical fulcrum by which Qatar is judged. Whether Qatar is able to extricate itself from a very difficult foreign engagement that has caused it numerous headaches remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain, less PR on big spending and more offering of the facts is a good start.