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What Is It about the Underdog? - The GCC Crisis
I do not think I am unique when I say that I tend by instinct to side with the underdog. In biblical times, I would have cheered for David as he battled with Goliath! During more contemporary times, I have tended also to stand with those who are being bullied or cowed into submission by more powerful - or more fortunate - adversaries.

12 April   |   2018   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

This does not always make sense since taking the side of the little man or a small country with a cause that outsizes it is not always a strategic choice. But then to err is human, albeit I am not yet totally sure about the forgiveness part!

Why am I going on about the underdog though? Am I simply trying to sound Bohemian or conversely avant-garde? Neither really, since the focus of my interest today is Qatar. This small peninsula of some 11,500 square kilometres that extends north into the Arabian Gulf - and that some are even threatening to turn it into an island and marooning it on its own - is adjacent to its much bigger neighbour Saudi Arabia and is facing some serious challenges from three other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbours. They do not seem to like the fact that Qatar has a mind of its own, and can take sovereign decisions that might not sit well with them. They might even think that it is far too rich given its thumb-like miniscule size and fabulous wealth in respect of GDP per capita that comes from its export of oil and gas. So it needs to be brought down a peg or two. Or is it the green colour of envy that might also annoy some of those who think it should not host the World Cup in 2022 or have a vision of its own that stretches out into 2030? But is my reading fair, or does it reek of conspiracy theories that simply outstretch hard-core politics?

I have been fortunate enough to get to know Qatar and some of its people. And by “people”, I mean its (roughly) 300,000 Qatari citizens and (again roughly, according to 2014 estimates) 2 million guests or expatriates or workers who come to this tiny state from all continents to find work and earn some money. So I have been to Education City, for instance, where Western-affiliated universities have many branches. I have also visited the National Library (constructed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas) that is a moving sight to behold with shelves upon shelves of books. Or Souk Waqef and Katara with their restaurants, cafés and art centres alongside convention centres and hotels. Or having been driven to the outer fringes of the capital Doha where I have met many professors at the Doha Institute that is the only postgraduate institution in the region catering for Arab students in Arabic. Or perhaps the Doha International Centre for Inter-Faith Dialogue (DICID) that tries to educate Qatari schoolchildren to the diversity of faith and often assembles participants at symposia in order to network and build new partnerships or projects. Moreover, the Religious Complex in Doha (or Church City as it is known by some) houses many churches with the hustle-bustle of Christians from different denominations. And finally, two feats of architecture are the National Museum (by the French architect Jean Nouvel, albeit still under construction after seven years) and the Museum of Islamic Art on the Corniche (by the Chinese-American I M Pei and French Jean-Michel Wilmotte).

So no wonder some people think Qatar is perhaps punting a tad above its weight and needs to be cut down to size!

But all this is incidental for me as I look at Qatar. Like many countries across all continents, Qatar is not a flawless place either. It has many freckles and has committed mistakes since its independence in 1971 as it learnt the art of statecraft and the reality of statehood. And yes, most of the locals keep to themselves. And yes, many aspects of the the country are run by foreigners, and Qatar is expensive in part due to the embargo that has been imposed upon it. (After all, go to a decent restaurant and contemplate the bill!). However, show me one country in the Middle East, in North Africa or in the Gulf region that has not made wrong decisions along the process? Our overcrowded and overheated planet is replete with the floating detritus of errors. So in its own way, Qatar has used its wealth to build up, not build down, its hopes and protect its citizens. And a David it might be in the neighbourhood, but so what?

As a Kuwaiti academic and astute analyst of the Arab World, Shafeeq Ghabra, opined in a recent interview, the problem with the three blockading countries is not that they had issues with Qatar. Nor that they were upset with it. The problem is that they overreacted and overreached themselves with their demands: shape up or ship out was the ultimatum. Or to put it more quaintly in American parlance, my way or the highway! And the 13 conditions laid down for Qatar included such overinflated and puerile ones - such as the closure of Al-Jazeera Arabic TV. Imagine Donald Trump demanding the closure of a foreign TV satellite channel because he does not like the coverage they provide of his presidency! What should have occurred instead is for the leaders of those six countries (who all understand the tribal customs of reconciliation) is to have huddled together and powwowed until such time as they agreed that the sovereignty or self-respect of no country can be abused or maligned but that tolerance is the answer. To adopt threatening and heavy-handed let alone cantankerous approaches are demeaning. And they stink frankly!

Now you as a reader might disagree with me and suggest that I am being partisan! So don’t take my word for it. Nor listen to the analyses of seasoned and impartial pundits not unlike Rami Khouri or Kristian Ulrichsen for that matter. You can even pooh-pooh the decision of many EU countries who appreciate the Qatari quandary. After all, you might well claim as an independent reader, that they are merely trying to mediate in this dispute because of the Qatari investments in their own countries and therefore their economic self-interest.

So just go to Qatar for a week when it is not too hot, observe the country and then make your own mind up! However, if you are in it for the power trip alone, you simply won’t get it. But if like me you exercise the wonderful British instinct for the underdog as well as a measure of fair play, and you do not like to be bullied by intemperate neighbours, I think you’ll get my point.

Try it?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2018   |   12 April


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