Reflections on Qatar's National Day

By Harry Hagopian
December 24, 2017

I am not from Qatar nor, for that matter, am I from the Gulf region. I have never worked in this region and so do not qualify as an expatriate resident either. In fact, my only finite claim to fame with the Gulf region is that I was Legal Counsel to an Intellectual property law firm some three decades ago and my “legal jurisdiction” extended to the Gulf countries too. In fact, my legal fingerprints can still be found in some cases affecting patent and trade mark laws. 

So why am I writing about Qatar today? 

The reason is that Qatar celebrated its National Day on 18 December. This public holiday is one of the joyful - and also noisy - celebrations where flags are waved everywhere, where parades are held with some degree of pomp and where Qatari citizens as well as residents go out in the streets to celebrate the occasion. In fact, and prior to the Emiri decree of June 2007, this National Day was celebrated on 3 September and coincided with the Qatari Day of Independence.

But over the past six months, this small country has been buffeted by a siege – some commentators downplay it to a ‘boycott’ – led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (in addition to Egypt). Whilst any offensive military aspect to this siege was fortunately averted, most likely due to pressure by external mediators, it has impacted the collective Gulf psyche and created some deep scars that will be quite difficult to heal – at least in the short run.

So let me enumerate some realities highlighting this opulent nation and the consequences of the GCC fallout.

The first impression any virgin eye espies in Qatar is the beauty of some of its landscapes and landmarks, let alone its multiple malls. Just looking at the coast of the capital Doha, one spots the futuristic skyscrapers and other ultramodern architecture inspired by ancient Islamic design. An example is the limestone Museum of Islamic Art that sits on the Corniche waterfront promenade.

However, side by side with all of this, one cannot miss the incredible amount of building taking place. There is construction everywhere - and I do mean everywhere. If one drives out from the centre, such as toward the Doha Institute for Post-Graduate Studies or Ikea, the construction becomes an omnipresent sight. Part of this is due to World Cup 2022 that is a bracing challenge. Qatar needs to ensure that the country and its infrastructures are ready to welcome all the travellers and fans who will fly into Doha. And this challenge is not simply one of gamesmanship but is also political in that Qatar wants to prove it is worthy of the expectations of FIFA and the football community.

But this is not all that meets visitors! To the surprise of some observers, Qatar also has a Religious Complex housing different Christian denominations – from Eastern and Oriental Orthodox to Catholic, and from Anglican to Evangelical. After all, many of the expatriate workers are Christian, and the churches in this complex welcome their worshippers on a Friday (which is the equivalent of a Western Sunday). Moreover, these Christians – only a few of them Arab – must not be confused with Levantine Christians who hail from the MENA region. In fact, half of them roughly come from the Asian Subcontinent and the rest from elsewhere worldwide and they have cultural norms, priorities and practices that are unlike those of the MENA region.

So given the buzz across the country, it is fortunate that Qatar also probably has the second-largest global natural gas exports (of 118,900,000,000 cu m). Otherwise, financing all this would quickly turn into a thankless task.

However, the siege imposed upon Qatar some six months ago has also introduced three unfortunate – but arguably unavoidable – changes in the fabric of society. One obvious manifestation for me is the increased militarisation of the country. Contracts are being signed with many arms exporting countries for the purchase of additional aircraft and military hardware. I suppose this accelerated armament is meant to make Qataris feel less vulnerable from some of their bellicose and frankly febrile neighbours.

A second manifestation of the crisis is the enhanced sense of nationalism, accompanied by a wrapping of oneself in the flag and a growing personality cult of the Emir. Such traits were heretofore quite unusual to Qatari society. Yet one can today feel a sense of deep upset in Qatar from the attitude of some neighbours and a determined defiance in the country to face down the siege imposed by former GCC ‘brothers’ or allies.

A third unfortunate albeit human manifestation of this crisis, is that a number of Arab 'experts' have been attacking Qatar and blaming its policies alone for this crisis. Friends of Qatar in yesteryear, they have now been instructed by their own governments to disparage this country whether on social media or in the press. Such attitudes prove to me how shallow the principles of democracy and free speech remain in some Arab countries whose leaders not only dictate top-down attitudes but also determine what some of its mouthpieces – be they journalists, intellectuals, faith leaders, or institutions – should or should not say on any issue.

However, even in adversity, one thing is clear to me. Qatar, a small country when compared to Saudi Arabia or even the UAE, has not buckled as a result of the siege. Perhaps its foes expected it to be undone quite rapidly. Yet not only have the institutions of Qatar managed to resist such negative pressures and not buckle, despite predictable hardships, they have also learnt from the crisis by diversifying the sources of income as well as economic levers and future priorities. In other words, this small country has opened up more robustly to alternative outlets or markets and is so doing ensured that the country will become stronger in the future. In one sense, this unnecessary and largely choreographed crisis has helped Qatar come of age.

Finally, let me add a couple of thoughts about the osmotic relationship between Qatar and other GCC countries on the one hand and the USA on the other in view of this ongoing crisis. Perhaps some clues could be gleaned from the National Security Strategy (NSS) document that was released on 18 December 2017 by President Trump as he outlined the focus of US foreign policy. As Dr Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington DC wrote recently, the NSS repeated Washington’s commitment to “a strong and integrated Gulf Cooperation Council” which, in context, appears to contain a subtle and implicit encouragement to resolve the dispute with Qatar. Mind you, there is a paucity of detail in the NSS that casts any real light on this perspective. However, the NSS also affirms that “Some of our partners are working together to reject radical ideologies”, and in my opinion that statement includes Qatar in its ambit.

But let me not leave readers with the impression that I am a PR executive for Qatar! Like any country, I acknowledge that this small country also faces manifold challenges that need to be addressed over time. But surely this is the essence of sovereignty. Qatar, like any other nation-state, makes and applies its own choices. To assume that it can be dictated to by others, let alone bullied and excoriated with political and social ostracism in order to kow-tow to the choices of other is eventually counter-productive and – let me add a personal note – inimical to our European values too.

I started my piece by highlighting that I am not from the Gulf region. So I conclude with an appreciation of the achievements and efforts deployed by a country that has moved forward by leaps and bounds over the past decade or so. In a world of unnerving globalisation, with different factors intruding helter-skelter into the art of policymaking at many levels of governance, surely Qatari citizens and residents alike could be proud of this National Day.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a MENA and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net -- follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

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