- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

A major diplomatic snub may be casting a pall over Doha, Qatar, this weekend during the annual gathering of the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Coming on the heels of Saudi Arabia's recent recall of its ambassador to Doha, the Saudi kingdom has sent a low-level delegation as a further sign of its displeasure with its host, Qatar.
What is happening in Qatar that is making Saudi Arabia's aging rulers and fanatical clerics so upset?
"The Arab world is capable of reform, and this is the key to winning the war against terrorism." Since succeeding his father in a bloodless coup five years ago, 52-year-old Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani the leader of this Sunni Arab state has started the gradual reformation of all aspects of Qatar's socio-economic and political institutions, thereby markedly distancing it from Saudi Arabia. In a region of the world where authoritarian regimes are the norm, this tiny nation of 200,000 is initiating a quiet revolution, proving that the Arab world need not be innately inhospitable to democracy. The success of Qatar, which lies at the epicenter of the oil-rich Persian Gulf, has far reaching implications for the war against terrorism and U.S. energy security.
The fundamental rationale behind Sheik Hamad's drive toward democracy is pragmatic. If Arab countries embrace pluralism rather than authoritarianism, then citizens with differing ideologies secular vs. religious, traditionalist vs. modernist can participate in the political life of the nation without resorting to terror and mayhem. By opening the political dialogue, Arab leaders would create legitimate and transparent outlets for political expression. Such transparency will ultimately expose the bankrupt ideology of the ayatollahs in Iran, the Wahhabis clerics of Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and their many followers or sympathizers who have hijacked Islam for their own hubris.
In Qatar, the sheik has introduced a number of reforms that are unique within the Arab world. He has abolished the Ministry of Information and put an end to censorship. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, Qatari women are allowed to vote and run for political office. Furthermore, he has put a premium on secular education, a free media and transparency in dealing with foreign investors.
According to the sheik, education will be the mainstay of this radical transformation. He has given free reign to Sheika Mouza, his dynamic wife and the head of Qatar Foundation, to spearhead Qatar's educational reform. When she recently inaugurated the local branch of the Weill Cornell Medical School and appeared in public without a veil in full view of the press, she confirmed her husband's commitment to a Qatar revolution.
Nowhere is this drive to become an open and transparent society more evident than in the Al-Jazeera satellite TV station, whose broadcasts have made Qatar famous since September 11. Sheik Hamad's goal when he supported the creation of Al-Jazeera was the establishment of a "free press zone" within the Arab world. Ibrahim Helal, the editor of Al-Jazeera's newsroom, argues that the goal of Al-Jazeera is to give the Arab world accurate information because, "For the last 50 years, Arab media has been held hostage to the lies and bankrupt ideology of Arab rulers."
Ironically, while the United States government has expressed concern over some of Al-Jazeera's more inflammatory broadcasts, President Bush and Al Jazeera are agreed on one point the need for reform in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The territories under Yasser Arafat's control are a microcosm of the problems facing most of the Arab world: lack of economic transparency, authoritarian rule and state-controlled media. Therefore, while many of us here in the United States may not like the inherent bias of Al-Jazeera, its contribution to the Arab world cannot be underestimated. It is an outlet for telling the truth.
While many in the United States currently associate Qatar with little more than Al-Jazeera, in the coming years American consumers will learn to think of this far away country as a major source of natural gas to heat their homes and possibly fuel their cars. Sheik Hamad has given the green light to his oil minister, Abdullah Attiyah, to develop Qatar's vast natural gas resources. This has significant implications for American consumers because with the world's third largest reserves of natural gas (500 trillion cubic feet compared with only 167 trillion cubic feet of reserves in the United States) Qatar has enough gas to heat every in American home for the next 100 years. This is very good news for long-term U.S. energy security.
Qatar is also important to the United States because it is home to the largest U.S. Army prepositioning base in the world. In fact, Qatar's al-Udeid Air Base is currently used as a launching center for the U.S. missions over Afghanistan dedicated to routing out al Qaeda. When President Bush takes his campaign against terrorism to the doorstep of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, he can count on Qatar's support. In fact, some in Qatar have suggested that if Saudi Arabia were to ask U.S. troops to leave the Prince Sultan Air Base, those troops would be welcome in Qatar.
The long-term success of America's war against terrorism will depend in part on promoting democracy in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds. The United States should applaud and encourage Qatar's nascent moves in this direction.

S. Rob Sobhani is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and president of Caspian Energy Consulting.


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