- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

Last week, a court in London found Saudi intelligence services guilty of using the newspaper Az-zaman to defame the wife of the emir of Qatar, Sheikha Mouza. According to court documents, Az-zaman, edited by Iraqi national Saad al-Bazzaz and controlled by Saudi intelligence services, accused Sheikha Mouza of improper interference in Qatari state affairs and secret dealings with Israel.

Why would the Saudi government go to such lengths to destroy the credibility of one of the most dynamic women in the Middle East? Perhaps because she has been an untiring advocate of woman’s empowerment and education reform who also happens to be the wife of America’s most powerful ally in the region.

After the British relinquished their rule of Qatar in 1970, this tiny nation of 250,000 lived in the shadow of its more powerful and religiously orthodox neighbor, Saudi Arabia. For years, Saudi Arabia provided military protection to Qatar in exchange for Qatar’s allegiance to the Saudi royal family. In short, under the reign of its former ruler, Sheikh Khalifa, Qatar lacked political and economic autonomy. Since succeeding his father in a bloodless coup eight years ago, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has changed the dynamic of his country’s relationship with the traditional rulers of Saudi Arabia. This visionary leader and his dynamic wife have started the gradual transformation of all aspects of Qatar’s socio economic and political institutions, thereby markedly distinguishing it from Saudi Arabia.

Today, the two countries are governed quite differently. Qatar, home to the world’s second-largest natural-gas reserves, has embarked on a steady course of political, educational, social and cultural reform. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has only paid lip service to reform. While it would be an exaggeration to call Saudi Arabia an “outpost of tyranny,” to use Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s terminology, it has unfortunately devolved into an outpost of intolerance and religious radicalism. For the sake of global energy security (Saudi Arabia is home to 20 percent of the world’s remaining oil reserves) and if the West wants to decouple terrorism from Islam, Saudi Arabia must be reformed, or perhaps, saved from itself. Toward this end, Saudi Arabia could learn much from 21st-century Qatar.

Unlike the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Hamad does not see any contradictions between Islam and democracy. If Arab countries like Qatar embrace pluralism rather than authoritarianism, he reasons, then citizens with differing ideologies — secular versus religious, traditionalist versus modernist — can participate in the political life of their nations and effect change, or at least be heard without resorting to terror and mayhem.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia also differ radically in their approaches to education. Saudi Arabia continues to fund extremist Islamic dogma in far- off madrasses in Pakistan to please the imams but distance the royal family from the product of that education. The emir and his charismatic wife, on the other hand, firmly believe that a major investment in and commitment to education are essential if the Arab-Muslim world is to protect its culture and protect Islam from being hijacked by extremists. They believe that the soul of the Arab world can only be reinvigorated if the golden age of Arab and Islamic enlightenment that existed 1,000 years ago is allowed to flourish again. While Europe suffered through the dark ages of religious intolerance toward new and creative thought, the Arab world experienced an explosion of creativity marked by an openness to knowledge and science. One could argue that the same Arab states and Islamic groups have entered their own Dark Ages. For example, the Saudis objected vehemently when Sheikha Mouza inaugurated the opening of Cornell Medical School in Qatar while wearing only a modest headscarf as a covering. The Saudi government takes offense at the notion that that women in the Muslim world can be true to their faith while also being instruments of modernization and progressive thinking.

This dedication to education reform is not merely lip service. Qatar is the only country in the Arab world to provide assistance to Iraq’s college students. Sheikha Mouza recently donated $15 million toward training the faculty members at Iraq’s top universities. On the other hand, according to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Saudi King Fahd’s visits to Marbella alone cost $100 million.

Qatar’s transformation of its Wahhabi identity by its maverick leader is what truly distinguishes this country from Saudi Arabia. His Highness Sheikh Hamad has instituted a deliberate policy of internal reform that is resulting in a renaissance that should be used as a model for reform in Saudi Arabia. The United States should highlight Qatar’s renaissance, and urge the Saudi royal family to adopt similar platforms of reform designed to empower its population with a political voice, free thought and equality.

In the interest of U.S. national security, President Bush should demand that our Saudi allies stop undermining America’s partner in reform and instead to adopt the Qatari model for a transition to democracy.

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

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