- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Middle East.

For many Americans, that phrase evokes images of violent confrontation and perpetual unrest. In places like Syria that may be accurate, but in reality, the Middle East is home to a wide variety of people and cultures — including some that are world leaders in such fields as business, education and medicine.

Arguably at the top of the list is the small, oil-rich country of Qatar. Located across the Persian Gulf from Iran and bordered by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar has become a focal point of Arab progress, pride and, oddly enough, resentment. Since declaring itself an independent state in 1971, Qatar has rapidly moved from a “little brother” status among Gulf Arab states to a regional leader.

In 1995 Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani succeeded his father as emir of Qatar. He and his second wife, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned, created a vision for their country that included a minimum standard of living, educational opportunity, world-class health care and a strong, diversified economy. Creating a vision of strong growth and success in and of itself isn’t unusual. Executing that vision with precision and speed is far more rare.

Qatar offers civil liberties to women in ways most Arab states have never allowed, as evidenced by Her Excellency Sheikha Moza’s large role in setting the national agenda. She chairs the board of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, and is no figurehead in the post.

Under her leadership, Qatar has developed Education City, featuring Doha campuses of some of the world’s most prestigious universities — Georgetown, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern and Weill Cornell Medical College among them.

The Qatar Foundation was instrumental in establishing the new Sidra Medical and Research Center, a world-class medical facility and research center that is the first of its kind in the region. The main hospital is dedicated to women and children and has 400 beds.

Medical director Ziyad Hijazi, chair of the Sidra’s pediatrics department, is a Yale-trained physician recognized as among the world’s best in his field. He says Sidra is already the beneficiary of “medical tourism” — foreign patients coming to Qatar specifically for the high level of medical care available at this facility.

Dr. Hijazi has high hopes that Qatar’s current diplomatic differences with Middle East and African countries will not slow down the visa process for those with medical needs, especially from troubled areas like Gaza, Sudan and Egypt.

The government’s commitment to the education, health care and general welfare of its people is visionary, but perhaps even more impressive is the fact that two years ago Qatar committed $10 billion to humanitarian and development programs across the world. Nearly half of the money is targeted for education initiatives to help curb the spread of extremism and violence.

Qatar is not without its problems, the most obvious of which is the diplomatic crisis with its fellow Gulf Arab states.

Four of those countries, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt, began a blockade of Qatar in June 2017 while issuing a list of 13 demands for Qatar to comply with before the blockade would be lifted. Among the demands were curbing diplomatic ties with Iran; severing all ties to terrorist organizations; shutting down the Qatar-based and -funded Al Jazeera television network and its affiliates; paying reparations for past policies; stopping interference in the sovereign affairs of neighboring countries; and a demand that Qatar align its economic and security policy with its Arab neighbors.

It’s a list riddled with problems and dripping with irony.

The Saudi-led blockade has only forced the Qataris to increase trade and communication with Iran. The demands to respect others’ sovereignty is a violation of Qatar’s own sovereignty. Al Jazeera may be inconvenient, but it enjoys a worldwide audience of more than 200 million and its English-language service just won the “Broadcaster of the Year” award at the New York Festivals International Television and Film Gala for the second year in a row.

That this was an exercise in petty jealousy rather than actual diplomacy was most glaringly exposed

when the UAE actually demanded that Qatar give up hosting soccer 2022 World Cup, one of the world’s biggest and most visible sporting events.

Her Excellency Lulwah al Khater, the official spokesperson for Qatar’s Foreign Ministry, noted that when the blockade began, “Qatar did not have any diplomatic relations with Iran.”

Qatar had cut ties “in solidarity with Saudi Arabia in 2016, and — guess what? — in 2017 it was Saudi Arabia that blockaded Qatar and not Iran,” she noted. “It was Iran that gave us passage, the only passage that we have thanks to our neighbors.”

Asked if Doha supports any terrorist organizations, be it al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, Hamas or Hezbollah, Ms. al Khater was clear: “Qatar does not support, financially, any of those organizations… Qatar never supported al Qaeda, never supported Hezbollah. As a matter of fact, Qatar was confronting several bad influences in Syria for example.”

She said Qatar worked hard to curtail the influence of Hezbollah in Syria’s civil war, while some of the same countries now blockading Qatar “did not play any serious role in that.”

Qatar’s economy is strong, despite its heavy dependence on oil, with per capita GDP at 526 percent of the global average. His Excellency Muhammed Al Sada, Qatar’s minister of energy and industry, said there is a clear and concerted plan to diversify the economy, including through increased exploitation of liquified natural gas.

Last year LNG grew by a staggering 11 percent and is continuing to grow,” the minister said. “The highest rate of growth in energy was LNG and we are equipping ourself and preparing ourself for that continuous growth.”

The minister noted that just a few years ago 60 percent of the Qatari economy was based on oil and gas. That’s down to 40 percent now thanks to the effort to diversify.

“We are looking at petrochemicals, medicines, medical equipment. We are also looking at tourist industry, service sector, construction sector. … These are forming important parts of our economy.”

Bringing the world to Qatar is also part of the vision first laid down by Emir Hamad bin Khalifa and now being accelerated by his son, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir since 2013.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup will not only bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to Qatar for the first time, but nearly 3.5 billion people are expected to watch at least some of the matches via television. With that kind of an audience, the 37-year-old Emir Tamir bin Hamad has promoted development at breakneck speed. Once slated to be completed in twenty to thirty years, major infrastructure projects are now being done in seven years in light of the upcoming World Cup. New roads, government buildings, hotels, a metro-rail service and much more — all are being completed far in advance of their original timetable.

What sets Qatar apart from most nations is a clear vision and a remarkably effective execution of that vision. The desire to be the best, to invest in the future, to seek out experts in every field from all over the globe, and to respect ancient traditions and religious sensibilities while simultaneously embracing the modern world — it is all nothing short of amazing.

Whether it is the architecture, the infrastructure, educational opportunities, sporting events, health care or a new national library, Qatar is clearly committed to being the very best.

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