The new Middle East

As I prepare to head back to Doha, Qatar after a six month hiatus in lovely Winnipeg, I appear to be going back to a much different place than I left.
Physically not much has changed; there is still a lot of sand, and the temperatures during the summer can still be hot enough to bake cookies in a parked car (It’s true, a friend did it). But suddenly, the little state of Qatar, jutting off into the Arabian Gulf from Saudi Arabia, has become somewhat of a diplomatic powerhouse in a region that has been completely changed by revolution.

Qatar took a very bold step by getting involved in the overthrow of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. It sent planes to back NATO’s no-fly zone, helped fund and arm Libyan Rebels, help set up a television station based in Qatar to counter Libya’s state television, helped the rebels refine Libyan oil, and brought injured rebels to Qatar for medical attention. And now that Gadhafi is gone, they are investing to get Libya back on its feet. All of this was rather unexpected and somewhat unprecedented in the region.

Now, Qatar has spearheaded another bold move in pressuring the Arab League to suspend Syria. This comes after months of deadly violence towards anti-government protesters in the country. For this step, Qatar and the Arab League have won a great deal of praise from the international community. Qatar has also drawn a great deal of anger from Syria’s leaders, who are already upset over Qatar’s Al-Jazeera news channels, which they feel have helped fan the flames of revolution. Either way, it shows a willingness on the part of Qatar to push the Arab League, an organization known more as a support network for despots and dictators, to take hard action in the region.

Clearly, Qatar has taken advantage of the Arab Spring and the disappearance of some powerful leaders. Qatar has long had a desire to be seen and heard. Qatar recently won the honour of playing host to the 2022 FIFA World Cup and has bought Harrods and other major real estate gems in London. It also signed the richest sponsorship deal in football history to have the Qatar Foundation logo on the Barcelona Football Club jersey. Now, it is taking its role in the Middle East to a new level, beyond window dressing and into the realm of regional leadership.

What this has done is make the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, a very popular man in his country. If a person is going to be a dictator, it is fair to say that Al Thani is showing how it can be done quite successfully. Through his actions and his quest to build Qatar into an internationally known country, he has brought a tremendous amount of pride to the nearly two million Qataris he rules over. This is on top of spreading the wealth from the third largest natural gas reserves in the world to make Qatar one of the richest countries in the Middle East. Who is going to overthrow a dictator when the population has it so good?
So, the Qatar I am going back to is one that is being taken more seriously, and is set to take the Arab League into a new era of increased credibility. I could be in the right place at the right time, watching a former desert wasteland turn itself into a powerful Middle Eastern country before my eyes. The Arab Spring, it would appear, hasn’t just helped get rid of brutal dictators. It has managed to shift power and create new players to guide the region into the future.

Chris Hearn looks forward to going back to Qatar and watching the rise of a new Middle East.

illustration by kara passey

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