Qaradawi toes a more radical line in Qatar

By David Lepeska

Doha// During a recent Friday sermon, Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi, arguably the world’s leading scholar of Sunni Islam, uttered a few lines that drew little notice internationally but could have big implications for future relations between Christians and Muslims.

“I was for the possibility of bridging the gap between the east and the west but recently I have changed my mind on this issue, especially since the west wants to impose its values and traditions on us,” Mr Qaradawi told his congregation at Doha’s Omar bin Al Khattab Mosque in a televised sermon in October.

“West is west and east is east. They do not recognise or follow our traditions and customs, so we should not follow theirs,” Mr Qaradawi said, echoing Rudyard Kipling, the British author.

Mr Qaradawi, 84, emigrated to Qatar in 1961 to avoid persecution in his native Egypt. His many fatwas, or religious decisions, are passed on to millions of Muslims worldwide via his long-running Al Jazeera talk show and Islam Online, a website. In 2008, Foreign Policy magazine ranked him the world’s third most influential intellectual.

In his first book, published in 1960, Mr Qaradawi instructed Muslims on how to maintain their religion while living in the US. But he has subsequently denounced secularism, capitalism and Zionism, and these statements mark a further hardening of attitude, observers say.

“He has never been one to build bridges with the west but this marks a great change,” says Bettina Gräf, author of Global Mufti, a 2009 book on Mr Qaradawi. “It is highly significant ... because it makes a difference if a very popular figure calls for divisions between Islam and the west and therefore manifests a dichotomy which is not there in reality. He considers himself a moderate in the many different meanings of the word, but being moderate would – in my opinion – include not to call for such divisions these days.”

As Qatar looks to burnish its Islamic credentials, the views of Mr Qaradawi are also increasingly at odds with the emirate’s growing reputation for progressiveness and engagement.

Aside from diplomatic initiatives in Lebanon and Darfur, Qatar is home to the US al-Udaid airbase and has hosted an Israeli trade mission.

“This sort of thing could begin to eat away at the carefully constructed brand that Qatar has been forging in recent years,” says David Roberts, who is writing a dissertation on Qatari foreign policy. “Qatar certainly wouldn’t want any kind of ‘Islamist’ stigma.”

To enhance its status as an international centre, the Qatar Foundation, which is run by the emir’s wife Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Misned, manages a campus on the outskirts of Doha that hosts branches of six US universities.

Last year, the foundation opened the Qaradawi Center for Islamic Moderation and Renewal at an Islamic graduate school on the same campus. And this autumn the foundation brought in Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim intellectual based in Europe, to teach a course on civil society and democracy in Islam.

Prof Ramadan, 48, is perhaps more in keeping with the image that Qatar is trying to build. He was raised in Switzerland and came to prominence thanks to his writing on Islam and the west and an Oxford professorship.

“This will enhance Qatar’s role as a leading centre of Muslim discussion and knowledge,” says Mr Roberts. Qatar may also be trying to gain on its neighbour Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest mosques in Islam, he says. “Reaching for Islamic legitimacy is a tactic that has a long history in the Middle East.”

But even Prof Ramadan has not escaped controversy. From 2004 to 2010, he was not allowed to travel to the US on “ideological grounds”, according to the US State Department.

Today, his books focus on how to be Muslim in western society. “We need to shift the mindset of what we can do,” Prof Ramadan said in a talk in Doha to promote his latest book, Radical Reform. “We should be critical while remaining faithful.”

He has called for a new international economic system and in a televised 2003 debate with the then future French president Nicolas Sarkozy he called for a moratorium on stoning in order to debate the merits of the punishment.

Such sentiments are unlikely to appeal to Mr Qaradawi. This year, Islam Online, the website with which he is associated, took a more conservative turn. Its Qatar-based management dismissed most of its Egyptian employees, who had gone on strike. Observers say that latterly Mr Qaradawi had little hand in day-to-day operations.

Where Mr Qaradawi has particularly riled his critics is in ruling that suicide bombing is acceptable for Palestinians because, he says, all Israelis are soldiers. A few weeks ago, he boycotted a Doha interfaith conference because he opposes discourse with Jews. As a result of his views on suicide bombing, Mr Qaradawi is barred from travelling to the US and the UK.

But he can also be pragmatic. He has said Islam supports democracy and last week called for more women in politics. Shortly after September 11 2001, he declared it legal for Muslims serving in the US army to fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Yet if Qaradawi repeated his “west is west” statements on his weekly Al Jazeera show they would reach up to 40m people. Many millions more would get the message by word-of-mouth, online video and other means.

Ms Gräf says Mr Qaradawi’s new perspective could have a significant impact on young Muslims in Europe. “The majority would be more reflective,” she says. “But, of course, there is a minority that may become more radical.”

originally ran in the Dec 2 Financial Times,


Gag Time in Cairo: Interview with Egyptian Journalist Ibrahim Eissa

By David Lepeska
Columbia Journalism Review, Oct 2010

Few leaders stay in power for thirty years without occasionally embracing their inner gangster. So it is that the aging, possibly ailing Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, facing the end of his reign, has again all but eliminated the space for free expression in the run-up to this month’s parliamentary polls and next year’s presidential vote.

In the past few months, authorities shuttered nearly twenty satellite TV channels, a top judicial council banned media coverage of court cases, outspoken columnists Hamdi Qandeel and Alaa Aswany suddenly stopped writing, and the state began monitoring mass text messages and curbed the independence of NGOs. Nobel Peace Prize winner and possible presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei has spoken of the “culture of fear that the regime has created.”

Last month’s firing of Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of Egypt’s leading Arabic language opposition daily, Al Destour, has been the most high-profile gag action. Eissa was forced out of his post shortly after the arrival of new ownership led by Sayed al Badawi, president of the opposition Wadf party. Most observers believe Badawi and his partner purchased Destour and dismissed Eissa as part of a deal with Mubarak, who presumably promised more parliamentary seats for Wafd in return.

The ouster is nothing new for Eissa. Over the past couple decades the forty-five-year-old has regularly tangled with the Egyptian government, including a seven-year stint as a media outcast after authorities shuttered the original incarnation of Destour in 1998. On a recent Saturday at his home on the outskirts of Cairo he spoke amiably about his dismissal, the wiliness of the Mubarak regime, and policy differences between Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Why were you fired?

Destour is the only newspaper in Egypt that is owned by a publisher. Others are owned by businessmen and are part of conglomerates that are involved in industry, oil, and other concerns. For this reason the government could not control us, so they had a few options. The first was to threaten me; there have been sixty-five lawsuits against the newspapers where I’ve worked, four times I was put in jail, once I was given a presidential pardon. That did not work, so they threatened my publishers with 12 million pounds in taxes. That did not work either, so they got their pet opposition party to buy the newspaper for 20 million pounds. After one month the ownership transfer was complete, they had taken charge, and they immediately changed the editors.

And so this is the end of Al Destour. The Destour that is being published now is phony, it’s a voice of the government, it’s a pet newspaper.

Was there an agreement between Wafd and the government?

Absolutely, I’m confident there was a deal. I have no proof, but I know. Everybody now knows the real Wafd party, the real Badawi, they know they’re not good for the people. You can see that on Facebook and on Twitter everybody is now saying that the Wafd party is not an honest party.

After a period of restraint, it seems the Mubarak regime is again suffocating the media.

The growth in satellite channels and greater freedom in newspapers began shortly after George W. Bush started pushing Mubarak to liberate the media in Egypt, maybe around 2002, 2003. So people started writing more openly, broadcasting more satellite channels and stuff like that. This created a political movement and woke up the people and gave them more courage, and people started to stand up for their rights and protests. Now the Egyptian government seems to have gotten the green light from the Obama administration to go back to the way they were before. As a result, we are now collecting the corpse of the Egyptian media.

You feel Obama is not supporting the opposition in Egypt?

Obama is not pressuring Mubarak at all, and I think the intelligence of Obama is overrated. He thinks that by petting the alligators, the Arab dictators, he can win their friendship and their love. But he’s not realizing that society is going to implode on itself and destroy those regimes.

Is the media crackdown here harsher this time around?

The sad thing is that we are going backwards—that is the real loss. People like us should fight for their right to speak, because this is our right. Years back it seemed like a Christmas gift given to us by Mubarak, and now he’s taking it back. That’s what people see. But the truth is that freedom of speech is not a gift but a right.

In a column published just before you were fired you wrote that as part of this crackdown, “understandings will be arrived at with representatives of the western media in Egypt.” What did you mean?

What I meant is that even CNN, BBC and those stations are going to have a hard time covering these elections, because they will probably not be allowed to shoot at polling stations and all the papers will be governmental or semi-governmental. They just won’t have access. And what’s more, this is an experiment for the big event next year. If this experience with the parliamentary elections works, the regime will continue with the same strategy for the presidential elections.

What’s the objective of this experiment?

The satellite channels and the newspapers have taken on the role of the opposition parties in Egypt, because the opposition parties here do not speak out. So they’re trying to shut us up for these coming elections. My sense is there’s going to be a lot of fraud.

The regime said they were shutting down the satellite channels because of religious violations.

It doesn’t matter what reason they give. They closed those satellite channels for two reasons: to gag the press and to put fear in the channels that were not closed. Plus, since a lot of them have relations with Muslim Brotherhood, this is an attempt to close off an avenue of campaigning for candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood.

What are Egyptians going to miss in their media coverage?

A lot. They won’t know what happens in the presidential palace, what’s behind political agreements between the regime and the opposition, the backgrounds of the people that make decisions, the stories behind companies that include politicians, government, and businessmen.

How well have foreign journalists covered these issues?

A lot of their reports are translated into our newspapers, and they often offer deep insight into events here and the Egyptian regime. But I will say that the foreign reporters that just come for a few days or a week and leave write better than the ones that stay here in Egypt. It’s because living in Egypt they become used to the garbage piles, the corruption, and these things begin to seem more normal.

Would you say that Egyptians are apathetic?

When you’re talking about Egyptians you’re talking about people that fifty-eight years ago, just a couple generations ago, lived under a military system. And Mubarak has been running emergency rule for thirty years now. So it’s understandable that it’s a society with ideas and ideologies different from the U.S. and other places. But the people thirst for change. They read newspapers, they go online and make it known that they want change. So, the people want change, and the media calls for change, but we are missing the key third part: politicians who are fighting for change. This is why Mohammed ElBaradei has stirred great hope.

Hosni Mubarak used to tell foreign governments, ‘If I go away, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to take charge.’ Now they are scared, because ElBaradei gives us an option for a leader that is neither Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime realizes this and is trying to shut down all variety of media before the elections. ElBaradei is a man with the knowledge, with experience, with the people behind him.

What’s the chance he will run for president next year?

You can’t say. Elections can happen any time and the rules would have to change for him to run. But I’m confident ElBaradei is going to be the one that makes this change happen.

You’ve been working for change for a long time. Is that why you and this government don’t seem to get along.

(Laughs) It’s because I represent the true opposition. I do not feel this pressure, I don’t fear people. The government is what it is. Mubarak is Mubarak, I am a journalist. When the regime changes I will change.

Do you write whatever you want?

I don’t censor myself ever. I’m the only one who wrote about Mubarak’s health and who told him he was going to die eventually. This is my job.

You say you’re the true opposition. How large is this true opposition?

There are many: Alaa al-Aswany, Mohammed ElBaradei, Ayman Nour, the kiffeyeh movement, people protesting on Facebook and other places. These are the true opposition and they are the ones who are keeping me going.

So what’s next for you?

I am going to sit in my garden (laughs). No, I’m not going to give up, I’m used to this regime. Whenever we have a disagreement they close the fire exits on me, but I can take it. I was just talking a few minutes ago on Skype with a friend about launching a new newspaper.

Being a journalist in Egypt, has it been what you’d hoped?

You are here in my home, you see it’s a nice place, it’s comfortable. I have my kids, I have my family. There’s nothing that I regret. Whatever the sacrifices, it’s always worth it.

originally appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review,


Qatar begins to buzz

By David Lepeska
The National, Oct 25, 2010

Performers prepared their jokes, audience members tossed red squishy-balls and a film crew jostled through the jam-packed upstairs room of the Colombiano Coffee House last Sunday as the pre-show chatter reached fever pitch.

"This is amazing," said Mahmoud El-Achi, 27, crouching in his chair amid the hubbub of the Doha Tweet-Ups' comedy night. A Lebanese telecoms manager, he was born and raised in Doha. "There's almost nothing to do here, compared to Beirut," he added. "So I wasn't expecting this kind of turn-out and energy."

A small, roiling sea of students, artists, academics and professionals had successfully injected the event with that most rare and precious quality in Qatar: buzz.

Maybe it's a sign of things to come.

"The scene is young, but it's maturing," said Tariq al Jaidah, a Qatari entrepreneur and the founder of Doha's first private gallery, Waqif Art Center. "The Arab Capital designation has been a good inspiration and put Qatar on the map for these activities."

Doha is the UN-backed Arab Capital of Culture for 2010. But as recently as a few years ago this city had no major museum and hosted only the occasional small art exhibition. Now, a government vision that views cultural development as integral to national growth has begun to take root.

In 2007, a couple of small galleries opened in Souk Waqif, the faux traditional Arab market in downtown Doha. Late 2008 saw the debuts of IM Pei's Museum of Islamic Art, a cubist masterpiece regarded as an arts anchor, and the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. And last year the inaugural Doha Tribeca Film Festival put Qatar on the international movie map.

In addition to the second edition of the film festival, which kicks off this week, consumers of culture should have a full plate over Doha's final months as the cultural capital, including an Oriental music festival, a major musical production, an exhibition of Ottoman art, a series of national cultural weeks and the launch of the much-anticipated Arab Museum of Modern Art, called Mathaf.

Opening on December 30, Mathaf will house a collection of 60,000 works spanning 170 years. The Qatar Museums Authority has been promoting the museum on a regional road show. Antonia Carver, the director of Art Dubai, was among the speakers at a recent stop in Beirut. She believes it will be the world's largest public collection of modern Arab art.

"There's been a major shift of international attention towards the Arab world over the past 10 years, and it's been a phenomenon, really," Carver said during a recent interview. She appreciated how Mathaf officials had amassed their collection methodically and incorporated an educational aspect.

"What's really exciting is to be able to trace back through history and find those threads that pull out on the whole development of the Arab world and the Gulf and the connection between the two," she said.

Al Jaidah was also looking forward to Mathaf. "The new museum will change art in the Middle East because it will change the perspective and take Arab art to another dimension," he said.

Mathaf's opening is among the more promising events of an autumn schedule that, since the end of Eid, has seemed relentless. Qatar's National Theatre has hosted a steady stream of cultural weeks involving dancers, musicians and singers from countries such as India, Syria and Sudan. Still to come are Venezuela, Lebanon, Iran, Tunisia and the UAE.

In Souk Waqif, Al Markhiya Gallery is hosting the Lebanese artist Ginou Choueiri's solo show, For Your Eyes Only, a series of paintings exploring the veil and the women behind it. It's part of the gallery's ongoing survey of Arab artists under 40 years old.

As of last Wednesday, four new galleries at the Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani Museum began showcasing Islamic art and works of Qatari heritage. On that same day, the gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar launched New York Chronicles, a month-long exhibition featuring eight Arab artists' creative responses to New York City.

Christie's, the leading London-based auctioneer, recently hosted a two-day exhibit of paintings from the collection of the Egyptian collector Dr Mohammad Said Farsi at Doha's Four Seasons Hotel. At the opening gala, the director of Christie's Middle East, Isabelle de la Bruyere, said the Middle East art market was the world's fastest growing.

The show, called Journey Through Modern Art, included works by modern Egyptian, Iranian and Lebanese artists worth up to $400,000 (Dh1.5million). "People in Qatar are starting now to see art as a symbol of status," al Jaidah said.

The Museum of Islamic Art remains the defining symbol of Doha's cultural status. This autumn, MIA is hosting a series of arts and historical lectures. In December, Bruce Lawrence, MIA's scholar-in-residence, will speak about Ibn Khaldun, the father of sociology.

The Orientalist Museum, which has no physical home and no plans for one, is launching an exhibition of Ottoman art there on Friday. Most works are from its own collection, but several are from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum and private collections. The show will conclude with a two-day international conference at which scholars from around the world will discuss the exchange between Ottoman and European cultures.

New cultural education developments include Doha Kalakshetra, a secondary school for Indian classical music and art that opened this month. It will instruct students in dance forms including Kathakali and Bharatnatyam, and in musical instruments such as guitar, tabla, piano and flute.

And the Qatar Foundation is set to open the Qatar Music Academy in January. It will focus on Arab music, highlighting links to American jazz and European composition.

This year's DTFF will, naturally, shine a spotlight on Arab film, and it's not alone in Doha. The $200 million Al Noor Film Fund is one of the region's largest film production firms. The executive director Raja Sharif says the fund has received hundreds of film ideas and plans to make several movies each year.

The Doha Film Institute, which aims to build a sustainable film industry in Qatar, launched this May. DFI has been helping a handful of local filmmakers make 10-minute films that are likely to be shown at DTFF. DFI also manages the Doha Film Fund, which will provide financial backing to up to 10 films per year.

DFI's camera crews are regularly seen at events around Doha, including last week's Tweet-Up comedy night, where Mohammad Kamal, a Qatari student at Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar, made light of his compatriots' foibles. "The first thing a Qatari says in a fight: I cancel your visa!" he said to a burst of laughter.

Hannadi Hassan, another Qatari student, explained how she could always tell a Khaleeji in London. "They wear their jeans too high," she said to titters.

Still, the road to cultural prominence is not always smooth. Earlier this year, Qatari officials promoted the Qatar Marine Festival at press conferences and in newspapers. A programme was announced and a website set up. Suddenly, the event fell off the radar, never to be heard of again.

"They promoted it and then it was just cancelled," said George Ayache, general manager of International Fairs and Promotions' Qatar, which organises conferences and exhibitions. He expressed disappointment in the number of events this year. "There's really nothing major here, in terms of cultural exhibitions."

Optimists call for patience. "This is a very young country, with very young minds," said al Jaidah. "They cannot immediately jump and make themselves equal with major players, there needs to be time to progress, and it is happening."

Next year will see the completion of five new theatres, according to cultural minister Hamad bin Abdulaziz al Kuwari. The highlight will be the Cultural Village, or Katara, which is hosting DTFF during its forthcoming soft opening. When completed, the 100-hectare arts compound is expected to include an opera house, an enormous state-of-the-art amphitheatre, a cinema/theatre, souk, bookshop and beachfront, in addition to the offices of theatre, music and fine arts organisations.

QMA is to begin construction on the Jean Nouvel-designed Qatar National Museum this autumn, aiming for a 2013 opening. With 40,000 square-metres of exhibition space, it will be larger than the MIA. Also next year, production is set to begin on Al Noor Film Fund's $150m epic on the life of the Prophet Mohammad.

For now, though, Doha residents and visitors are focusing on other films, as they dust off their tuxedos and ready themselves for the red carpet.

originally ran in 25 Oct 2010, The National, www.thenational.ae

Reality TV show spotlights Arab science stars

DOHA // The pan-Arab reality show Stars of Science named its 16 second-season finalists on Sunday night, setting the stage for a six-week battle for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money and a spot among the top young innovators in the region.

The finalists hail from Algeria, Oman, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar and beyond. They tinker with diesel engines and robot joints, motorised trolleys and air-conditioned clothes, devising new approaches to common yet complex problems and hoping to make their names and inspire others.

Fouad Mrad, a long-time engineering professor at the American University of Beirut and one of the show's two permanent jurors, said: "This is a lifetime opportunity and these innovators are very anxious, hoping to prove to the world that their idea is valid, is scientifically sound and can be packaged into something useful to society. As long as they work hard, stay on track and are committed to their goal, we should see an exciting competition."

The Qatar Foundation-produced Stars of Science is shown in 15 countries and aims to promote education and interest in science and technology in the Arab region. An initiative of Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser Al Misnad, the wife of the Qatari emir, the show is filmed in Qatar Science and Technology Park and receives support from the universities of Education City.

The winner receives US$300,000 (Dh1.1million), second place $150,000, third place $100,000 and fourth $50,000. The first season, which ran in the spring 2009, was won by Bassam Jalgha, a Lebanese mechanical engineer who created "Dozan", an automated tuning device for stringed instruments.

The current season began on October 3 and will end with on November 28. During its first few weeks, the show went from Tunis to Cairo to Jeddah to Doha, whittling 7,000 applicants, including Eric Suleiman, whose project involved simplifying cable installation, down to 125 semi-finalists and then to 16.

In the coming episodes they will be judged on proof-of-concept, engineering, design and marketing as their numbers drop to four for the live 90-minute finale. Starting October 25, the show will also broadcast daily 30-minute episodes from Monday to Saturday, following the progress of each project.

Some of the innovators from the first season are already reaping rewards. One of last year's finalists, the Algerian computer engineer Wahiba Chair developed a calorie-counting software for the iPhone that scans barcodes and retrieves health information. Her application CarrotLines launched in June. Ms Chair says the show helped her improve the design and gave her the confidence and credibility to pursue her idea.

Mazen Salah from Jordan, also a finalist last season, developed Staticap, a non-rotating hubcap for cars that can display a team logo, flag, or whatever the owner would like. "In today's world the need for uniqueness and related self-expression has never been stronger," he said. "StatiCap fulfills this need."

Mr Salah received his patent earlier this year, launched his company in August and aims to exhibit at the Riyadh Motor Show in December.

This year's finalists include Abdullah Abou Zeid, of Egypt, who co-invented a new robot rotational joint; Ahmad al Khater, a Qatari who devised a means to harness magnetic energy to use as power; and Maha al Amro of Saudi Arabia, who developed an air-conditioning vest for outdoor workers.

This season Stars of Science added guest jury members from each of the countries visited during the tour for contestants. Suaad al Shamsi served as a juror at the Al Ain stop. She said: "I was looking for projects that don't exist on the market, creative ideas and the ability to implement the idea during the programme period."

Though no Emiratis are among this season's finalists, Ms al Shamsi sees an increase in scientific inquiry in the UAE, thanks to the country's of new universities, Masdar City, and the Sheikh Rashed and Al Owais scientific awards.

For Mr Mrad, the show is a beacon of light. He said he has long been "disappointed in what we do with our research, who we do research for, who uses our outcomes".

"When I saw the opportunity, this vision of QF [Qatar Foundation], I felt, 'My God, this is a vehicle I'd like to be a part of.' And I'd like to drive, not just be a passenger, and have a say in how it goes," he said.

Arab countries mostly lack the technology networks and hubs that foster progressive thinking and innovation, according to Mr Mrad. This is crucial, he said, because technology is key to developing a civilisation.

"I don't believe any such programme by itself is going to be able to change the economics or the cycle," he said.

"But all of these viewers will see and believe, 'Yes, we can take our ideas and transform them into useful products, and we can apply what we learn in school.'"

originally ran in the National, www.thenational.ae


Prison Time in Iran

By David Lepeska
The National's weekly Review magazine, Oct 2010

Most of us can’t imagine what it’s like to be Shane Bauer or Josh Fattal, the American hikers stuck for more than a year in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.

But for Roxana Saberi the experience is all too real. An Iranian- American journalist, she’d been living in Tehran six years when Iranian intelligence agents burst into her apartment on January 31, 2009.

They threw her into a car and, after hours of questioning, drove her to Evin and deposited her into a 7’ X 9’ cell with blankets for a bed and the screams of unseen prison-mates for company. During all-day interrogation sessions, her questioners pushed her to “cooperate,” or rather, admit she’d been working as a spy.

“They’re threatening you with the death penalty, life in prison, or finding and harming your family,” she said. “When you’re in that situation every threat is very real. They make you believe they have complete power of your life. Nobody knows where you are, and you know the history of Evin prison.”

She spent 100 days there, but during a recent interview at Doha’s Grand Hyatt hotel, looked none the worse for wear. Elegant and poised, the 33-year-old Saberi retains the ivory skin and mile-high cheekbones of a beauty queen (a former Miss North Dakota, she was among ten finalists in the 1998 Miss America pageant).

After earning two master’s degrees, including one from Cambridge, she moved to her father’s homeland in 2003. She’d carved out a good life in Tehran – freelancing for the BBC and National Public Radio, writing a book about modern Iran and dating a highly regarded Iranian Kurd filmmaker – before the trip to Evin. Her book about the experience, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran, has received mostly positive notices since it was released in March.

Saberi’s Doha visit was organised by her alma mater, Northwestern University, to meet journalism students at NU-Qatar and deliver a lecture about human rights and Iran. On her first trip back to the region, she felt safe because she was “being looked after.” Sitting in the Hyatt's spacious atrium, she spoke openly and comfortably about her ordeal.

“I gave in pretty early,” Saberi admitted with a sheepish grin. After two days at Evin she confessed, falsely, to spying for the CIA. “I was so ashamed. I thought why couldn’t I at least put up more of a fight.”

Transferred to another cell, Saberi met Silva Harotonian, an Iranian-Armenian health worker who had refused to fold for her interrogators. Saberi became disgusted with herself and decided to speak the truth. “‘What kind of life do I want to live?’” she recalled asking herself at the time. “‘The life in which I know what I did is right.’”

She recanted her confession and later defied her bazju, or lead interrogator, but not before being allowed a phone call to her parents. She told her father she’d been detained for possessing alcohol, as directed by her keepers. Suspicious, he contacted the press, and within days Saberi became a minor international cause celebre: supportive stories appeared on the BBC, The New York Times and elsewhere; the president of the European Union requested proper treatment; the US State Department called for her release. Yet at the end of a classic Iranian “show trial,” she was convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison. It was just the push she needed.

Saberi, realising she would never get justice, found a new sense of purpose. She appealed her sentence and began a hunger strike. After nine days without meals, she stopped adding sugar to her water.

“Mentally everything’s a little shady and you can’t concentrate and you just wait for the days to pass by,” she said of her two weeks without food. On May 11 her sentence was suspended and she was released, frail and 15 pounds lighter. “What helped me was the feeling of defiance.”

That feeling motivates her work today, as a campaigner for human rights and media freedom. She’s confident the media coverage played a key role in her eventual release, just as international support led to the suspension, last month, of the stoning sentence for Iranian widow Sakineh Mohammadi.

“Even if the international outcry-- governments, organisations, also individuals – doesn’t always lead to the release of prisoners,” she said, “it does at least raise awareness about what is happening and empowers those people in prison and helps them tolerate the harsh conditions.”

Due to her severe treatment, Saberi understood the anger and frustration of the protesters that filled the streets of Tehran a month after her release, in the wake of the contested presidential election.

“I think that the people in power have lost a lot of legitimacy for much of the population,” she said. Because of Iran’s armies of informed, tech-savvy youth and the leadership’s internal bickering, Saberi sees change as “inevitable.” “I think the majority want a democratic government that respects human rights.”

Yet the regime is said to regularly deny those rights. Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of sexual assault, beatings, torture and other forms of abuse in Iran’s prisons. Reporters without Borders recently expressed concern that Iranian prosecutors will request the death penalty for two leading Irani- an bloggers who have been in Evin prison for two years.

And then there’s Fattal and Bauer. The third American hiker, Sarah Shourd, was released from Evin last month after the sultan of Oman took care of her $500,000 bail. Shourd maintains she’s only “one-third free” because her fiancé and friend remain in Evin.

“She is in a very sensitive position because the Iranian authorities are paying attention to what she says,”
said Saberi, who directed the interested to visit www.freethehikers.org.

With the right kind of international support, Fattal and Bauer, like Saberi, might soon be able to appreciate the everyday freedoms most of us take for granted. “To make a phone call when I want,” said Saberi, thinking of things that feel new and precious to her post-Evin, “to eat when I want, to eat what I want, to put my head on a pillow, to turn off the lights at night, to write an email, to surf the internet, to read what I want, to go jogging in the streets, to talk about what happened to me and what’s happened to so many others.”

an edited version appeared in The National's Review, on Oct 1, 2010, www.thenational.ae


Qataris return majlis to its roots

DOHA // The majlis has played a central role in Arab society since pre-Islamic times, when groups of tribal elders would sit and discuss important community concerns and make decisions. In Qatar, though, the majlis in recent decades has become more of a simple social gathering or informal business meeting than an earnest consultation.

Now a handful of young Qatari men and women are returning this tradition to its roots, taking up urgent social and political issues and adding a dash of activism and diplomacy.

“There is a need to have serious discussion about some topics here in Qatar,” said Hamad al Ibrahim, 30, who, along with his brother, hosts a majlis where topics of debate have included freedom of speech, democracy and Islamism. “What we are trying to do is get people to think about their current situation.”

An Arabic term meaning “a place of sitting”, the majlis is an integral Ramadan tradition, in part because the Prophet Mohammed consulted regularly with an inner circle of friends and advisers.

In the centuries that followed, majlises spread across the Muslim world. Today it is the name for parliaments in Iran, the Maldives, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and other countries.

On any given day a dozen or so majlises take place across Qatar. Few are as open and thoughtful as the al Ibrahims’, which meets every Saturday and holds a monthly discussion on a pressing issue.

Guest speakers have included David Kerr, the former head of Sidra Medical Centre and now a healthcare adviser to the British prime minister, David Cameron, and Tim Sebastian, host of the BBC’s Doha Debates.

On a recent Saturday in a warm, carpeted space on the edge of Doha, a dozen Qataris and a few guests sat on couches set against walls covered with striped wallpaper. A visitor spoke of the floods in Pakistan: the displaced, the lethargic government response, the looming starvation.

At the majlis a week earlier, the al Ibrahims asked members for donations for Pakistani flood relief, to be handed in at the next majlis. In the first day they received commitments totalling 40,000 Qatari riyals (Dh40,360).

“This is the worst disaster in Pakistani history,” said Abdul Ghaffar Aziz, an official with Al Khidmat Foundation, the charitable arm of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s oldest Islamic political party.

Al Khidmat is building camps for the displaced and providing food, clothing and medical attention. By the end of Mr al Ghaffar’s talk the majlis had raised more than 265,000 riyals.

“People really contributed generously,” said Mr al Ibrahim, who works as an analyst at Rand-Qatar Policy Institute. “It’s one of the things that we are proud we could achieve.”

Majlis members feel the same way. “This is good for Qataris,” said Jaber al Mosallam, 23, referring to the al Ibrahim majlis.

At his own family majlis, which Mr al Mosallam attends almost nightly, the talk is of business, football, the latest news. Some issues remain taboo. “It’s not that you’re scared of it, but it’s very difficult to talk about certain issues,” Mr al Mosallam, who works at Qatar Petroleum, said. “Honesty has a price.”

Maryah al Dafa is trying to do something good as well. Returning to Doha last year after getting her master’s in the United Kingdom, she launched what most believe is the first women’s majlis in Qatar.

“We needed a place to vent and talk about anything, from girly issues to politics and other topics,” said Ms al Dafa, 24, the daughter of a Qatari diplomat. Members of her majlis include a handful of US citizens and other westerners. For Ms al Dafa, the majlis is as much about cultural exchange as it is about expressing opinions and discussing life in Qatar.

“It’s comfortable but also critical – of everything, even ourselves,” she added. “Even if you don’t say anything you leave having heard three to four views on society in Qatar or politics in the United States.”

Such discussions represent a shift, according to Hiba Khodr. A visiting fellow at the Doha branch of the Brookings Institution in Washington, she has studied majlises in the Gulf.

“In Kuwait they are more organised, more involved in political discussions and policy making,” Ms Kodhr said, adding that in Kuwait there are several women’s and even mixed-gender diwaniyat, as they are called. In Bahrain, majlises are similarly open.

“Here [in Qatar] people don’t talk about these issues,” Ms Khodr said. “They simply don’t speak politics, at least not yet.”

This reluctance to talk politics is what inspired Ms al Dafa to carve out a space for real discussion. “There’s only, what, 300,000 Qataris, and most of them are apathetic about all this,” Ms al Dafa said. “I’m not a revolutionary, but it’s about being critical and constructive and making positive change.”

Many Qataris believe the country’s current leadership has allowed for greater openness. They point to mixed-gender higher learning at Education City and thoughtful public discussion on the Doha Debates. “The more educated people get, the more willing they are to break boundaries and express themselves,” Hassan al Ibrahim said.

His brother Hamad is hopeful that a new generation will be perfectly comfortable talking politics, free speech, and the direction of Islamic society in the modern world. For now, he just wants to get the ball rolling.

“In order to change people’s mentality it takes some time,” he said. “I think if we can replicate this in more majlises, it would be great.”

originally appeared in the 10 Sept 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae


Glittering Gulf states' dark labor secret

By David Lepeska
Christian Science Monitor

Doha, Qatar: The rise of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is a now-familiar tale. Tiny societies of pearl divers, coastal merchants, and nomadic Bedouin were transformed in the last half of the 20th century by oil and natural-gas wealth. Sparkling office towers and hotels sprang into the muggy air, the monarchs that rule these tiny emirates became bywords for financial excess, and newspapers described the region's economic "miracle."

Now, countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are seeking to polish all that glitter, spending hundreds of millions on universities in association with the likes of Harvard and on museums with organizations like France's famed Louvre.

But as they do so, one fact about their astonishing economic success has remained largely unchanged: The vast majority of the workers who have built these states are foreigners who are often exploited, rarely protected by local laws, and frequently return home after years of work as poor as when they got here. Promises have been made in recent years to protect the migrants, but labor advocates say millions are still being abused.

"It's breathtaking hypocrisy," says Azfar Khan, with the International Labor Organization (ILO). "They flout the most basic laws protecting the rights of workers."

Tiny Qatar is just one of the examples. The leading exporter of liquid natural gas is smaller than Connecticut, but state-funded Al Jazeera News is a powerful regional voice, and Education City, built in association with Georgetown, Northwestern, and four other US universities, is seen as a beacon of progress for the Arab world.

But not far from the futuristic campus, Rajan Sapkota and many like him are working in conditions that activists liken to indentured servitude.

The young Nepali shares a room with nine of his countrymen. More than 140 Nepali laborers have died in Qatar this year, according to the Safety Awareness Center, which tracks deaths among Nepalis. And in a country where the average wage for citizens is $83,000 per year, the world's highest, according to the International Monetary Fund, he is paid about 60 cents an hour.

Mr. Sapkota can't quit or leave as his boss has taken his passport. "Work here is not so good," said Sapkota, his eyes heavy-lidded after a 12-hour workday in 116-degree F. heat. "Sometimes we get tired and thirsty; it is very hot here."

So hot that leading Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi called for construction in Gulf states to be halted for Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims fast in the daytime.

Because it is illegal in these countries to consume food or water in public during daylight hours during Ramadan, construction workers are compelled to fast, to a certain extent.

The number of expatriate workers in the Gulf has nearly doubled, from close to 9 million in 1990 to 17 million today. In Qatar and the UAE, foreign workers are more than 90 percent of the workforce.

In recent years, workers in Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE have protested conditions, with many complaints stemming from the system of kafallah: Foreign workers are sponsored by an employer and barred from changing jobs, leaving the country, or renting a home without his approval. A 2009 State Department report said the law leads to "forced labor activities and slave-like conditions."

Qatar has created the National Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons and boosted labor camp inspections. The UAE moved to improve conditions and Kuwait announced a reform of labor laws. Yet Kuwait's new minimum wage for laborers of about $209 per month excludes 500,000-plus domestic workers.

"Reforms often encounter stiff resistance from employers fearing higher costs and fewer entitlements, labor brokers profiting off a poorly regulated system, and government officials who view migrants as a security threat," Human Rights Watch wrote in May.

"We must ensure that the laws are enforced strictly and fairly," says Hasan al-Mohannadi, head of Qatar's Permanent Population Committee. Yet Qatari sponsors still hold workers' passports, despite a prohibition, and laborers regularly work more than the legal limit of 10 hours a day.

"The UAE and Qatar have definitely regressed," says the ILO's Mr. Khan.

For Nepalis in Qatar, the situation is bleak. Most take high-interest loans to pay a recruiter $2,000 for a visa and a job. For Bharat Bika, a father of four, his $216 monthly salary is inadequate. "It is so difficult to pay my loan," said Bika, who still owes more than $1,400 after a year. "I'm not sure I'm going to be able to do it."

Thousands of workers in the UAE have gone unpaid for six months or more because indebted employers fled the country. In Kuwait, activists say worker suicides are common. In Qatar, activists say deaths among the migrant Nepali workforce are rising. "They do not have enough doctors and the health care is extremely poor," said Radha Krishna Deo, president of the Safety Awareness Center.

Qatar says it plans to build three clinics and two health centers for male laborers. "They have health problems that are difficult to address and they impose problems with their huge demand on hospitals here," said Jamal Khanji, of the Supreme Council of Health.

Yet Qatar's progressive reputation may suffer as abuses continue and the worker population grows. "The world community has to bring pressure on the governments to redress the situation," said Khan. "You can only fool people so many times."

originally ran in Sept 3, 2010, Christian Science Monitor, with photo:


Cultural exchange program smashes stereotypes on both sides of divide

By David Lepeska
The National, Aug 2010

DOHA // “Arabs are dangerous" -- that's what high-school pupil Leah Ogawa heard as her Arabic-language class was preparing for a spring break trip to the Gulf.

“Some kids in our school were saying ‘Be careful!’ when we were going to Qatar,” recalled Ms Ogawa, 17, a senior at Boston Arts Academy. “Because of 9/11, many people have negative images of Arabs.”

In the end, she had no reason to be nervous about meeting her Qatari counterparts. “They are so nice,” she said. “I got close to most of them.”

As the controversial leader of a proposed Islamic centre near where the World Trade Center once stood in New York City visits Doha on a US-backed diplomatic tour, the success of a less touted cultural exchange program highlights the possibility for smashing stereotypes and building bridges between the the West and the Arab world.

“I was expecting that they weren’t going to be open to us, but that was one of the shocking things I discovered there,” said Jawahar al Mal, 16, a senior at Al Bayam Independent Secondary School for Girls, referring to a Qatar Foundation International (QFI)-backed trip a couple dozen Qatari students took to the US last month. “They were very open to our religion, treating us like close friends, not the way the movies portray.”

Founded in Washington in 2007, QFI is one of only a handful of Gulf nonprofits based in the West. Others include the Mohammed bin Issa Foundation in London and the Washington-based Oasis Foundation.

Though independent, it is part of an effort by the Qatar Foundation, its main backer, to foster understanding and facilitate international collaboration through education, health, technology and community-service initiatives.

QFI’s main initiative is its Arabic-language and culture program, which supports Arabic courses in US high schools – providing funding for qualified teachers, books and computer labs, and developing an Arabic-language teacher-training program.

The course incorporates traditions, holidays, cuisine and bits of religion. “We started this with a bit of trepidation. We were not sure how well it would be received,” the QFI’s executive director, Maggie Salem, said in a recent interview.

The ongoing storm over the proposed Islamic community centre has some American politicians and commentators denouncing Muslims just as the centre’s leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, passes through the Gulf on a mission funded by the US State Department. He is in Qatar this week.

But the timing of QFI’s Arabic programme could hardly be better. The number of US college students studying in Arabic-speaking countries jumped six-fold from 2002 to 2007, according to the Institute of International Education.

“We’re fighting wars there, there’s a lot of interaction with the region that kids can’t ignore,” said Ms Salem. “We would love to create a generation of fluent 18-year-olds, but what we’d like even better is if they appreciated something about the richness of the people and the culture.”

They seem headed in the right direction. Students at Boston Arts Academy and Washington Latin High School shower praises on QFI’s Arabic language pilot programme, launched last year.

“The Arabic programme in my school was phenomenal,” said Damon Mallory, a recent graduate of Boston Arts Academy. His class saw the film Amreeka, went to an Arabia exhibit at a Boston museum and attended a concert by the Palestinian rap group DAM. “The more I engaged myself into this new culture,” he said, “I fell in love with it.”

His schoolmate had a similar experience. “The programme was amazing,” said Ms Ogawa. “I just enjoyed everything that we did.”

A highlight was the April trip to Qatar to meet students at their sister schools. “Meeting the Qataris was by far the best thing I have done,” said Mr Mallory. “I have made life-long friends, and even best friends.”

During the US students’ visit a Qatari teacher suggested a US trip for his students. Within a couple weeks, the QFI chairman, Sheikh Jassim bin Abdulazia al Thani, had approved the idea. By July, the Qatari students were on their way to the US.

The 10-day tour included visits to the American capital and the Nasa Space Center and a beach clean-up in Florida. But the Qataris most enjoyed spending time with American students. “If they wanted to ask us about anything, we answered them; if we wanted to ask them, we did,” said Essa al Malki, 15, a sophomore at Doha Independent School for Boys. “There was no boundaries between us. It was very comfortable.”

Mr Mallory and his new friend Fahad al Nahdi, a senior at Doha Independent School, hope to build on the connection established this summer. They are developing their own QFI initiative, an online network and social forum for students that aims to improve relations between cultures, starting with the Arab and American communities.

“Damon and I fell in love with what QFI was doing and wanted to get involved,” said Mr al Nahdi. After receiving approval from QFI, they submitted their idea – called QFI Step-Up – to the Clinton Global Initiative for funding.

“We believe that it is important to display to the world how alike we are,” said Mr Mallory, “as opposed to how the media present us to each other.”

edited version ran in the 27 Aug 2010 The National ( www.thenational.ae)


Dongria Dodge Vedanta Dig

Great news from India this week, where Environmental Minister Jairam Ramesh rejected the planned alumina mine of London-based mining giant Vedanta resources on the basis that it represented an existential threat to the local Dongria Kondh tribe.

Activists and journalists have been saying as much for years, including yours truly -- here's a story I wrote about the the Dongria's love for Niyamgiri just over a year ago.

Ramesh's decision suggests that Delhi may be starting to realize that all development is not good development, and that major extraction projects like the Niyamgiri mine often lead to more recruits for the Maoists that have been waging a rebellion across the Indian heartland for decades, but with greater intensity of late. No surprise, however, to find that Congress is already using the Dongria victory for political mileage.


A Ramadan where old meets new

DOHA // This is not your grandfather’s Ramadan.

Thousands of visitors strolled through the Doha Summer Fun Park one evening this week, stopping to nibble on cotton candy and ice cream, check out some Islam-themed television serials or watch their children smash into each other on bumper cars.

Organised each year by the Qatar Tourism Authority, the amusement park is larger than ever in 2010, and starting this year, has been extended to include Ramadan and Eid.

It is all part of a new, more festive commemoration of the holy month.

“When I was little we played simple games for Ramadan, or packed up a picnic and went to the beach,” said Hamad Salman, a Doha native and marketing executive for Qatar Petroleum. He had come to the fun park with his teenage son and daughter for the second time, and planned to come again.

“This is much better,” added Salman, looking around the colourful, brightly lit, 12,000 square metre space, children shouting and laughing as they were spun around, up and down. “All these games and rides make a big difference.”

Droves of Qataris and other Doha residents attend similarly lively affairs late into the night across the city, from malls to hotels to cultural centres. Gondolania, the indoor amusement park at Villaggio mall, has extended its opening hours past 2am, so kids can bowl and ride go-karts and roller coasters late into the night.

Qatar’s only water park is set to open its doors in the coming weeks, and host Ramadan events. Fanar, the Qatar Islamic Cultural Centre, has organised an evening to teach expatriates more about Ramadan and its traditions this weekend.

Doha’s four- and five-star hotels are hosting lavish nightly iftar and suhoor events, some with Egyptian dancers, Lebanese bands, henna tattoos, falconry exhibitions and up to 50 dishes for tasting. As part of its Ramadan celebrations, the W Hotel Doha is giving away airline tickets that enable the holder to fly anywhere in the world on Qatar Airways.

The fun park is one of the more popular events, with some 4,000 nightly visitors to the cavernous Doha Exhibition Centre. “Breaking away from past events, which were held in shopping malls, Doha Summer Fun Park takes full advantage of the space,” said Lahdan al Mohannadi, head of internal exhibitions at the Qatar Tourism Auhtority and lead organiser of the fun park. “In addition, this year the event is free for all.”

Buoyant Arab and carnival music fills the space. At one end is a souk, filled with shops offering Yemeni honey, leather purses, perfumes, jewellery and more. At the other a food court offers doughnuts, hot dogs, pizza, fried chicken, and shawarma. In between are a couple of dozen rides, including a choo-choo train and caterpillar coaster for toddlers, and dodgems, video games and a dozen more active rides for the bigger kids.

The al Mannai brothers – Hamad and Ahmed, 10, and Mohammad, 13 – enjoyed the Tilt-a-Whirl so much they got right back on and did it again. “That was a lot of fun,” said Mohammed as the trio walked away dizzily.

These events, most of which aim to entertain the whole family, may be bringing a sense of community back to Ramadan in Qatar. “We’ve lost some of our traditions, of course,” said Moza al Malki.

A family therapist and commentator, she has seen Ramadan change several times in recent decades, from more to less strict and back again. “But nowadays we are going back to some of these old traditions.”

For the first couple weeks after the fun park opened, on-stage performances included clowns, magic shows and games. Starting with Ramadan, the stage has been re-made into a traditional Qatari house with garden, and programming includes a series of plays, a theatre group performing folklore tales and a Syrian band playing traditional music.

“Several new activities were added to instill traditional values during the holy month,” said Mr al Mohannadi. The fun park and Doha’s Heritage Village are both hosting Garangou (also known as Karankou) events for families.

Garangou is a traditional Gulf children’s festival held on the 14th day of Ramadan. Children will play heritage games and sing traditional songs, along with other activities and competitions.

“We are staying together more, families going out together,” said al Malki. “Also generosity, giving food to our neighbours, this is also returning.”

In Al Mansoura, on the edge of Doha, the W Hotel Doha and the Islamic Bank of Qatar have set up an air-conditioned tent to provide iftar to the underprivileged.

More than 150 male labourers turn up daily to break their fast with dates, laban, fruits, rice, bread, chicken and lamb.

“These are the people that really need the full meal,” said a spokesperson for Islamic Bank of Qatar, which has done the charity tent for three years running. “A lot of the staff from the bank also volunteer – everybody pitches in.”

Back at the Doha Exhibition Centre, Mr Salman watched his children on the City Hopper ride. “Ready to come down yet?” he shouted to his son, whizzing past overhead.

The teenager smiled and shook his head.

Ran with photos in the 20 August 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae

"Ground Zero mosque" imam readies for Gulf mission

Doha// The furore over a planned Islamic centre just blocks from Ground Zero in New York City mounted as the imam behind the proposal readies for a US-backed diplomatic mission to the Gulf.

As Feisal Abdul Rauf prepares to visit Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE on a State Department-sponsored trip, debate is raging in the US about whether he is moderate enough to explain American views of Islam to the world.

“This radical is a terrible choice to be one of the faces of our country overseas,” two Republican Party members of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Peter King of New York, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Mr Rauf’s speaking tour was planned before the proposed Islamic centre controversy erupted. It was organised as part of the President Barack Obama’s effort to improve America’s relations with the Muslim world.

Officials at the US State Department have lauded the imam’s record of moderation, noting that he has participated in two previous diplomatic tours, including one during the administration of George W Bush. PJ Crowley, a State Department spokesman, said Mr Rauf would “discuss Muslim life in America and promote religious tolerance” during the visit. Exact dates and venues have not been announced.

The controversy erupted in May when the proposed $120 million (Dh440.7m) Islamic cultural centre, to be located three blocks from the site of the felled World Trade Center towers, received approval from a local community board. In addition to a domed prayer space, the facility is to include a 500-seat theatre, culinary school, swimming pool, library and art studios.

Opponents of the complex complain that it is a symbolic victory for the September 11 hijackers.

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the US House of Representatives, has compared supporters of the facility to Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League, which says it fights “anti-Semitism and all former of bigotry”, worries the mosque “will cause some [9/11] victims more pain”.

Proponents point out that Mr Rauf, who holds a physics degree from Columbia University, is a follower of the moderate Sufi form of Islam and has a reputation for attempting to build interfaith ties with Christian and Jewish groups. He also set up the Cordoba Initiative in 2004 to improve western relations with the Islamic world.

Calling it a “weapon of mass construction”, talk show host Stephen Colbert lampooned the politically conservative perspective, saying, “Every permit granted to a mosque is one denied to an American house of worship – a mall.”

Mr Rauf, who has been barred by the State Department from using government-funded travel to solicit financial support for the project, has said he sees the planned mosque as a way “to amplify the moderate voices that reject terrorism and seek mutual understanding and respect with all faiths”.

Mr Obama voiced support for the mosque project during the annual White House Ramadan dinner on Aug 11. A week earlier, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered a speech in support of Mr Rauf’s plan.

The president later clarified his comments, suggesting that while Muslims have the right to build a house of worship, it did not mean that building a mosque near Ground Zero was the right thing to do.

Abdulaziz Al Mohannadi, an engineering student at Texas A&M University-Qatar, thought Mr Rauf might be able to provide an answer to a nagging question for many Gulf natives: what do Americans think of Muslims and Islam?

“When we think of America we only get ideas from the media, from news and the movies,” he said. “To have a true Muslim-American come to us and explain how Americans see Muslims, how they interpret us in their country, that would be great.”

originally ran in 19 August 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae


Qatar's extraordinary boom

DOHA // It's probably time to add Qatar to the list of great modern-day growth stories.

Its GDP and population have doubled since 2004, and as of June, there were 18,000 buildings under construction – more than one for every 100 people in the country.

Most of that construction is taking place in Doha, which has exploded from a population of 500,000 people in 2004 to 1.3 million today, blossoming from a small, quiet burg to a buzzing, polyglot city of business, research and progressive thinking.

“The rate of growth in Doha is nothing short of extraordinary,” said Robert Puentes, an urban growth analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, adding that no major American city had ever grown at this pace.

Labourers, scientists, academics, designers and financiers have come knocking. According to the World Population Bureau, Qatar’s net migration rate of nearly 10 per cent is nearly double those of its nearest competitors – Bahrain, Singapore and the UAE.

As its natural-gas fuelled economy zips along – one of the world’s fastest growing at an estimated growth rate of 16 per cent this year – the good times are likely to continue for Qatar.

“Its incredible, but it’s expected in Qatar,” said Hatem Samman, the head of Booz & Company’s Ideation Centre, a thinktank based in Dubai.

“The trend for Qatar is headed in the right direction, given that there is economic and population growth to rival any country in the world,” he said.

Masraf al Rayan, a financial analyst, estimates Qatar’s population will reach 2 million by 2013, which means Doha will grow by an additional 20 per cent in the next three years.

This explains the capital’s construction boom, which includes a major airport, the US$20 billion (Dh73.45bn) Pearl Qatar residential and retail development, the $5.5bn Musheireb urban-renewal project downtown and the $14bn Lusail City residential and commercial waterfront development. The number of hotel rooms in Doha is set to double in the next two years even as new financial centres, exhibition facilities and housing complexes appear.

Landlords might argue the city has enough housing. The number of units has increased by nearly 150 per cent since 2004, outpacing the population boom. Doha has become a tenants’ market, with rents down 50 per cent or more in the past 18 months, including 11 per cent in the first quarter of this year, according to Asteco, the property advisory firm.

Ibrahim Ibrahim, an economic adviser to the Qatari government, expects economic expansion to slow by more than half in the next two years as major energy and infrastructure projects are completed and tens of thousands of labourers return home.

“Part of this new population will eventually leave, in the short term,” said Mr Samman. “But still many people are going to stay, maybe two thirds will stay and it should be fine.”

One government estimate has the country’s population growing as little as 500,000 by 2030.

Mr Puentes said, “Unless a comprehensive approach is taken to managing growth there is certainly a risk of overbuilding.” He spoke of the problems the vacation hotspot of Las Vegas and other American cities have faced because of a glut of housing in the economic downturn.

“There are more vacant homes for sale now than at any time in our nation’s history,” he said, referring to the US. “This is a problem because it can breed crime and disorder, and also accelerate a process of further disinvestment from certain neighbourhoods.”

He urged Qatari leaders to find a way to make vacant properties productive and also to be mindful of carbon reduction and the demands of climate change.

“The world economy is rapidly moving away from carbon-based fuels and towards new sources of energy,” he said.

For Qatar, this would mean altering construction and building methods, as in other countries, but also great economic diversification. This is not news to Qatari leaders.

Qatar’s domestic expansion is in line with its rising international profile. It is the world leader in exports of liquid natural gas, but it also wields the increasing reach and influence of al Jazeera TV and promotes peace, education and charity via diplomatic conferences and the Qatar Foundation.

Some might argue Doha has wrestled the title of world’s fastest growing city from Dubai. But Mr Puentes sees the regional centres as allies.

“A co-operative network would make sense,” he said. “They must remember that they operate in a global marketplace. Metros that are able to grow and attract globally-connected, high-value service firms can access, and benefit from, a worldwide array of customers, workers, and contracted services, ultimately boosting quality growth at home.”

originally appeared in the 13 Aug 2010 The National.


Qatar's healthcare crisis

DOHA // Feeling ill? You might not want to be in Qatar.

The country has about 1.4 hospital beds for every 1,000 people – the lowest total in the GCC, one-fifth as many as Turkmenistan and Slovakia and fewer than poor countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“It’s not a good situation,” said Moza al Malki, a writer and family therapist. “Sometimes people go to be hospitalised and they can’t find an open bed.”

Despite a spike in government spending and the hiring of thousands of health-care workers, Qatar’s few hospitals and clinics are under severe strain because of a tripling of the population in the past dozen years.

“This huge increase in the population has put a huge load on our public health facilities,” said Jamal Khanji, head of the government’s medical licensing department. “There is a definite need for expansion, and that expansion is happening.”

Qatar has four public and five private hospitals, but the lynchpin is Hamad Medical Centre. The country’s primary health facility, it receives more than 80 per cent of public health-care spending.

Since 1999, that spending has risen from QR850 million (Dh858m) to QR4.3 billion, and the number of both nurses and doctors has tripled. Yet no major new health facilities have opened since 2004, and relative to population, the numbers of doctors, dentists, nurses and pharmacists fell anywhere from 15 per cent to 40 per cent during the past five years.

On a recent afternoon in Hamad’s emergency room, dozens of workers sat waiting for medical attention. Several limped, two held their stomachs and one held a bandage to his bleeding face.

Hamad’s bed occupancy rate, in the low 70s a decade ago, has hovered around 90 per cent for two years. A March study from the University of Michigan Health System found that occupancy rates above 80 per cent increase the risk of in-patient death by nearly six per cent.

Qatar’s foetal death rate, at 4.8 per 1,000 births in 2005, is now near eight per thousand, its highest in a decade. This is similar to rates in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Many residents have turned to pricey private providers or travel outside Qatar for health care, abandoning essentially free services at government-run facilities. Zakia Ali Malallah, a Qatari poet and commentator, recently wrote a column in the local Arabic language daily Al Watan about her three-hour wait to see a doctor at Hamad, vowing to never return.

And when Ms al Malki’s son was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident, her family sent him to Germany for treatment despite the high costs. “Nobody trusts Hamad now,” she said. “Even if I had to sell my house I would’ve sent him.”

The government is spending billions to alter that mindset. Set to come online in the next few years are paediatric and orthopaedic hospitals, a cardiac surgery centre and, at a cost of US$3 billion (Dh11bn), the Sidra Medical Centre. Construction is to begin this year on three hospitals exclusively for male labourers.

Qatar’s 2.25 doctors per 1,000 people is higher than Germany (2) and the UK (1.8) and just below the United States (2.43), according to the Organisation for Economic Development’s annual health data report. Yet specialists are rare.

Qatar has one specialist in tropical medicine, for instance, despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of people who hail from and regularly return to the Philippines, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

The Supreme Council of Health recently gave all primary health centre employees a five-per-cent salary rise, in an effort to increase retention, and began a recruitment drive for doctors and other health staff from across Arab countries.

“If you look at the need for nurses in this country, I would like to tell you we are talking about thousands,” Mohammad Fathy Saoud, the president of Qatar Foundation, said at a recent event.

A new policy allows the wives and adult children of resident healthcare professionals (except physicians) to work as trainees until the fulfillment of the experience required for licensing.

Last month, the government created the Qatar Health Practitioners’ Council to monitor medical licensing. The new body appeared shortly after the licences of 32 general practitioners were revoked because they were found to be practising without medical doctorates. All were given three years to earn a post-graduate degree, failing which their clinics would be closed permanently.

Health-care staffers could also use certification training. As a western expatriate was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance this week, an emergency medical technician tried to take his blood pressure but failed to use the electronic machine properly. The machine constricted the patient’s arm until his fingers turned blue.

“The nurses and some other staff, we have to admit it, are mostly unqualified,” said Ms al Malki. “They don’t know what to do.”

That may be starting to change. Last month, the University of Calgary-Qatar graduated the country’s first university-trained nurses, the result of a programme nurtured by Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned.

“There is a huge move to improve health services here,” said Mr Khanji. “The leadership of this country wants Qatar to be a hub for medical services in the region and you cannot achieve that without competent staff, a high level of safety, and recognised accreditation systems.”

originally appeared in the july 9 2010 The National (www.thenational.ae)


Building an art culture from the sand up

Doha// Call it the fourth power.

Along with diplomacy, media and sport, Qatar is promoting culture as another facet of its budding regional and international reach, and as part of a long-term plan to diversify its economy.

This small, wealthy emirate has in recent years organised successful negotiations on Darfur and Lebanon, built Al Jazeera into a leading global news source and, after hosting the Asian Games in 2006, is now bidding to host the 2022 World Cup.

Spearheading its cultural ambitions is the Qatar Museum Authority. The brainchild of Sheikha Mayassa, the US-educated, 26-year-old daughter of Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani and his second wife Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser al Missned, QMA was created in December 2005 to oversee the museums of Qatar, rediscover the country's national heritage and transform Doha into a regional arts hub.

“They see culture as a leading aspect of their vision for the growth and development of this country,” Roger Mandle, QMA executive director since July 2008, said in a recent interview.

Their flagship is the Museum of Islamic Art, a $1.6 billion, I.M. Pei-designed, cubist masterpiece set on its own island across from the skyscrapers of Doha's West Bay. The museum's 700-object collection is worth hundreds of millions and includes an amulet of Mughal ruler Shah Jahan and a 9th century white earthenware bowl from Iraq.

In the 18 months since it opened the museum has had more than half a million visitors, or nearly a third of the country's total population. Half of them have been Qatari. “We've established a very high level of quality and expectations,” said Mr Mandle. “Out of that is a challenge, in that every building we build has to be that good or better.”

Up next is the Qatar National Museum, set to begin construction later this year. Designed by another Pritzker-winning architect, Jean Nouvel, the building reflects a strong sense of place: its shape mimics that of a desert rose, small, naturally occurring formations of gypsum found in arid deserts.

When the museum opens in 2013, interactive displays will detail Qatar's history, geology, and cultural life, from Bedouin times to seafaring and pearl diving, and from contemporary Qatar to the near future. At 40,000 sq metres, it will be larger than the Museum of Islamic Art.

QMA is looking to build a dozen new museums and expand its cultural education efforts. There has been talk of photography and contemporary art museums, but plans have yet to be finalised.

With the future museum designs Mr Mandle hopes to move away from international names and nurture young local talent. “They're not limiting their search to exclude well-known architects,” said Mr Mandle. “But surely one of our responsibilities is to promote artists, architects and designers from this region.”

Qatar has some company on that score. Abu Dhabi is spending billions to create its own cultural mecca on Saadiyat Island, with four museums and a performing arts center. Local versions of the Louvre and the Guggenheim designed by Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry, respectively, are set to open in 2013.

Wooing similar crowds, the two cities often appear headed in the same direction. Phillipe de Montebello, the former director of New York's Museum of Modern Art who is now a special adviser to New York University Abu Dhabi, has been in talks with Mr Mandle, an old friend, about contributing to QMA in some capacity.

And while Mr Mandle has often described his mission as “building a Smithsonian from the sand up,” the Smithsonian Institute, based in Washington, DC, is a key adviser to Abu Dhabi's Bedouin Heritage Museum.

Yet rather than competition, QMA sees opportunity. It has hosted two conferences for Gulf arts and cultural leaders. The most recent, held last month, was attended by cultural representatives from all GCC countries but Oman. “We've taken the initiative to invite our colleagues to discuss how we can work together, not how we're competing but how we can cooperate,” said Mr Mandle.

The group hopes to create a joint cultural calendar so events complement rather than collide and develop joint training and education programs.

“Anywhere in the world, you have the best result if people collaborate rather than compete,” said Antonia Carver, who has been working in the UAE art world for nearly a decade and will take over Art Dubai next month.

“There's a huge difference between Doha and Abu Dhabi,” she said. Doha has focused on heritage and Islamic art and uses the emir's family collections, says Ms Carver, while Abu Dhabi's museums reflect greater international influence.

She envisions Western tourists visiting museums in both Doha and Abu Dhabi on a single trip. “If they start to replicate then it's maybe self-defeating,” said Ms Carver.

One advantage Abu Dhabi might have over Doha is the proximity of major arts shows like Art Dubai and the Sharjah Bienniale. Still, despite the presence of highly regarded international universities like NYU and Carnegie Mellon, the two cities have few art schools, curators, writers and studios.

“Building a complex and beautiful building is nothing compared to connecting to the local population and building a vibrant arts community,” said Ms Carver. “That's infinitely more challenging.”

originally ran in the July 2, National, www.thenational.ae


Education City gives Qataris second chance

Doha// Muneera Al Qahtani spent most of high school socializing and enjoying herself. She was a “screw-up,” she says, and her teachers told her she was unlikely to amount to much.

But she summoned the will to graduate, zipped through a preparatory program and now earns top marks in engineering at Texas A&M University-Qatar. When she has time, the 20-year-old visits Doha secondary schools, using her turn-around as inspiration.

“You may not be a great student in high school, but you can change and do well in university if you work for it,” she told the students of Al Bayan Independent School for Girls this week. “Basically if you plant a seed it will grow.”

Nearly a decade old, Education City recruitment efforts are starting to bear fruit – sparking greater local interest, drawing young women into engineering and shaping Qatari success stories.

Over-achievement may be in Ms Al Qahtani's blood. Her father, Saad Saeed Al-Qahtani, grew up in a Bedouin community outside Doha and worked as a shepherd for years. When learning the alphabet, he used charcoal for a pen and stones for paper.

At 25, he started attending night school at the sixth grade-level. He graduated at the top of his class, received a government scholarship and earned his law degree at age 38, in 1993. Today Mr Al Qahtani is chief prosecutor in the government Office of Public Prosecution and the father of 13 children.

One of Ms Al-Qahtani's older brothers is a judge, while two others have law degrees. Two sisters have engineering degrees and work for RasGas.

Yet Muneera appeared to be the black sheep. Throughout primary and secondary school she rarely opened a book. “I saw school as a place where I go and play and see my friends,” she said. “It was like a picnic all day long.”

The shift began toward the end of her junior year, when she chose science as her future major. Her teachers advised her against it because it might too difficult for her. “That is the moment that told me there is no one who can say what I can and cannot do,” she said.

Around that time came another push. “My father told me, 'Either you choose a pencil or a broom,' which is basically you go study or you become a maid,” she recalled. “He said if you want respect you should finish, and I wanted that respect.”

She graduated and went into Qatar Foundation's Academic Bridge Program, which prepares students to attend Education City universities. She asked questions in class, visited her professors during office hours and dedicated herself to learning English.

“I started rebuilding myself, letting go of my childish ways,” she said. She scored so well on her English as a Foreign Language exam that Texas A&M invited her to attend a special engineering course for top students.

Last month, she completed the second year of a four-year program in electrical and computer engineering, a major she chose because she likes math and physics and wants to build something that helps people communicate.

She has become so committed to her field of study that she watches Japanese anime to steep herself in the culture of the world leader in electronics.

“She's quite enthusiastic, very interested and everything is done on time,” said Dr Hussein Al Nuwiri. The head of the electrical and computer engineering program, he taught Ms Al-Qahtani's classes in digital system design and computer architecture. “She's like an ideal student.”

She's not alone. In the US, Canada and most western countries, about 18 percent of undergraduate engineering students are female. At Texas A&M-Qatar it's more than twice that, at 40 percent.

The result is an empowering environment for young women. Though she wears the niqab, Ms Al-Qahtani has the confidence to speak up for herself and lead group discussions. When she heard last November that an Education City outreach program planned to visit her old school, she asked to come along.

She spoke about her father, her struggles as a student and her future career. “I want them to know they can do whatever they want,” she said of the high school students. “And I added a little flavour about the money you make as an engineer – most people like to hear that stuff.”

At least one observer came away impressed. “When we're speaking they hear us, but not completely,” said Maha Al Thani, recruitment and outreach coordinator at Education City. “When Muneera is speaking everybody is quiet and listening and giving their full attention.”

Ms Al-Qahtani has since come along on several other school visits, including the one to Al Bayan on Thursday.

“I thought her presentation was really good,” said Loolwa, a Qatari and Al Bayan 11th grader. “I'm definitely interested in Education City, I think I'll go to Carnegie Mellon and study business.”

Mariam, an 11th grader from Egypt, earns top marks at Al Bayan and wants to study medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. “I would love to go there,” she said. “But I'm worried I won't get in because of the competition.”

Other girls asked about the co-educational system at Education City. They had never taken classes with boys and their parents were unsure it was a good idea. “Don't worry, the boys are not always flirting and throwing their numbers,” Ms Al-Qahtani said. “They are here to study, just like you.”

She plans to earn a master's degree in engineering, then return to work for Qatar Foundation, which is sponsoring her education. For Ms Al Qahtani, it's an organisation that understands that dress is not destiny and that everyone deserves a chance.

“Whatever you wear, it does not say who you are,” she said. “If you don't go after your future, you won't get any respect.”

an edited version appeared in the 11 June 2010 National, www.thenational.ae


One organisation's efforts to bring orphans into the family

DOHA // Western-style adoption is prohibited within Islam, which allows only a guardianship that confers neither family name nor the legal status of a natural-born child. But Khaled Kamal wanted the orphans in his care to have the same rights and privileges that other children enjoy.

He made inquiries. He travelled the region. At a conference last month in Beirut, he secured a verbal fatwa from a leading Sunni scholar, Salman al Auda.

“He said it is no problem to give the child the family name, in Sharia it’s OK,” Mr Kamal, the general manager of the Qatar Orphan Foundation, said during an interview this week in his office. “You can’t imagine how important it is to be named according to the family.”

Since its creation three years ago by the Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the Qatar Orphan Foundation, known as Dhreima after a violet flower that grows in harsh conditions, has steadily gathered steam.

Today its waiting list is growing, its average orphan stay is shrinking and its officials are working to broaden the concept of family and expand the fostering experience, traditionally seen as an important charitable act in the Muslim world.

“Yateem is a big thing in Islam,” said Mr Kamal, the Dhreima general manager, using the Arabic word for guardianship. “It helps you get to paradise.” The Prophet Mohammed said those who took care of orphaned children would be close to him in heaven, according to a well-known hadith.

But Sharia generally recognises only inheritance claims based on blood or marriage and does not allow full adoptions because they are considered relics of the pre-Islamic era of jiyaliyyah, or ignorance.

Thus Mr Kamal’s efforts to expand the concept of family. He said that the widely respected Doha-based scholar Youssef al Qaradawi had voiced a view similar to Sheikh al Auda’s. Dhreima is drafting documents for these scholars to sign into fatwa and hopes to institute the new policy by the end of the year.

If confirmed, this new stance would mark an uprecedented shift. “I do not see how such an opinion would be judged valid according to Islamic legal methodology as it would contradict the clear verses in the Qur’an concerning this very issue,” said Sheikh Musa Furber, a mufti who studied Islam for more than a dozen years in Damascus and Cairo and is now a researcher at the Tabah Foundation in Abu Dhabi. “Without seeing the actual text of these fatwa I cannot comment on their contents or evidence.”

Mr Kamal also hopes to help foster the passing down of family wealth via wasiya, or bequests, rather than meerat, or inheritance. But these proposals are in their early stages and still have to work their way through Islamic jurisprudence and various bureaucracies.

Meanwhile, Dhreima continues to assist Qatar’s most needy, focusing on four kinds of at-risk children: those with a mother but no father; those who have lost their father or both parents; the socially orphaned, which refers to financially incapable or broken homes; and finally babies whose parents are not known.

The first three, which represent the majority of children Dhreima works with, are supported with money, health care, rides to school and more. Only the last category can be fostered.

Dhreima’s facilities include three orphanages – one for newborns to seven years old, another for 7-18 year-old boys and a third for 7-18 year-old girls – and two guesthouses for those older than 18.

A key goal is integration. Dhreima’s in-house children attend normal government schools and regularly play with non-orphan children. If a local public school asks to bring their students for a visit, Mr Kamal refuses. “This is not a zoo where anybody can come to see them,” he said.

According to a Qatari law issued in 2007, police and other authorities are legally required to contact Dhreima whenever a newborn of unknown parentage is found or brought to them.

Origin is not an issue. “We don’t deal in colours, we don’t deal with income, language or religion,” said Mr Kamal. “We see orphans as human beings, and anyone within the borders of Qatar is accepted.”

Dhreima soon begins the search for a new home – such as that of Muna al Mutawa, who married in 1997 and learned over the ensuing years that she and her husband were unable to have children.

They heard about Dhreima in early 2008 and decided to apply to foster a child. Within a month they received a call that the orphanage had received a baby girl born two days prior – the same day Ms al Mutawa’s mother died.

She was one of five applicants for the newborn, but the others fell away in the rigorous screening process. The foster family must be Qatari nationals and include a mother and spouse (except in rare cases) between 25 and 45 years old. Dhreima visits the applicants’ homes and reviews family income and finances. Potential foster families also meet with a psychologist several times.

During Dhreima’s first year of operations, children stayed an average of four or five months before being placed, but now the average stay is a month or less. The last arrival was placed within 10 days. Now nearly a dozen families wait for the next orphan to arrive.

In May 2008, Ms al Mutawa took her baby girl, now named Reem, home for the first time. “Totally, completely, right away she was my baby,” she said, showing a photo of a smiling brown-eyed girl on her phone. “Now she is two years old, very naughty, very funny and very intelligent.”

Dhreima requires each foster couple to sign a contract committing to tell the child of its provenance. In the past, many families waited until high school or later to tell their children their family circumstance. “At that age, when they find out they are shocked and leave home,” said Mr Kamal, who advises foster parents to tell the child as soon as possible.

Ms al Mutawa plans to tell Reem soon. “It will happen in the coming months and years, Insh’allah,” she said. “But not until she gets a little older.”

Ms al Mutawa applauded Dhreima’s efforts to move towards full adoption. Her foster daughter is not a full Qatari citizen, like her and her husband, but rather a naturalised Qatari – a lesser standing that is reflected on passports and other official documents.

She hoped the passing on of the family name, if legally approved, would change that. “This would be great,” said Ms al Mutawa. “It was not possible when we adopted.”


Doha summit aims to adapt tools of global cooperation

DOHA // The World Economic Forum’s Global Redesign Initiative could hardly be more ambitious. Its main objective is to adapt the tools of international co-operation – the G20, UN bodies, the World Bank, World Trade Organisation and the like – to the complex challenges of the 21st century to ensure the long-term security of humanity.

It also aims to create a more inclusive global system.

“Legitimacy comes from people,” Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and a former Singapore ambassador to the UN, said during the opening session of this week’s Global Redesign Summit in Doha. The report the WEF prepared for the event is titled Everybody’s Business.

“We have to learn to listen to the voices of 6.8 billion people,” he added. “The real purpose of this meeting is: let’s figure out how we can get the whole world involved in this, and not just some parts of it.”

Backed by the governments of Qatar, Tanzania, Singapore and Switzerland, the WEF launched the redesign initiative more than a year ago, in the depths of the financial crisis. A key aim was to move away from the so-called Washington Consensus and Bretton Woods-style institutions, created and led by industrialised countries, in the hopes of avoiding future catastrophes.

“The world has gone through a heart attack,” Arif Naqvi, founder of the Dubai-based Abraaj Capital, the region’s largest private equity firm, said during the opening plenary. “We have to work very carefully through this moment to make sure everyone acts in concert to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The GRI tasked more than 1,000 analysts, officials and policymakers to re-envision international institutions to better address global health, security, sustainability, development and the financial system. At a series of meetings over the past year, their ideas matured into proposals, which Doha participants sought to put into action.

“We have lots of ideas that now need spouses,” the WEF vice chairman, Mark Malloch-Brown said, advising government officials to choose a proposal and work to implement it.

Inclusion may be easier said than done. Despite the call for innovation and bold rethinking, many speakers at the event held fast to traditional institutions of co-operation.

Richard Samans, the WEF’s managing director, explained that the redesign initiative did not intend to replace the existing system for international co-operation, but rather augment it.

“We are not here to overthrow the system,” agreed He Yafei, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. “Global redesign of the system is not a revolution; it’s more an evolution.”

Few of the 58 proposals, which are to be finalised at Davos, Switzerland, in January, are revolutionary. They include strengthening the financial safety net, the creation of an international financial risk monitor, expanding the capacity of the International Labor Organisation and improving a UN-supported programme called Education for All.

“A lot of the proposals are what you might call ‘punting’,” passing the problem on, said Parag Khanna, the director of global governance at the New America Foundation, who previously worked for the WEF. He sat in on several meetings over the past year and attended several sessions during the Doha summit. “It’s not quite redesign yet.”

In addition, one sizeable demographic was mostly absent.

“For everything, whether it’s financial or climate change, we should look at the poor as part of the process, rather than beneficiaries,” said Harish Hande, the founder and managing director of Selco, a provider of sustainable energy solutions to rural India.

He was speaking on Davos Debates in Doha, a YouTube channel set up for the event. “Redesign needs to happen where the poor become part of the implementers, designers and thought processes,” Mr Hande said.

In the end, the GRI may be less redesign than makeover. In calling for change, one prominent observer complained of a hidebound system dominated by inertia.

“International deadlock is the norm; cynicism and mistrust are common currency,” said Queen Rania of Jordan, who is on the redesign council for education. “If just enough people are happy, there’s no need to change it.”

Mr Khanna acknowledged that the GRI is in part a branding exercise. But it could still effect change. “I think we might see in a couple years’ time that international organisations move towards sharing resources and collaborating more with NGOs and corporations,” he said. “And it will partially be attributable to WEF.”

originally ran in 1 June 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae