T time in Qatar

Style is not necessarily the first word that comes to mind of when you think of Qatar, but that might be about to change.

When The New York Times launched T magazine in the autumn of 2004 it was something of a revelation for the oft-stodgy daily. A hundred-plus pages of rich, seductive photography and articles focused on the hip and stylish: a look at the “under-the-radar cool” of Brussels, the style choices of Lenny Kravitz and his daughter Zoe, and Pedro Almodóvar’s favourite red carpets, to name a few.

The European demimonde gave its official seal of approval a few years later. At a lavish and ultra-exclusive gala for the launch of T’s International Herald Tribune edition, held in a cavernous Milan exhibition space, editors, designers and contributors mingled with the likes of Domenico Dolce, Stefano Gabbana, Donatella Versace, the Oscar-winning Rachel Weisz and the ubiquitous Mischa Barton.

The old grey mare of American journalism – with its black and white graphics and substance-heavy content – had become the belle of the ball.

Now that same smart style has come to the Gulf, in the form of T Qatar, a partnership between The New York Times and the Doha-based Oryx Advertising, which will publish the local edition. Time will tell whether the new publication will give Doha the same sort of makeover, but inside sources say the idea took root fast.

“They were looking to deploy in the Middle East, scouting the market, and came across us,” says Ravi Raman, the vice president of Oryx, talking about his company’s first meeting with the Times last April. “Both sides were immediately on board.”

The pairing is not a complete shock. T Qatar represents the second major New York-Doha cultural tie-up in the past year. The Doha Tribeca Film Festival imported Big Apple buzz, cinema and celebrity with its inaugural event last October. And T magazine’s raison d’être has always been the advertisements – glossy appeals for the latest Ferrari sunglasses, Yves Saint Laurent fragrance or Girard-Perregaux watches.

With Qatar on the cusp of a great boom – the IMF estimates GDP growth of 18.5 per cent in 2010, the world’s fastest – and top-of-the-line property and retail developments such as the Pearl and Lusail coming online in the coming months and years, the greater Doha area will soon be a high-end marketer’s paradise.

No surprise, then, that T Qatar previewed its first issue at this week’s much-hyped watches and jewellery exhibition and on the boardwalk of the Pearl. At first glance, it’s much like an issue of the original magazine, with gorgeous design, sumptuous images and dozens of luxury ads.

Upon closer inspection, it is in many ways an old issue of T; all but a few of the stories are reprints from earlier issues of the New York version. The cover story, on the British actor Michael Fassbender, for instance, is lifted from an issue of T published last autumn.

Mr Raman says that even when T Qatar hits its stride next year – the magazine will be every two months in 2010, monthly in 2011 – only about a third of the content will be original.

Those stories will focus on Qatar and the region and also run in Arabic towards the back of the magazine.

In the first issue, the original stories were a profile of a Doha expatriate artist, an assessment of the Museum of Islamic Art, and a look at the Pearl.

“This is about not just fashion, not just style, but with a culture and art focus,” says Raman. “Basically we’re looking at a person who is stylish and appreciates quality, quality of design, quality of life.”

Will those quality-seekers spend 20 Qatari riyals for travel, design and style insights that have been available free at the T website for months? That might feel like arriving at a fabulous party just as it’s winding down, the buzz evaporating.

Yet Oryx is sure to highlight the fresher, local content. Even slightly dated, this intelligent and locally flavoured ode to consumerism, style and the high-end zeitgeist will, for wealthy Gulf denizens, probably become the sort of status symbol advertised in its pages.

With any luck, T Qatar will in a few years throw a coronation party that outdoes T magazine’s Milan shindig. It will coincide with some anniversary or product launch. It will be held at the Museum of Islamic Art, perhaps during the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. And Mischa Barton will be there.

originally appeared in Feb 21 The National, www.thenational.ae


Lessons in diplomatic dexterity

DOHA // On a visit to Qatar this week, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton met with the Qatari Emir, spoke at a conference on US engagement with the Muslim world and, during a discussion with students, said, “Iran is moving towards a military dictatorship”.

The next day, the Iranian frigate Bandar Abbas docked in Doha harbour and the head of the Qatari armed forces boarded the ship to chat with the captain about boosting military co-operation between the Gulf neighbours.

Considering that the US maintains two military bases here and that US-Iranian tensions have risen to a boil over the past fortnight, some might wonder if Qatar’s left hand knows what the right hand is doing. But for Qatari leaders, maintaining friendly relations with two sabre-rattling rivals is nothing new.

“This is their usual modus operandi,” said Mark Farha, professor of comparative and Middle East politics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

“I don’t know if they have much of a choice; If they had snubbed Iran that would open them to a lot of difficulties, and the same with the US,” said Prof Farha, who analyses Qatari foreign policy in a research paper to be published this spring by the Center for International and Strategic Studies. “Qatar did not choose its delicate geopolitical location in the crosshairs of two behemoths.”

Along with considerable natural resource wealth, Qatar’s vital geostrategic locale has helped foster the defining characteristic of its international profile: an openness to dialogue and co-operation.

Prof Farha is well placed to study the phenomenon. He grew up in famously diplomatic Switzerland, his father is Lebanese-American and he earned a PhD in history, Middle East and religious studies at Harvard University. He speaks fluent English and Arabic, along with German and French.

In his forthcoming report, he links Qatar to small but influential states such as Switzerland and Singapore.

“These micro-states share numerous common traits,” writes Prof Farha, “including a limited size, high vulnerability to external shocks, diplomatic dexterity, a salient presence in conflict mediation, record numbers of imported migrant labor, export-led growth, as well as a drive to maintain an efficient infrastructure and a skilled human capital base in highly competitive economies.”

Moreover, all have matured into progressive and stable regional leaders and learnt to punch above their weight internationally.

The trio do have their differences. Switzerland is an established liberal democracy, while Singapore has a form of democracy. Although Qatar held municipal elections in 2007 and is scheduled to hold a legislative vote for Shura Council members in June, its government remains a monarchy.

In terms of economic development, too, Qatar lags behind. But because of a vast natural resource advantage – Qatar holds the world’s third-largest reserves of natural gas – the gap is closing. One example is Education City, managed by Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned’s Qatar Foundation and home to Gulf branches of six respected American universities.

“This type of opening up, it is really to the advantage of the host country,” said Prof Farha.

“Islamic civilisation itself, why did it flourish? It flourished because it was like a sponge, absorbing other cultures and integrating them into a new cultural model – and I think that’s what we have here: there’s a saying in Islam, ‘seek knowledge, even if you have to go as far as China’.”

Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund has ventured far afield as well, making major purchases from London to Ho Chi Minh City. In recent weeks the Qatari government has announced US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) in mostly infrastructural investments in India and $12bn in economic and cultural investments in Syria.

But as the tensions between Iran and the US increase, it is Qatar’s relationship with Syria’s closest ally, Iran, that bears watching.

The West looks increasingly likely to place sanctions on Iran. If those fail, the next step would perhaps be military action. Prof Farha advises the rivals to take a page from the Qatari playbook.

“The basic Qatari stance – no military escalation, no nuclear proliferation – is not bound to change,” said Prof Farha. “Of all actors, Qatar seems by far to be the most level-headed in this conflict. One can only hope that reason will prevail given that a war would be devastating for the vast majority of parties involved.”

Another analyst pointed out that the US Central Command centre and largest regional air force base are in Qatar.

“If there is any military showdown it won’t be long before these two bases are involved in the conflict,” said Riad Kahwaji, the founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, based in Dubai. “Qatar, like other Arab Gulf countries, would find themselves in the middle of any conflict, so it is in their interest to do all they can to get the situation resolved short of a military conflict.”

Prof Farha sees a historical parallel in Switzerland, which co-operated with both the allies and the axis powers during the Second World War. But Qatar has made its mark with engagement as well as peacemaking.

Over the past decade, Qatari leaders have burnished a reputation for diplomacy: from the 2008 Doha Agreement that ended Lebanon’s political crisis to the Doha Round of world trade talks; and from the Doha Debates to ongoing negotiations toward a political settlement in Darfur.

The Qatari identity has become intertwined with an openness to progress and dialogue, according to Prof Farha.

“It started with Sheikha Mozah and the emir and the prime minister, but they now have the support of their community,” said Prof Farha. “Each Gulf state wants to leave its mark, wants to distinguish itself from the other, and this is Qatar’s … If you’ve had one Sheikha Mozah now, you’ll have a whole string of them down the line.”

originally appeared in 20 Feb The National, www.thenational.ae


Hillary busts out the "D" word on Iran

DOHA // The US secretary of state deployed the Obama administration’s harshest critique yet of Tehran yesterday, saying the country was growing into a military dictatorship.

“Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship – that is our view,” Hillary Clinton said during a town hall-style meeting with students at Education City here. She explained that any future sanctions against Iran would target “the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which we believe is in effect supplanting the government of Iran”.

As she visits the region to rally support for increasing pressure on Iran, Mrs Clinton’s rhetoric might mark the start of a tenser phase in the West’s nuclear stand-off with the Islamic Republic.

“It is very understandable that the US is expressing deep frustration,” said Hady Amr, director of Brookings Doha, the Qatar branch of a US think tank. “It’s no longer just about the nuclear programme; it’s also frustration with how the regime has responded to the aftermath of the elections.”

After Iran’s presidential elections in June, a mass uprising calling for votes to be recounted was forcibly silenced with beatings, arrests, detention and, in recent months, executions. The repression continued last week with the smothering of protests during anniversary celebrations of the Iranian Revolution.

That same day last week, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced that the country had successfully enriched uranium to a 20-per-cent level needed to fuel a medical research reactor. “The US is trying to signal,” Mr Amr added, “that it’s not really willing to wait a lot longer before it changes its policy.”

Yesterday, however, the director of Iran’s atomic energy organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that the major world powers with which it is at loggerheads over the issue have made a new offer to Iran for a supply of nuclear fuel in return for its shipping out of most of its stocks of low-enriched uranium.

“After the decision by Iran to produce its own uranium enriched to 20 per cent, France, Russia and the United States presented a new proposal which we are in the process of considering,” Mr Salehi said, according to the ILNA news agency.
He gave no details of the new offer. France quickly denied yesterday that such an offer even existed.

Mrs Clinton is spearheading the Obama administration’s full-court press of the region this week, meeting with the leaders of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Along with the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, Qatar is one of four Gulf countries that accepted US missile-defence systems designed to shoot down short-range Iranian missiles.

“They worry about Iran’s intentions, they worry about whether Iran will be a good neighbour,” Mrs Clinton said. “The question is what can Iran do in order to allay the worries and the fears of its neighbours … and yet I don’t see much progress there.”

Beyond Iran, Mrs Clinton’s discussion topics with the students included US-Islam engagement and building a dialogue with Muslim youth. “We will not agree on everything. I don’t think any family agrees on everything,” Mrs Clinton said. “What I look for are ways that we can celebrate our differences but narrow our disagreements and find common cause.”

Some expressed doubts about the US ability to eradicate stereotypes and move beyond rancour. Mrs Clinton said it would be up to the next generation to bridge the divide. “The decisions that are made here at Education City and in my own country are really about what kind of future we will help provide for those of you who are students today. The education you are receiving here is absolutely critical. The important thing is not what you wear, but what’s in your head and your heart.”

Farah Pandith, the US state department’s first special representative to Muslim communities, who joined Mrs Clinton at Education City, highlighted the potential of today’s young Muslims.

“Every single day since 9/12, on the page of every magazine or newspaper around the world, you see Islam defined in a particular way,” Ms Pandith on Saturday at the US-Islamic World Forum, which concluded here yesterday. “This generation is having to navigate through that and understand what it means to be modern and Muslim – and also is really searching for a way to be connected.”

She urged businesses and foundations to invest in Muslim youth, to listen to their ideas and help them innovate and build partnerships. “New media are playing a gigantic role in what these young people are hearing,” said Ms Pandith, referring to them as the “social network generation”.

“There is really something going on right now with young people, and if we do not harness what is taking place with the youth demographic we will have missed this unbelievably important window.”

Amr Khaled, an Egyptian televangelist and one of the most influential Muslim voices, also worried about Muslim youth. He called on the United States to launch a “Project for Love”, and invest US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) over five years on education, poverty and health in the Muslim world.

“America is fighting already wars against terror and injustice, why not a third?” Mr Khaled said. “Millions of Muslim youth will stretch out their hands to you.”

At a Sunday morning panel, the Malaysian opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, urged Barack Obama to engage smartly. “Yes, President Obama, engage with hope, but you must engage the aspirations of the whole people,” he said, pointing the inclusion of leaders, non-governmental organisations, intellectuals, Islamists and secularists. “Because if you miss some of them, you will have a continuation of this problem.”

an edited version of this story appeared on page 1A of the 16 Feb edition of The National, www.thenational.ae


Doha drives home lesson in safety

Last summer, Nasser al Thani edited together a series of grisly crash images: cars split in two; front ends flattened; vehicles entwined, like pretzels. He added an operatic soundtrack and posted the video on YouTube in an effort, the Qatari said, “to raise awareness of road safety.”

More than six months later, the message may be getting through.

From Kuwait City to Muscat, the hazards of the road are real and growing. But they are particularly acute here in Qatar, which has seen traffic and serious road accidents mushroom in the past decade as Doha’s population has doubled.

For every 10,000 vehicles on Qatari roads today, seven people are killed in crashes each year – a rate nearly five times higher than most western nations (in Britain, 1.5 people are killed annually per 10,000 vehicles).

“If you look at traffic, this is a serious and fundamental problem that impacts safety, environment, and productivity,” said Dr Adnan Abu-Dayya, the executive director of the Qatar University Wireless Innovation Center (Quwic).

Qatari officials and business leaders have in recent months moved to stem the tide – importing outside analysts, launching major infrastructure projects, devising technological solutions and hosting instructional workshops.

A ride on the roadways of the Qatari capital is seen by many locals as equal parts frustration and trepidation. Many of Doha’s primary arteries are clogged for much of the day, and the Qatar International Safety Centre (QISC) said more than 100,000 accidents occur in Qatar each year, and that a person is seriously injured on Qatari roads every two hours.

To improve public safety, Qatari officials asked the advice of the US transportation department, which manages a system of more than 250,000km of roadways. Earlier this week, US Federal Highway Administration officials submitted a preliminary report on the state of Doha’s roadways. “Our mission here is not only preventing injuries on the country’s roads from vehicular accidents,” said Craig Alfred, a transportation safety specialist. “We are also focusing on how to save lives.”

The analysis included general comments on traffic and safety and recommendations on street parking, constructing motorway barriers and isolating industrial and other areas of heavy commercial traffic.

The report, a final version of which will come next week, also called for pedestrian protections, such as wider walkways and more footbridges.

“This was the biggest review we’ve had in regards to what we need to take care of,” said Jamal al Kaabi, the chairman of infrastructure affairs at the Public Works Authority (PWA). “We are definitely considering a lot of the issues they brought up, because safety is one of our top priority issues, especially in new roads and highways.”

To that end, the PWA is building fencing along all major highways to keep people from attempting to cross, and adding separated bike lanes to major new roads.

Two major infrastructure projects aim to further improve safety by decreasing congestion. Last week, the government announced plans last week for a six-lane tunnel that will run under Gulf waters from Doha’s new airport, opening in 2011, to the city’s densely populated West Bay. “We are still waiting for the final concept design,” said Mr al Kaabi, adding that the cost and start date remain unknown.

Last November, Qatari Diar announced a 300km, US$25 billion (Dh92bn) metro and light rail system, built in partnership with the German transportation company Deutsche Bahn, to begin construction across Doha next year.

A variety of smaller initiatives approach Qatar’s traffic and road safety problems from different angles. Quwic’s traffic monitoring system delivers real-time data to help drivers avoid the busiest routes. The University of Texas A&M at Qatar recently gave 40 engineers from the PWA a short course on traffic safety, highlighting the importance of road design and traffic light placement. Also on the Education City campus, designers at Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar are studying the effectiveness of Qatar’s road signs and their ability to communicate their messages to drivers.

Despite all this attention, the precise level of danger drivers face on Qatari roads is unknown. “It’s very difficult to get good information,” said Mario Virgili, the director of road safety at QISC. “We can’t guarantee our figures are correct, given that the traffic police don’t provide the information we need.”

While the Qatari interior ministry reported 230 vehicular deaths in 2008, for example, the QISC estimates 346.

What is clear is that the majority of accidents result from a lack of awareness. A study by Qatar’s Emergency Medical Services found that the top reasons for road accident deaths were speeding and failure to wear seat belts, while the QISC said the majority of drivers involved in accidents are under 30 years of age.

Doha's young poets step into the ring

In the Arabian Peninsula of the sixth century, the emergence of a talented poet was an event, ensuring a tribe’s renown as well as its future posterity. Seven of the more revered poems from the era – collectively called the Mu’allaqat, or Suspended Odes – are said to have been written on tapestries and hung from the Kaaba, Mecca’s sacred cube, before the arrival of Islam.

As the setting for a youth poetry recitation contest, then, Aaqol Atrium – a broad, high-ceilinged space in the community centre of Doha’s Education City – seemed appropriate. The event, officially titled the Aspiring Youth Poetry Slam, had been organised by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP), a non-profit subsidiary of the Qatar Foundation with a publishing arm managed by London-based Bloomsbury Publishing.

At the event’s 5pm start time, the room was all but empty, and the proffered coffee, juices, cakes and sandwiches sat untouched. But as the sinking sun’s rays filtered through the entrance, so too did a trickle of anxious poets and their guests. “I’m not staying here, go back,” a headscarved girl whispered to a friend, who then pushed the whisperer towards the front. “Come on, let’s not be shy,” said another girl, urging her friends to sit.

Outside, darkness fell. After a few introductory remarks by a BQFP staffer, the readings began. Gothic and purple verses flew.

“His image viciously tears the ideas in my mind,” intoned Walaa Quisay, a dimpled Egyptian student from the International School of Choueifat. “His eyes penetrate my corpse and contaminate the blood of my heart.”

Salima, a Northwestern University-Qatar freshman in skinny jeans, canvas trainers and a sky blue headscarf, furrowed her brow and tightly gripped the page from which she read – “So you’re tired of dreaming / And breathing / And looking for reasons to smile at the spotless sun” – then beamed at the audience’s burst of applause.

She was followed by Sundus Sardar, a Weill Cornell freshman and, to judge by her writing, a fan of Edgar Allen Poe. “Darkness rolling... churning... eyes blinking no more,” she began, punctuating each phrase with a pause, as if her poem, The Unheard Screams of Death, were stalking its listeners. “Existence burning... screaming... flesh feeling no more.”

At the end of the evening’s English-language portion, the poets stood in a line before the audience, which indicated its favourites with applause, then chose a finalist with a show of hands. Two high school girls tied for the top honour and were given some writing paraphernalia; all received praise and thanks.

“We chose poetry because it has a strong Arab foundation,” Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, BQFP’s director of reading and writing development, said during a break in the readings. “It also offers a natural platform for youth involvement.” A couple of weeks ago, the organisation held a poetry contest over Twitter. Next month they’ll hold a competition for the best text message poems.

“We want to show people there is a lot of creativity in Doha, across nationalities, across age groups,” said Rajakumar, who hopes to improve the image of Arabs in the western world. “We also want to keep that connection to the language, that love of Arabic.”

After the break, the evening’s Arabic recitation commenced. “Qatar, the home of glory,” read Abdullah Saeed al Muraikhi, a 16-year-old student at Omar Iban al Khatab Prepatory School. “Qatar, the home of close friends. The country of glory that passed from father to son: Abu Meshaal, the symbol of our pride.”

Perhaps the evening’s most lively performance was delivered by Mohamed Saeed al Marri, a classmate of al Muraikhi’s, who arrived at the last minute, hurried onto the stage and launched into a passionate reading of his poem Shedding Tears.

“Your love is deep in my heart, not affected by blowing wind. The only thing that could wound me deeply was your abandoning me. I hoped to step in your way and shout, Damn your exaggerated pride, of position and reputation.”

The 16-year-old, who wore a bright white thobe and ghutra with his oral (the black ring that keeps the headscarf in place) at a jaunty angle, punctuated his phrases by peering heavenwards or gesturing with his left hand, which was wrapped with prayer beads. “For lovers, desertion is the ultimate. I will struggle to live without you, though it is so difficult. I have tried to control my tears but they help me by coming out.”

Later, as the half-filled room emptied, Mohamed spoke of his love for Gulf poetry, his support network of writers and readers, and his new-found confidence.

“You see how I come in late, things are a little crazy, but still it works out and I am able to read my poems and get things done,” he said in English. “Maybe this habit has given me a good strong persona. I feel like I can do anything I want – nothing is impossible.”


Doha design show with graphic point

DOHA // Mirko Ilic has worked with the graphic design legend Milton Glaser for years, served as the art director for Time magazine and the New York Times’ editorial pages and managed his own firm.

With more than three decades in design, he has come to appreciate the power of images, their ability to seduce and persuade, unsettle and motivate.

“We love to use graphic design to sell you products or corporate ideology,” the New York-based graphic designer said. “Sometimes designers decide they are still citizens of this world, and try to make this world a better place.”

A few dozen posters protesting against a variety of issues from around the world went on display on Wednesday as part of Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar’s Design of Dissent exhibition -- the first showing of the exhibition outside of the US. Curated by Mr Ilic and Mr Glaser, the show presents a small but sharp visual sampler of international public discourse.

At the opening reception, Mr Ilic spoke of his respect for the medium and screened a film on the life and work of his friend and mentor.

The 80-year-old Mr Glaser was born and raised in the Bronx. He studied art at New York’s Cooper Union and in Bologna, Italy, before embarking on an unmatched career: making countless posters, book jackets, album covers and restaurant interiors that helped define modern branding; co-launching New York magazine; and creating the image I <3 N Y.

In recent years Mr Glaser has embraced the political, designing covers for The Nation, a leading liberal magazine, and making buttons that read, Facts not Fear, or W stands for Wrong. “In the 1960s, we were full of naive enthusiasm that love could conquer all,” he says in the film. “Here we are in a moment of time where all of that has been blown away, by a dark vision ... our part is to be on the side of the light.”

In 2005, Mr Glaser and Mr Ilic put together a book of protest posters entitled Design of Dissent: Socially and Politically Driven Graphics.

The book addressed communism, Palestine/Israel, the Iraq war, peace, media, religion and more. In conjunction with the book the duo held an exhibition of the material at New York University’s School of Visual Arts, where both remain faculty members.

By 2008 Design of Dissent had been translated into several languages and the related show had run in several American cities, including Boston, where visitors included Muneera Spence, the chair of VCU-Q’s graphic design department. Impressed to see “graphic design in a new light,” as she put it, Ms Spence brought Design of Dissent to Doha.

Mr Ilic noted the host country’s diversity, particularly in Education City. “All these people from around the world, that exchange of ideas can only be a plus for young people,” he said.

On opening night, scores of students, professors and locals strolled through the gallery, sipping tea, nibbling biscuits and pausing to discuss the work on display.

One poster, called Blood Bath 2002, shows a tub filled with a deep red liquid beneath the words “Israel Palestine.” Another presents french fries shaped into a handgun, highlighting the health risks of fast food. In a third, George W Bush’s mouth is smeared with a dripping black liquid, above the question “Got oil?”

“We all understand a picture, an image, so this type of design can be very powerful,” said Reem al Hajri.

The 23-year-old Bahraini is studying fashion design and graphic design at VCU-Q. “In the West, this sort of work is accepted because it’s been done for a while.”

For Mr Ilic, Qatar’s position of strength carries with it responsibility. “Qatar is a wealthy and successful country, and the world can only survive if wealthy countries pay attention to those less fortunate,” he said. “This kind of show raises awareness about that. Its good for people to see that some other groups of people are less fortunate and may need help.”

Just across the Gulf, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have been protesting for greater freedoms for the better part of a year. Ms al Hajri sees this as one of the few examples of dissent in the region.

“There is some here, but not much,” she said. “Maybe we were paralysed, maybe we need something, education, to be taught how to do this sort of thing.”

By the time it closes on 7 March, this exhibition may do just that.

“This show opens our eyes to the world around us and to what people think,” said 22-year-old Qatari Maryam al Humaid, a graphic design student at VCU-Q. “It inspires me to design more about what I think and feel, and maybe a bit more about politics.”

originally appeared in The National, www.thenational.ae


Doha meet aims to save endangered marine life

DOHA // It is not just depleted marine species like the bluefin tuna and hammerhead shark that will be in the spotlight at next month’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) here. Qatar and the Gulf are also set to receive well-deserved attention.

Until the late 1990s, the region saw heavy traffic in caviar, leathers and various birds of prey, according to Susan Lieberman, the director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group, the environmental arm of the US-based Pew Charitable Trusts. But a crackdown in recent years, particularly by the UAE, has transformed local enforcement.

“I’ve been working on Cites issues for 23 years,” said Ms Lieberman, “and it’s a pleasure to see how much the GCC countries have improved to the point of really being able to stand up and host a meeting and show themselves to the conservation world.”

The Doha meet is the 15th Cites gathering since the convention was first approved by 175 member states in 1975, but the first in the Middle East and North Africa region. The two-week conference to discuss the United Nations-backed treaty regulating international plant and animal trade begins on March 13.

Some 2,000 delegates from 170 countries will vote on 42 proposals on various plant and animal trade issues, involving polar bears, elephants, red coral, and a pet newt species the government of Iran is looking to regulate. A two-thirds majority is needed to pass the proposals, which must then be adopted by all member states.

One hot-button topic is the proposed ban on bluefin tuna, the source of the highest-grade sushi and sashimi. Cites is known mainly for protecting African gorillas and Asian tigers. Marine protections are a recent phenomenon, and if approved, the bluefin ban would be the first attempt to tackle a major commercial industry.

Last year the World Wildlife Fund said the bluefin, which can weigh up to 500kg and is fished mainly in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, could be extinct as early as 2012. Bluefin populations have declined more than 80 per cent since 1970, according to Pew.

As a result, the fish’s value has skyrocketed. In January, a single bluefin tuna sold for Dh650,000 in Tokyo. Japan consumes more than 40,000 tonnes of bluefin every year, and the price will continue to rise as long as the tuna population plummets.

An agreement signed last November prods governments to regulate their bluefin catch, but the Cites proposal, initiated by Monaco, aims to temporarily ban all trade. Scientists estimate five to 10 years for bluefin populations to recover, allowing trade to resume.

“We really have to put the brakes on it and let this fish recover,” said Ms Lieberman. “It will be an uphill battle; the chances are good, but there’s going to be opposition.”

The European Union has come close to supporting the ban, but the fishing nations Spain, France, Italy, Cyprus, Greece and Malta voiced opposition last autumn. In the past week, France and Italy have reversed their positions and come out in support of the ban. France’s total bluefin take is often the world’s highest. Along with backing from the UK and the US, European support may lead to the proposal’s adoption.

Several other proposals aim to regulate the shark trade. Some 73 million sharks are killed each year worldwide, primarily for shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy served at weddings and banquets.

Hammerhead sharks, which are native to the Gulf and were added to the World Conservation Union’s endangered species list in 2008, are particularly desirable because their large fins create a thick, rich soup. A kilogram of their fins can sell for as much as Dh35,000 in China.

Their numbers have declined 99 per cent in the Mediterranean in the past two centuries, and significantly in the Gulf, in part because shark fishing is not regulated in international waters. “If you bought a ship and you want to go out fishing sharks on the high seas,” said Ms Lieberman, “there is no limit to how many you can kill.”

If adopted, the regulations would not set an absolute limit on shark catches, but force governments to scientifically certify the sustainability of their quota.

The environmental costs of bluefin or hammerhead extinction are not entirely clear, mainly because of scientists’ limited knowledge of deep-sea species. Catch quotas are often “guesswork,” according to Richard L Haedrich, an ocean biogeography professor at Memorial University in Canada.

What is clear is that the loss would be significant. “Every time the top predator is eliminated it throws off the entire balance of the ecosystem,” said Ms Lieberman, explaining that the absence of the apex predator often leads to a depletion of many species further down the food chain.

“People here are still very dependent on the sea for food,” she added. “Sharks are worth a lot more alive than in soup.”


originally published in The National, www.thenational.ae