04/12/2022, 11.16
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Qatar carves out strategic Gulf role through diplomacy and business

by Dario Salvi

Doha is prudent, remaining open to dialogue while challenging regional powers on an economic level. After years of abuses and violations, conditions for migrant workers have improved. The role of women and religious freedom in the Constitution are fundamental for the country's development. From tensions with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, food autonomy and increased military spending. 

Milan (AsiaNews) - From the World Cup in December, to diplomatic activism with the Iranian ayatollahs and the Afghan Taliban; from numerous infrastructure projects to the relaunch of regional diplomacy, up to the sale of gas to Europe in an energy market in search of new sources after Western sanctions against Russia for the war in Ukraine: Qatar is carving out a strategic role for itself in the Gulf region, in a climate of competition with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia to attract capital and investment from abroad, though without incurring the wrath of the two allies-rivals after years of tensions and diplomatic ruptures.

An institutional source speaking to AsiaNews on condition of anonymity because not authorized to speak to the press, reveals there is "great enthusiasm" for the football event, as for other competitions from motorcycles to Formula One. "The ruling class - he continues - has understood that economic wellbeing must be combined with the needs of the population, especially young people. For this reason, the royal family, in its own way enlightened though with some limitations, and the government have invested in sports, so much so that they have inaugurated a museum dedicated to the sector, in events and in schools".

With investments in recent years, at home as well as abroad in Palestine, Lebanon and Africa, education is another of the leadership's peculiarities. However, it should be added that, in some cases, the effort to spread culture has covered up Islamization policies and a radical, and intolerant, ideology. 

Years of isolation

For a long time, the two powers in the region, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, isolated Doha because of its proximity to Iran, and only last year did relations record a turning point, with the signing of an agreement that led to the creation of a "coordination council" for the improvement of relations. The body is chaired by the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (Mbs) and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, confirming the importance of the new institution with a view to collaboration.

The council is entrusted with the task of coordinating and strengthening the partnership toward "broader" horizons and sealing what analysts and experts have called a "cold peace," the result of a pragmatic change after Donald Trump's years in the White House that reshaped regional alliances (and scuttled the nuclear agreement reached with difficulty in 2015 by Washington and Tehran).

The rift that divided Qatar from other regional powers had been consummated in 2017, at the initiative of Riyadh, which sought to isolate the small emirate for its ties with the Islamic Republic. In fact, behind the dispute would be the clash in Sunni Islam between Doha and Abu Dhabi and the support Doha has offered to the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar also played a leading role in the negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, which should have guaranteed a political agreement for the transition of power in Afghanistan. It was in Doha on February 29, 2020 that the signing of the so-called "Agreement to bring peace to Afghanistan" between U.S. negotiators and emissaries of the Koranic students took place, which foresaw the birth of an "Islamic emirate", later wrecked in August with the seizure of Kabul. 

Economy and rights, a fragile balance

Now the war in Ukraine is the main topic of discussion, but seen from the perspective of the Gulf, the conflict does not seem to be a cause for concern, despite a marginal increase in the prices of consumer goods, including foodstuffs, and construction materials. The cost of transport by ship and land is also rising, driven by fuel, but the economic picture remains - at least for now - positive.

The general impression is of living in an oasis of relative tranquillity compared to the regional and global turbulence involving the United States, Russia and China. In these tensions, even more so after the break with Riyadh, which has been painstakingly sewn up, Qatar has preferred to maintain a neutral line of dialogue. Even in the war in Yemen, Doha has preferred the line of diplomacy - also favored by relations with Tehran, supporters of the Houthi rebels fighting with pro-Saudi government - relegating itself to the sidelines and avoiding involvement in the war.

From an economic point of view, underlines the AsiaNews source, Qatar seems to be "leaning towards the West", while China "is unlikely to have a great future". On a global scale, Beijing is "a power, in Africa and in other realities of the Middle East it enters thanks to money and investments," in many cases subduing the locals, at least on an economic level. The Qataris," he continues, "are proud of their culture and economy, they do not feel the need for a nation that is perceived as an invader.

After all, in 50 years, as many as our source has lived in the country, there have been enormous changes and, from sleeping on the floor with only one air conditioner per house, we have moved on to skyscrapers and futuristic projects.

Even in terms of rights, despite past violations - particularly on construction sites for the World Cup - the general picture has improved: "In the past," he says, "foreigners, especially those from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, were exploited in a free market without a minimum wage. Today we have a guaranteed salary of over 460 euros and companies are obliged to pay the money into a bank account that they themselves open in favor of the employee. And those who don't pay have their licenses suspended by the Ministry of Labor". 

Compared to other nations in the region, Doha has distinguished itself for the role of women and the religious freedom guaranteed to cults other than Islam. Catholics included, who benefited from the donation of land by the royal family for the construction of the first church.

Today, women are present in many fields, from education to finance to state apparatus, including ministries. And the veil remains a personal choice, although in the family - especially in more observant circles - there is a tendency to encourage its use. As far as freedom of worship is concerned, the introduction of the veil in the 1995 Constitution was fundamental, as it "allowed it to be accepted by the entire population, even by the more fundamentalist fringe groups that tried to oppose it but eventually gave in. Also because of tensions with its neighbors, Doha "has increased military spending" and is among the main buyers of Italian arms.

"The blockade imposed by the Saudis and the Emirates - concludes the source - has allowed the achievement of food and economic self-sufficiency, providing a further boost to the development of the nation also on a military level". 

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