DOHA, Qatar — In the land that launched Al-Jazeera TV, there’s another revolution under way. This time, they call it The Doha Debates, a monthly forum tackling issues at the heart of troubles in the turbulent Middle East.
Held in Oxford Union format, the debates pull no punches. No topic is off-limits. And there's no interference from the government in a region where free speech is a rarity.
The first two debates addressed Arab governments’ aversion to reform — and the separation of mosque and state. The most recent debate, held ahead of the Iraq elections, asked whether that country’s neighbors had any desire to see democracy succeed next door.
“The point is to open peoples minds, to educate them to different opinions and to prepare them to lead the country in the future, and not just follow,” said Tim Sebastian, a former veteran journalist at the British Broadcasting Corp. who moderates The Doha Debates.
The concept grew out of discussions between Sebastian and Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad, who has shown a knack for attracting both controversy and commendation. Sheikh Hamad provides the operating budget for Al-Jazeera, the Arabic language news channel that has drawn the ire of everyone from Qatar’s neighbors to the United States, but is credited with introducing freewheeling discourse to a region ruled by brutal regimes. Video: Education reforms
Sebastian says Sheikh Hamad guaranteed him complete freedom to choose topics and guests, and in turn Sebastian guaranteed controversy. The emir was apparently unconcerned.
Guests so far have included Saddam Hussein’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Islamic scholars, Arab dissidents and human rights activists.
At the next debate, the presence of prominent Palestinians and Israelis on a stage in Qatar is bound to stir even more controversy.
Reforms unique in region
Qatar can afford to be daring. Oil and vast natural gas deposits surrounding the Connecticut-sized Persian Gulf state have made the 188,000 population very rich. Sheikh Hamad spreads the wealth liberally, giving Qataris one of the highest per capita incomes in the world — ensuring virtually no political dissent.
Still, Qatar’s reforms are unique in the region. The country adopted its first constitution last year (though the emir is untouchable). There is a directly elected municipal council, and plans are in place for an elected council to advise the emir. Women have the right to vote, to run for office and to drive.
Qatar’s second revolution, after Al-Jazeera, emerged from the Qatar Foundation, which is headed by Qatar’s first lady, Sheikha Moza. A modernizer who first stunned Qataris and the country’s conservative neighbors by giving a speech unveiled, Sheikha Moza is central to Qatar’s reforms.
The Qatar Foundation headquarters, where The Doha Debates are held, is on a vast campus in Doha called Education City.
This is no half-baked pet project of the first lady of an Arab petro-state. It’s a multi-billion dollar investment that has drawn top U.S. educational institutions (Cornell University, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth University and Carnegie Mellon at last count) to Qatar.
While neighbors like Saudi Arabia have squandered oil revenues for years and are as a result struggling with unemployment and extremism, Qatar is seeking to turn its natural resources into human resources for the future.
“We want our people to be wealthy not just with what they have. We want them to be wealthy with what they know,” Sheikha Moza said in an interview.
Since the overthrow of Saddam, Qatar has fallen off the media map. The hundreds of journalists who flooded into Doha have left, but the U.S. Central Command — the reason the media showed up in the first place — still keeps over 1,000 troops on a base outside Doha.
On a daily basis, CENTCOM’s forward operations in Qatar play a crucial role in the war in Iraq, facilitating the exchange of information between military planners, commanders on the ground and bombers in the air. Many of the warplanes used over Iraq take off from the Al-Udeid Airbase on Qatar’s southern shore, where another 1,000 U.S. troops are based.
What’s striking about the U.S. presence in Qatar is that it’s almost impossible to detect. By agreement with the Qatari government, U.S. troops are confined to their bases. The few who are allowed off do so in civilian clothes. Out of sight, the U.S. troops stay out of Qatari minds.
The stealth U.S. presence in Qatar is part of Sheikh Hamad’s balancing act. On the one hand, he has welcomed U.S. troops, which serve as a deterrent to aggressive actions by Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Sheikh Hamad’s refusal to reign in fiery Al-Jazeera angers his American protectors.
Qatar recently claimed a small victory in its longstanding rivalry with Saudi Arabia. The conservative desert kingdom has banned Al-Jazeera from reporting in the country and views Qatar’s reforms with suspicion and apprehension.
In January, Azzaman, a U.K.-based Arabic daily newspaper, agreed to pay Sheikha Moza more than $1 million to settle a libel suit. The case stemmed from a series of reports by Azzaman that said Sheikha Moza, among other political activities, engaged in secret dealings with Israel. Her lawyers say Saudi intelligence officials were funding Azzaman as part of an orchestrated campaign against Sheikha Moza, underscoring the controversy over Qatar’s reforms.
Sheikha Moza says the reforms were developed only with Qataris — not Saudis — in mind. But when asked whether free speech and co-education will spread, she appears to launch a salvo in Qatar’s battle for the future.
“I don't think that there is a sovereignty over people's minds,” she said. “What's happening here in Qatar could affect the rest of the region. This is a possibility that we shouldn't deny.”
NBC News' Preston Mendenhall was recently on assignment in Qatar.