Monday, July 24, 2006

The New Arabia

It's so easy in these times to get very upset and depressed about the situation in the Middle East and the uncertain implications for the well being of the world as a whole. The Iraq fiasco of 2003, and the seemingly terminal decline of it as a functioning state ever since, acts as an open wound in the very heart of the region. At the same time, Iran - a youthful and proud nation - is very much at a crossroads in its development, yet at the moment it feels that it is cornered by a hostile world.

Internal angst involving politics, the role of religion, womens rights and its relations with the West give a confusing and sometimes alarming impression to visitors and foreign powers alike as to the path which the country is set to take. The established Israeli policy of 'might is right', unleashed on many of its neighbours, and the regression - perhaps in part as a result of this - of a number of nations into a state of near feudal paralysis breeding extremism, poverty and despair, seems to make these apocalyptic visions all too prevalent in our current imaginings of the region.

Amidst all this turmoil, positive news is hard to come by. I have been fascinated therefore with a recent BBC Documentary series aired on the World Service which toured some of the often overlooked Arab states to get a feel for them and report back many positive things about what the future may hold. The series visited Dubai in the UAE, Oman and Qatar. All these states in different ways are using their wealth - primarily gained from oil and gas extraction - to expand and diversify their economies.

In the case of Dubai, which has solicited massive foreign investment, as well as using much of its own money, to transform a patch of desert into a modern city and transport hub, their efforts are well publicised. However, I was particularly interested to hear about the path being plotted by the government and people of Qatar.

Whereas Dubai wants to be seen as a Financial centre, Qatar - assured of the massive gas reserves which it is now selling around the world in liquefied form - is establishing itself as a seat of learning in the region. If Qatar is known at all in the West at present, it is most likely for being the base for the Arabic satellite television station al-Jazeera; a station which first rose to prominence during the second Gulf War and has since gained the respect of many journalists and media analysts throughout the world for its professionalism and its non-compromising and often controversial news output. The station, it is worth noting, is also soon to launch a Children's channel. Its makers hope that instead of simply showing cartoons, it will give watching children the opportunity to learn, and to learn how to question. The al-Jazeera Network receives its funding from the Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani, who sees the channels as part of his plans for a parliamentary democracy in the Gulf state. It is free to criticise the Emir, and also – notably - other Arab governments.

Qatar is making impressive strides towards a liberal, Islamic and yet politically plural society, not least with the establishment of what is known as "Education City" on the outskirts of its capital Doha. The aim of this mega-campus of learning is to invite foreign universities to open up branches and to export their methods of learning. Unlike in traditional Arab education, classes are mixed and two thirds of the soon to number 8000 students are women. Teaching methods are a fusion of Western and Middle Eastern. Similar models of democratic forms of higher education are being established across the Middle East, most notably in Oman and the UAE.

As you might expect, traditional elements in all of these societies object to some of the reforms taking place. There is a tradition of tribalism which has hindered free elections, but this is being countered by the general will to move at suitable pace towards democracy. In Qatar every citizen now has the right to vote in upcoming elections and anyone can run for office. Further, north Kuwait has also recently held local elections where women could vote and stand as candidates.

The aim of a number of states in the region seems to be to build a framework of a more liberal society, but also to provide the know-how of how to make it work. A highly positive and encouraging move, and something which you may be forgiven for thinking is almost entirely lacking in a place like Iraq, where a system has been imposed without the gradual introduction of democratic institutions and facilities. The adjustment period in that nation's case is proving to be very traumatic indeed.

These Gulf States, which are currently and rapidly diversifying and exploring ways of introducing a progressive education system, want the legacy of their vast oil and gas wealth to be used to benefit their future generations - not simply to live in benevolence, but to contribute to an Arab Renaissance whereby Arab ideas and inventions are once again helping to shape the course of human history.

[Blogging by Dan]


jonathan said...

Really interesting post, Dan. A few thoughts having read it, though...

(i) Yes, Iran feels cornered by Western hostility; but on the other hand, when since '79 has Iran enjoyed this much influence in the Middle East itself? Not only does it enjoy unprecedented influence in the wreckage of Iraq (inconceivable previously), but also in Lebanon and even Palestine. Asher Susser, who is the head of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel-Aviv University, says that in the last few years "A historic change in the balance of power has taken place [of an order] that has not happened since the 7th century". Iran has been the beneficiary.

(ii). Fascinating points about Qatar and the spread of progressive education. It's worth quoting the source of the info I passed off as my own in (i), here. In this week's New Statesman Rageh Omar points out that:

"Iran's restless population of 70 million - two thirds of whom are under the age of 30 - know that demographics will prevent any future government turning the clock back. This is also a country where more than 60 percent of university students are women. Moral and religious edicts cannot negate the incremental freedoms won by reformers over the last eight years".

(iii) Again, from Omar, "Iran does not conform to the stereotype presented by politicians in Washinton and London, who describe it as a pariah, isolated by economic sanctions, and boxed in by US and British forces in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan."

(iv) None of which is meant to present Iran as friendly or progressive, or less of a threat to world peace. But you have to wonder at the path the country has taken in the last few years and wonder why it has happened. If Bush had followed Clinton's lead and pursued a Middle East peace deal rather than - as Jonathan Freedland puts it - tried "to bomb people into democracy", would Iran enjoy the prestige and power it currently does? Would it have embarked on its increasingly theocratic bent? Or have these things happened because the foreign policy pursued by the American and British administrations was so woefully short-sighted and misguided?

Iain said...

Hi Dan and Jonathon,

Some really interesting points there. It's good to see some lefty blogging that isn't tainted with the islamophobia you see elsewhere. You seem to have open rather than closed minds.

I see the latest part of the world service radio show is up on their website now, by the way. Egypt this time.


Twix said...

kool to hear u like the positive changes taking place in qatar. u can learn more about education city, ...

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