Monday, May 18, 2015

18-May-15: As the Qatari thug says, Disneyland it's not

A visibly delighted Emir of Qatar, is driven by Ismail Haniya,
the Hamas prime minister, to an official reception in Gaza
October 24, 2012 [NY Times Photo]
There's a famous Hollywood moment in a movie now more than 75 years old that captures a feeling we occasionally - but not often enough - see in the reporting of the news. It happens in the iconic "Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy, played by Judy Garland, says to the dog she's holding in her arms while she stares at some cognitive-dissonance-triggering sights: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." (Here's a video clip to jog the memory.)

One of those rare Kansas moments can be seen today in a striking first-person account on the BBC's website datelined Doha. In it, a journalist, Mark Lobel describes what happened when he was invited to Qatar by the prime minister's office and by Qatar's public relations advisors Portland Communications
"Trusted by some of the world’s most successful brands and high-profile organisations, we have a track record of helping our clients achieve their goals in the UK and internationally. We protect and promote our clients’ reputations through distinctive and compelling campaigns... " [Portland Communications website, today
Click here for today's BBC report on what
happened to its reporter in Qatar
The goal of the junket was to inspect brand-spanking-new housing for its army of low-paid migrant workers. But it turned into something quite different: as an opportunity to "protect and promote our clients’ reputation", this might not have been the very biggest of successes.

As he tells it, Lobel is arrested, intimidated by tough-talking cops ("This is not Disneyland," he barked. "You can't stick your camera anywhere..."), imprisoned in a disgusting cell and then released a couple of days later as if nothing had happened.

The outrage, in Lobel's narrative, is that he and his BBC colleagues "ended up being thrown into prison for doing our jobs... while gathering additional material for our report". Just for doing their jobs? That's upsetting.

But there may be a larger, considerably more malevolent process going on that the BBC man either doesn't comprehend or has chosen to self-censor. His editors, by the way, seem to have tucked the report away in their Sports section. But reported it was.

First, the facts. In "Arrested for reporting on Qatar's World Cup labourers", [BBC, May 18, 2015] Lobel starts with some familiar terrain, reminding readers that
Qatar, the world's richest country for its population size of little more than two million people, is pouring money into trying to improve its reputation for allowing poor living standards for low-skilled workers to persist.
This is part of the run-up to soccer's 2022 World Cup, the hosting of which was somewhat bizarrely awarded to Qatar five years ago ["Blatter reaches out to Arabia | Fifa president says Middle East 'deserves' World Cup in boost to Qatar 2022 bid", Aljazeera, April 24, 2010]. That decision is now under a cloud, having come with a laundry list of allegations focusing principally (but not only) on bribery and corruption. (FIFA exonerated them, but that's another story.)

Then there was the matter of Qatar's abuse of foreign workers, And that's what is mainly behind the BBC report - how Qatar is fixing the problem and making the allegations go away. 

Qatar is one of those formally-sovereign flyspeck countries that functions, in reality, as a family business. An ambitious, prickly, astronomically-well-funded family business. 
It owns Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language broadcaster whose programs can be seen around the world. The World Cup would be the crowning glory for the tiny emirate. Some estimates suggest that $220 billion is being spent to expand the country's infrastructure ahead of the World Cup. Workers for that effort come mainly from South Asia. [NPR, November 18, 2013]
The BBC's Qatar story makes the website's home
page... buried  under the Sport header
And as a 2014 business article ["How Qatar Got So Rich So Fast", Business Insider] shows
The tiny peninsula has  the highest per-capita GDP in the world at $98,800 — and even that number may vastly understate the actual wealth of Qatar's 280,000 citizens... Qatar has done much to reinvest energy money and diversify its economy. Support from the U.S. as well as decades of proven reserves have also fostered stability. 
The Guardian ["How Qatar is taking on the world", July 7, 2012] reviewed its footprint and influence, since its present dominant figure, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani,
seized power in 1995 from his father in a bloodless palace coup [followed by Qatar's] emergence on to the world stage as a considerable diplomatic, cultural and even military player of a tiny state whose huge ambitions to spread influence around the globe are fuelled by enormous wealth and devotion to a strict interpretation of the Qur'an. That ambition is being realised, from the sports stadiums and skyscraper penthouses of western capitals to the industrial centres of China and the battlefields of Syria and Libya... Today it is difficult to avoid its money and influence. In London, the al-Thanis' investment arm, Qatar Holdings and the Qatar Investment Authority, have been on a long shopping spree, spending more than £13bn in recent years on purchasing Chelsea Barracks, Harrods and the Olympic Village. Qatar is the largest shareholder in Barclays Bank... The Qatar Foundation sponsors Barcelona football club... [It's the host] of international organisations – Georgetown University, the British Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies – creating a space where the west rubs shoulders with the Islamic world.
A visibly delighted US president and wife greet the emir of Qatar
and his spouse at 2009 New York reception [Image Source]
Qatar happens as well to possess some astonishing demographics that are at the heart of the Lobel story.

Its total population in 2013 was 1.8 million [source]. And how many of those are citizens? 278,000, or about 15%. All the rest are so-called "expatriates", mainly Indians, Nepalis, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis. (Qatar's own official 2015 statistics say they have 2,342,725 people, of whom 1,759,391, or 75%, are males. A fun society.)

Back to Lobel:
We were on a quiet stretch of road in the capital, Doha, on our way to film a group of workers from Nepal. The working and housing conditions of migrant workers constructing new buildings in Qatar ahead of the World Cup have been heavily criticised and we wanted to see them for ourselves. Suddenly, eight white cars surrounded our vehicle and directed us on to a side road at speed. A dozen security officers frisked us in the street, shouting at us when we tried to talk. They took away our equipment and hard drives and drove us to their headquarters. Later, in city's main police station, the cameraman, translator, driver and I were interrogated separately by intelligence officers. The questioning was hostile. We were never accused of anything directly, instead they asked over and over what we had done and who we had met... During a pause in proceedings, one officer whispered that I couldn't make a phone call to let people know where we were. He explained that our detention was being dealt with as a matter of national security. An hour into my grilling, one of the interrogators brought out a paper folder of photographs which proved they had been trailing me in cars and on foot for two days since the moment I'd arrived. I was shown pictures of myself and the team standing in the street, at a coffee shop, on board a bus and even lying next to a swimming pool with friends. It was a shock. I had never suspected I was being tailed. At 01:00, we were taken to the local prison... Thirteen hours of waiting around and questioning later, one of the interrogators snapped. "This is not Disneyland," he barked. "You can't stick your camera anywhere..." I began my second night in prison on a disgusting soiled mattress. At least we did not go hungry, as we had the previous day. One of the guards took pity on us and sent out for roast chicken with rice. In the early hours of the next morning, just as suddenly as we were arrested, we were released. Bizarrely, we were allowed to join the organised press trip for which we had come. It was as if nothing had happened, despite the fact that our kit was still impounded, and we were banned from leaving the country... Other journalists and activists, including a German TV crew, have also recently been detained... [BBC, May 18, 2015]
As Dorothy might have said, Qatar is not exactly Kansas.
Most Qatari citizens belong to the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam... In March 2008, a Roman Catholic church, Our Lady of the Rosary, was consecrated in Doha. No missionaries are allowed in the community. The church displays no Christian symbols such as crosses, bells, or a steeple on its exterior. [Wikipedia on Religion in Qatar] 
has been variously described as "orthodox", "ultraconservative", "austere", "fundamentalist", "puritanical" (or "puritan"); as an Islamic "reform movement" to restore "pure monotheistic worship" (tawhid), by scholars and advocates and as an "extremist pseudo-Sunni movement" by opponents. [Wikipedia on Wahhabism
Religion aside, a person might think that, being so much in the global public eye now as the designated host of that FIFA World Cup tournament seven years away, Qatar might take that long list of complaints, controversies and problems to heart and have its officials think twice before messing with a reporter for the  globally-influential BBC media empire. 

But no, evidently they're not that concerned. 

That's a little strange when you think about it. What makes the Qataris so sure of themselves and immune from criticism and review - apart of course from their being, per capita, by far the richest country on earth [see "30-Jul-14: Is Qatar's stupendous wealth connected with Hamas' ongoing terrorism?"]?

In fact, there is not much about Qatar's public profile that makes it or its proprietors, the Al-Thani clan, seem like worried people. 

So do they worry about rank-and-file Palestinian Arabs? 

Well, yes if we consider that Qatar has provided a comfortable home-away-from-home for the highest echelon of terrorist leadership. TIME Magazine ["Hamas Still Has Some Friends Left", July 25, 2014] pointed out last summer that Qatar
hosts Hamas’ political bureau which includes Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal,” says Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “Qatar has a long history of providing shelter to Islamist groups, amongst them the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban... Hamas used to be strongly allied with both Iran and Syria, with the former giving Hamas an estimated $13-15 million a month as recently as 2011, as well as long-range missiles. Hamas’ political bureau used to be based in the Syrian capital of Damascus before its move to Qatar in 2012.” [TIME]
Qatar is where Hamas terrorist-in-chief Khaled Meshaal still makes his home, along with a handful of other murder-mind Hamas insiders. What's more, Qatari enthusiasm for terror extends well beyond hospitality.
Qatar financially supported Hamas with donations, grants and field projects (not cash, as Hamas wished) to compensate for the cessation of Iranian support, as Hamas leaders Meshaal, Khalil al-Haya and Sami Abu Zuhri had openly declared for the first time that the movement was financially suffering... Qatar also gave Hamas a regional role. Qatar was considered Hamas’s “godmother” in regional and international forums. Then came the visit by Qatar’s emir to Gaza in October 2012 and his call at the recent Arab summit in March 2013 for a mini-summit to discuss reconciling Fatah and Hamas... ["Hamas Ties to Qatar Have Cost", published on the Al-Monitor site in April 2013]
But let's look at this in more concrete terms.
  1. What percentage of its off-the-charts wealth gets shared on an annual basis with the Palestinian Arabs with whom it shares such strong ties of brotherhood and solidarity? In this, Qatar is like most of the other Arab states and statelets. It contributes zero to UNRWA, the extremely odd "refugee" agency that exists to service only the Palestinian Arabs and no other refugee category. There's more background to that in "Whose taxpayers fund UNRWA?" [Jerusalem Post, 2013] and in our post "19-May-14: Will momentary focus on UNRWA throw any light on PA and Hamas abuse of their own people?".
  2. And how many Palestinian Arabs have found new careers and well-paid (or even not-so-well-paid) work in Qatar's booming economy? About 20,500 as of 2014. That's from the government of Qatar's official numbers [source] and it represents less than a single percent of Qatar's population.
All in all, it's a story waiting to be properly exposed, as is the emergence of Qatar as
financiers of extremism and terrorism [who have] now replaced Saudi Arabia as the source of the largest private donations to the Islamic State and other al-Qaeda affiliates. ["Qatar and Terror", Denis MacEoin, Gatestone Institute, November 22, 2014]
There's more to tell, and perhaps Mark Lobel of the BBC will tell it, given the Qatari trauma to which he has just been subjected. But to be honest we're not waiting for that to happen (and just in case of editorial changes to today's BBC report, we have taken the precaution of archiving this morning's version here). Meanwhile, readers might want to review some of our past attention to Qatar:

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