THE BLOG

Doha, Beckham and the 'Arab Summer'

11/02/2013 14:00 GMT | Updated 11/02/2013 14:00 GMT

Several people last week found out that Qatar existed after the signing of David Beckham to Paris St. Germain. After PSG was purchased via Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, an influx of talent has brought Qatar to the world's attention, most notably Beckham. Yes, there is a debate whether he was brought to play or just to sell shirts, most likely the later, but his signing and more so the purchase of PSG is a sign of the future shape of the Middle East.

Qatar borders only one other country; Saudi Arabia. Like Saudi Arabia, its wealth comes mostly from energy, in Qatar's case premonitory gas and petrochemicals. It has also learnt from its neighbour's mistakes. In the nineties, Riyadh suffered from a contraction in the price of oil. Subsequently, its economy suffered greatly as the lack of other incomes (i.e. those not based around oil) were limited, and social tension in the kingdom grew, and subsided when the prices returned to a higher point. With its main consumer, the USA, moving towards energy independence through a variety of means including biofuel, fracking and hybrid vehicles. Each of these has positives and negatives, but it is definitely not good for any OPEC nation, particularly with anyone with such an energy dominated economy as Saudi Arabia was in the nineties.

Qatar has seen this, and cleverly moved to expand its interests. Perhaps due to the size of the country, most of this has been outside of Doha, and even the Middle East. It not only owns PSG, but the recently opened Shard was built with Qatar money, as was the purchase of the Chelsea Barracks and even the Olympic Village. It has learnt that it can extract a source of income beyond that of simply just gas and oil.

This new found swagger extends to the political arena too, with Qatar punching well above its size in the Middle East. It has invested millions in Palestine, much to the chagrin of Israel. It already earned the ire of Tel Aviv with its media arm, Al-Jazeera. It may have injected fresh perspective on the Middle East compared to Western news outlets and feature some deservedly award winning programming, but it is naive to think its coverage is not politicised. Just watch a news bulletin and see how much is mentioned on Israel, but so little on its neighbour Saudi Arabia.

The kinship with Saudi Arabia though is more than geographical, it is religious. Both states are predominately Sunni, and both are Wahhabi, a strongly conservative form of Sunni Islam. This may go a way to explain why both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are pushing so strongly against the Assad regime, to the point it is alleged they are actively supporting the rebels with arms and equipment. Notably the Assad regime and family is dominated by Shia Alawites. Of course, there are other reasons, such as wishing to cool the flames of an uprising so close to their borders and to stake build relationships in a post-Assad Syria, but the century old Sunni and Shia feud cannot be dismissed.

Beyond the religious similarities, both have fault-lines, with Saudi Arabia's most notably being the suppression of rights for women. Recently we have seen that the Kingdom has given so power to women, arguably more a placebo than real change. Women's rights are better in Qatar, with the rights to suffrage and the right to run for office enshrined in law. Yet things are not as good as they seem. For example, domestic violence is not a criminal offence. Further, media that confronts the state is routinely censored, and several activists have been imprisoned just for moderate views. As already shown, media is also heavily state influenced, if not owned by those in power.

Worse still is the use of public flogging, and the sheer amount of forced labour in Qatar. The rate of development in Doha of buildings and infrastructure has led to a huge influx of immigrants, which in itself causes social tension, but also comes with flagrant human rights abuse, unsafe working conditions and stories of migrants being forced to work 12+ hour shifts, six to seven days a week. Even ethnically Qatari tribes are mistreated, with those in groups including thousands belonging to Bidun and al-Murra groups have been stripped of or denied citizenship, meaning not only can they not work (legally) but they are essentially stateless. It is no where near Mali yet, but stateless groups such as the Tuareg have been known to become violent to achieve their aims. Finally, Qatar is not a democracy. That in itself may build stability now, with the state being able to use a massive sovereign wealth fund with limited oversight, but it also means that groups and individuals will always push against it in the name of more freedom.

What I have described above seams like Bahrain or Egypt pre revolts. The conditions are there for serious instability as seen across most of the Arab world, a potential 'Arab summer'. Yet it lacks certain factors key in recent popular uprisings. Notably, its moves away from an energy focused economy is creating jobs. Bahrain's protests were driven by human rights and political complaints, but fuelling these complaints was large scale unemployment. Jobs, by and large, can calm the 'angry young men' of most states. It also lacks a catalyst such as the self-immolations in Tunisia or a Tahrir Square or a Pearl Roundabout. Lastly, it can reform these issues. As we have seen in Saudi Arabia, by giving activists something, even a token gesture as allowing women onto the Shura council (albeit in small numbers) can placate social unrest. So all is not as good in Doha as it appears from the outside, but given the chance, given political upheaval then it could be. If they can get this right, we may be witnessing the birth of the new major power in the Middle East.