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Qatar opens its doors to the world

DOHA, Qatar — Take a drive in Doha, leaving behind the mirrored skyscrapers and palm-fringed avenues of this gas-rich city, and the protagonists of myriad conflicts are in easy reach.

In one western district, near the campuses hosting branches of American universities, Taliban officials and their families can be found window-shopping in the cavernous malls or ordering takeout meals from a popular Afghan eatery.

A few miles away at a vast United States military base with 9,000 American personnel, warplanes take off on missions to bomb the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — and sometimes the Taliban in Afghanistan.

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Officials from Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, work from a luxury villa near the British Embassy, and recently held a news conference in a ballroom at the pyramid-shape Sheraton hotel.

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The Sheraton hotel in Doha.
The Sheraton hotel in Doha.Credit…Karim Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

And an elderly Egyptian cleric, a fugitive from Cairo, is a popular fixture on the city’s swank social scene, and was recently spotted at a wedding by an American diplomat who was attending the same celebration.

This is the atmosphere of intrigue and opulence for which the capital of Qatar, a dust-blown backwater until a few decades ago, has become famous as the great freewheeling hub of the Middle East.

Against a backdrop of purring limousines and dhows moored in the bay, Doha has become home to an exotic array of fighters, financiers and ideologues, a neutral city with echoes of Vienna in the Cold War, or a Persian Gulf version of the fictional pirate bar in the “Star Wars” movies.

Yet that welcome-all attitude is precisely what has recently angered Qatar’s much larger neighbors and plunged the Middle East into one of its most dramatic diplomatic showdowns. For more than a month, four Arab countries have imposed a sweeping air, sea and land blockade against Qatar that, in a nutshell, boils down to a demand that Doha abandon its adventurist foreign policy, and that it stop giving shelter to such a broad range of agents in its capital.

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So far, the blockade is not working, and the crisis looks set to worsen. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson flew back to Washington on Thursday after days of apparently fruitless shuttle diplomacy in the region. The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Britain have also intervened, without success.

The blockading nations — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — insist that Qatar is using an open-door policy to destabilize its neighbors. They say that Doha, rather than the benign meeting ground described by Qataris, is a city where terrorism is bankrolled, not battled against.

Qatar’s self-identity as a center of refuge dates to the 19th century, when its desolate and semilawless territory offered sanctuary to outlaws, pirates and people fleeing persecution across the Arabian Peninsula.

“It’s always been this place where waifs and strays and unwanted people ended up,” said David B. Roberts, the author of “Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State” and an assistant professor at King’s College in London. “There was no overarching power on the peninsula, so if you were wanted by a sheikh, you could escape to Qatar and nobody would bother you.”

In the 19th century, Qatar’s founding leader, Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, called it the “Kaaba of the dispossessed” — a reference to the revered black cube at the Great Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, and a figurative way of describing Qatar as a lodestar for those seeking refuge.

That national trait turned into a policy for Al Thani’s descendants, who since the mid-1990s have thrown open Qatar’s doors to dissidents and exiles of every stripe. Doha has welcomed Saddam Hussein’s family, one of Osama bin Laden’s sons, the iconoclastic Indian painter M. F. Husain and the Chechen warlord Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who was assassinated in the city by Russian secret agents in 2004. (The agents were caught and later extradited to Russia.)

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