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Qatar draws scepticism over Darfur

Posted by vmsalama on March 29, 2009

Vivian Salama

March 29. 2009 

DOHA // In the past year, the tiny Arab Gulf emirate of Qatar has brokered a historic peace deal between political opponents in Lebanon and played host to a number of Arab League summits as well as to the Doha Round of world trade talks.

However, as the host of the latest Arab League summit, scheduled to begin tomorrow, Qatar has drawn scepticism as to its ability to fairly mediate one of the Arab world’s deadliest and longest-running conflicts: Darfur.

Amnesty International has called upon Qatar and members of the League of Arab States to enforce the arrest warrant against Omar al Bashir, the Sudanese president, before this week’s meeting.

The Qatari government and the Arab League have refused to arrest the Sudanese leader, wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC), saying his arrest would further destabilise the country. Qatar, like most of the Arab League nations, is not a signatory to the ICC’s founding treaty.

The 22-nation organisation is expected to address regional issues, including the arrest warrant for Sudan’s president and Palestinian divisions.


Sudan's Al Bashir is wanted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity

Mr al Bashir is expected to attend the meeting. Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, who met the embattled Sudanese leader in Cairo last week, yesterday said he would not come to Doha.

Although some regional analysts said they believe the refusal to detain Mr al Bashir is no surprise, it could compromise Qatar’s credibility to serve as a regional arbitrator.

“I do not think it is in Qatar or any Arab country’s best interest to arrest President Bashir, but certainly some of the rebel groups in Darfur might see this as taking sides,” said Saleem Ali, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre.

Home to substantial oil and natural gas reserves, Qatar in recent years has cultivated a reputation as a friend to almost anyone. It plays host to one of the largest US military bases and, until the recent incursion on Gaza, to one of few Israeli commercial offices in the region.

Qatar is on amicable terms with Iran and has staunchly defended the interests of Hamas and Chechen separatists. In 2005, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, bestowed a gift of US$100 million (Dh367m) to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina, while also investing $1.5 billion to build an oil refinery in Zimbabwe.

“Qatar is punching above its weight,” said James Reardon-Anderson, the dean of Georgetown University in Qatar. “So you see it in their foreign policy – the Lebanon deal, the Darfur deal, they are trying to be bigger than they are.”

The emergence of Qatar in recent years from a tiny and somewhat underdeveloped nation of one million – 75 per cent of whom are expatriates – into an international hub for sport, education, science, trade and culture, has been regarded as the emirate’s first step towards becoming a global political heavyweight.

“The leadership here really sees this as an opportunity to transfer this wealth of natural gas into human capacity and to use that momentum to affirm their culture and affirm their vision and transform their society,” Mr Reardon-Anderson said.

Once the exclusive domain of Saudi Arabia in the Gulf and Egypt in the broader Middle East, the role of political intermediary and conciliator has fit Qatar, which has invited everyone from Iranian and Israeli diplomats and provided a home base to US military personnel and Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, a hardliner Sunni cleric.

“Qatar is generally well positioned to play a mediating roll because it has very good relations with the West and at the same time it is perceived in the Islamic establishment as having some sympathies with Islamist causes,” Mr Ali said. “Because of this rather unusual mix of circumstances, it is really a tight rope that they are walking on now particularly because of this US military base.”

In 2003, the United States announced it would pull out virtually all of its troops from its military base in Saudi Arabia, long deemed a symbol of Washington’s influence in the region. The US Central headquarters in Qatar and the Fifth Fleet naval base in Bahrain drew a sea of controversy for the two Gulf nations, particularly after US military operations began in Iraq in 2003.

It is, some argue, Qatar’s role as a media hub since the launch of its home-based network, Al Jazeera, in 1996 that has brought it the greatest praises and criticism. Various regional governments have condemned the Qatari government for allowing Al Jazeera to boldly criticise Arab regimes while protecting the image of Qatar. In 2002 Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic ties with Qatar over the issue, but resumed them in 2007 when Qatar promised to rein in coverage.


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