On January 17, 2019, Qatar-America Institute Cultural Advisor Diana Untermeyer visited the Indiana Council on World Affairs (ICWA) in Indianapolis to discuss “Qatar and its Neighbors.” She joined Bill Clifford, president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of America and Melissa Beuc, executive board member of ICWA Board, both of whom recently traveled to Qatar.
In her talk, Ms. Untermeyer discussed the context for the blockade imposed on Qatar in June 2017 by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt; the resiliency with which Qatar has withstood and even thrived in the midst of the blockade; Qatar’s policy of engagement in the region and its focus on education, sports and culture.
Ms. Untermeyer spoke about her experience living in Qatar from 2004-2007 and attributed Qatar’s resilience to the strong foundation built by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani culminating in the peaceful transfer of power in June 2013 to his well-prepared son, His Highness Sheikh Tamim. In a region known for coups and octogenarians who cling to power, this unprecedented, planned succession sets Qatar apart.
Moreover, the fruits of His Highness Sheikh Hamad’s leadership — including the development of the massive LNG industry, the granting of equal rights to women, the promotion of modern educational and cultural institutions, the founding of Al Jazeera, and a commitment to transparent and inclusive foreign policy — both set the stage for the showdown with the blockading nations and provide the fortitude to withstand it.
The blockade has fast-tracked many endeavors including anti-terrorist money laundering agreements, social and labor reforms, free trade zones, and food security initiatives. It also has strengthened a sense of national pride and caused an outpouring of support for Sheikh Tamim. The iconic image “Tamim the Glorious” now festoons buildings and innumerable windshields.
National service was instituted before the Blockade; however in April 2018, the mandatory time for men was extended from a few months to a full year following graduation from high school. And, women are now allowed to volunteer as well. The decision is so much more important than one might think. Imagine: Women in the military in a traditional Muslim country; youth increasingly differentiated by degrees of wealth and education literally in the trenches together; and a shared sense of discipline should all add up to transformative national unity and individual growth.
In response to lively questioning from the audience about Qatar’s political alignment, Ms. Untermeyer explained that while Qatar remains committed to the GCC and looks forward to a resumption of a strong alliance, their policy has always been to maintain positive and constructive dialogue with all countries, including Iran. While Qatar has disagreements with Iran, they are also neighbors and share the massive gas field. The blockade led to closer ties with Iran. Iran opened their skies providing the sole access for Qatar’s commercial and civilian air traffic. Additionally, Iran provided immediate food relief.
Qatar hopes to normalize relationships with their neighbors but is moving forward with its own vision including the massive infrastructure build up for the 2022 World Cup. Overall, the attitude in Doha is optimistic and full speed ahead.