QATAR: Advancing Free Trade & Democracy: Context and Perspective on the Fourth International Conference on Free Trade and Democracy
John Duke Anthony

That Qatar has rapidly emerged as the Arab countries` leading producer and soon will become the world`s premier source of gas-toliquids is a matter of no small moment.

Any polity that plays any role in driving any portion of any industry`s economic engine in any corner of the planet is noteworthy-any day of the week.

Qatar`s international emergence is not the result of happenstance. But that Qatar has established a leading influence so quickly is all the more remarkable because it has not merely restored prior status. Indeed, Qatar has forged a distinct identity that was never previously so.

No one would have predicted-as recently as a decade ago-that Qatar would host worldrenowned economists, business leaders, and political as well as social scientists at all…much less that a traditional Arab society would hold open dialogue on the issues of democracy and free trade.

This week, Qatar opened the International Conference on Free Trade and Democracy was held in its capital city of Doha for the fourth year in succession.

The substance of the conference proceedings merits close scrutiny among democratization and free enterprise watchers worldwide. That such a seminal dialogue originates from a small peninsula in the Arabian Gulf ought to give pause.

At Midpoint in the Gulf
Not least among the reasons are the implications of the Conference`s scope and focus. Barring the unforeseen, the Conference`s results are likely to increase the ability of citizens of Qatar, other Arab countries and even the greater Islamic world to be involved in public affairs.

A major international conference of scholars and leaders engaging in open dialogue on democracy and free trade might not seem out of the ordinary in many parts of the world. All the more fascinating then, that Qatar was not much more than a little known destination on the map less than a quarter of a century ago.

Indeed, for the longest time, diplomats and business representatives took little notice of Qatar`s doings in commercial and political development. For years on end, it was the one Gulf country that international travelers were most likely to strike from their itinerary whenever they received orders from home to cut short their visit to the region.

Equidistant Between East and West
Nowadays, in dramatic contrast, anyone en route East or West who bypasses Qatar in early April, or in most other months, will almost certainly have missed visiting a country engaged in one or more outsized roles of international organization leadership.

In the past half decade alone, Qatar has held the chairmanship of not only the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, the dozen-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and the six-state Gulf Cooperation Council. It has also chaired the more than 140-member state World Trade Organization`s (WTO)`s 4th Ministerial Conference, which launched the Doha Round of the WTO`s Multilateral Trade negotiations.

To be sure, numerous countries the world over have opted to spearhead this or that international venture or event at one time or another.

Even larger numbers have been willing to preside over efforts of inter-state organizations to preserve the achievements of the members` citizens and, where possible, add to their accomplishments.

But not all among those that have been willing to play such a role have been chosen by their fellow members. In this regard, as in others, Qatar is unique.

Among developing and more established countries these days, the number of exceptional path-breaking and risk-taking heads of state and commanders-in-chief is not exactly in surplus.

Regional Circumstances
Few leaders of any developing countries in recent years have taken on burdens of international responsibility equivalent to those which Qatar has assumed. One would be hard pressed to even name other countries that have done so in regional circumstances as fraught with danger and uncertainty as the crises that Qataris and the citizens of their fellow GCC member-states have confronted.

When Qatar rolled out the welcome mat once again this week, issues of ponderous significance hover the Arabian Peninsula and shadow the Gulf countries` future unresolved.

This fact alone lends considerable significance to an event whose proceedings will be examined and evaluated by many.

Given all that has happened in the immediate region since last year`s conference, the Qataris and their conference co-sponsors could hardly have devised a more timely challenge for the featured presenters and commentators.

Two-Fold Mission
The presenters and other invitees have accepted a two-fold mission. They are expected to address not only issues related to trade, investment, and economic growth on one hand and democratic principles and processes on the other. They are also being tasked, wherever they deem it relevant, to demonstrate the interconnectivity among these and other factors and forces.

The first major objective will be to illustrate how these phenomena are applicable and in many ways directly linked to the burgeoning quest for socio-economic modernization and development. The second goal will be to indicate how these phenomena can connect within in political systems to advance freedom simultaneously with the march of human progress through representative governance.

Considered by the host, co-sponsors, and participants alike to be a work in progress, Qatar`s International Conference on Free Trade and Democracy steadily increases international knowledge about the dynamics and prospects of an abiding quest of the modern era.

Dr. John Duke Anthony is President and CEO of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. In addition to founding and heading the National Council since its inception in 1983, he has been a consultant to the U.S. Departments of Defense and State for more than three decades. The author of four books and more than 200 articles, essays, and chapters in other published works on the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world, he has testified before Congressional committees and appeared on most mainstream American, British, and Arab television networks. This article was first published in The Pearl, the newsletter of the Embassy of Qatar.