`Doha Debates` Picked Obama for Mideast
Mona Eltahawy

DOHA - What if the rest of the world had a say in the U.S. Elections?

Well, a large part of it did during the latest episode of `The Doha Debates`- a monthly forum on Arab and Muslim issues aired on BBC World to a potential audience of nearly 300 million viewers across 200 countries. The result was a resounding `no` for Sen. John McCain.

Interestingly, the overwhelming majority which voted against a motion suggesting McCain was better for the Middle East didn`t necessarily think Sen. Barack Obama would make a better president. Some in the 350-strong audience expressed ambivalence about both candidates.

But when they were asked to vote at the end of a lively and at times contentious debate between a pro-McCain team and a pro-Obama team, 87 percent of the audience voted for Obama by opposing this motion: `This House believes the Middle East would be better off with John McCain in the White House.`

It was the largest margin yet recorded in the debates since they first aired five years ago. This latest episode will be broadcast on Nov. 1 and 2.

After three presidential debates between Obama and McCain and one between their VP choices, the most obvious thing to hit me as I sat watching the recording of `The Doha Debates` was that it was the foreign policy debate we never had here in the U.S.

With the economy taking deeper nosedives, it has seemed as if Obama and McCain were - in successive debates - doing their best to ignore the rest of the world and fixate on domestic issues. While that might be understandable for worried Americans and the rest of us who live here, other parts of the world are eager to know how the next occupant of the White House will affect their lives too.

And affect them he will, especially the Middle East where the Bush administration has pursued one disastrous policy after the other and where there is palpable dread that the U.S. would want to pursue yet another one by attacking Iran.

It wasn`t an evening of knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Rather it was a chance for people from the region to express what worries them the most about the U.S. When they got the cue for questions, it was as if the Middle East had stretched far beyond the peaceful Doha night to include trouble spots that are rarely on the mind of the U.S. voter come election time.

Asked to identify just their country of origin, we heard from men and women from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Qatar, Sudan, Yemen and the U.S.

It was reminder of how international Doha was becoming but also how vital `The Doha Debates` have become as a forum for arguing and challenging. Full disclosure: I was on an episode of `The Doha Debates` in 2006 - on a winning team, I`m happy to report.

`The Doha Debates` are financed by Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, one of the Emir`s wives. The debates, aired eight times a year, are an initiative of the Qatar Foundation - a private, chartered, non-profit organization, founded in 1995 and chaired by Sheikha.

I credit Tim Sebastian, moderator, and his production team for the vigor and refreshing candor of the debates, especially the motions which are surgical in their ability to cut through the blather and touch the sorest of nerves in the Arab and Muslim world and in doing so demolishing stereotypes and clearing the way for nuance.

Just go to the debates` website and check out the past debates, such as `This House believes that Muslims are failing to combat extremism` and `This House believes the Palestinians risk becoming their own worst enemy.`

The debates also host special editions which give the audience the chance to watch Sebastian, a former BBC television correspondent, grill guests in the way he trademarked as host of HardTalk, and then to grill the guests themselves. Watch for example the special with senior Hamas official, Dr. Mahmoud Al Zahar, to dispel once and for all any notions that all Arabs and Muslims think alike.

Sebastian told me he launched the debates after the Emir of Qatar asked him if he had any ideas that would fit in with the country`s reform program. If I can use the word `maverick` just one more time before this election season is over, I must use it in reference to Qatar, home to Al Jazeera, the largest U.S. airbase in the Arab world and an Israel trade interest office.

`It seemed then that if free speech were to work anywhere - it had the best chance of taking root in Qatar. Al Jazeera was already up and running and the atmosphere had become much more liberal,` Sebastian said.

`True to their word, the authorities have since left us completely alone - and have never asked for any say in the guests we invite or the topics we discuss. With press regulations tightening across the Middle East, people are still amazed at the freedom we enjoy.`

Qatar is far from a democracy. But it has offered in `The Doha Debates` a nudge in that direction, especially to the students who make up the greater part of the debates audience.

So tune in to this month`s episode and watch how `The Doha Debates` filled in the foreign policy gaps the U.S. Presidential Election debates missed.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning syndicated columnist and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. For more information see: http://www.monaeltahawy.com/.