QATAR: 'Most people are not interested in politics'
For a lightly populated sliver of desert jutting out into the Arabian Gulf, Qatar sure has made an outsize impact on global affairs in recent years.
There are two main explanations for this. First, the ruling emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has a vision for his country as a modern center for education, health, communications and travel in the Middle East, and has focused his government successfully on moving rapidly towards realizing that vision. And second, Qatar is blessed with abundant resources of natural gas, generating income that soon will make its citizens the richest in the world (in terms of GDP per capita). The government of Qatar has not been shy to spend its resources on a wide range of initiatives that promote international understanding and peace as well as the socio-economic development of the nation itself.
Qatar's ambassador to Washington, Bader Omar Al Dafa, both embraces the emir's vision and is an effective proponent of it in the United States. With American degrees in political science (a BS from Western Michigan and MS from Johns Hopkins), Ambassador Al Dafa has a fluent understanding of America and its people, and is committed to improving bilateral relations.
"Most people are not interested in politics," he says, explaining the wide array of programs his country and the Washington embassy have embarked on to improve understanding between the two peoples. It makes for a lengthy and impressive list of projects, a list we cannot do full justice to in this space.
On a national scale, Qatar has invested heavily in education, among other initiatives creating Education City in Doha, the capital, to host branches of some of the world's top educational institutions. The first to arrive, in 1998, was Virginia Commonwealth University, which set up a branch of its School of Visual Arts. Texas A&M and Weill Cornell Medical College have also set up programs in the Education City. More are planned.
A similar program to make Qatar a center for world-class health care is also in the works, as is a $5 billion program to develop the emirate as a sports and tourism destination. A state-of-the-art, $5 billion international airport is being built by America's Bechtel.
Qatar has also embarked on three key programs for annual conferences. This year, the second US-Islamic World conference was held in Doha, with former President Bill Clinton the keynote speaker. Organized in partnership with the Brookings Institution, the conference will have a permanent secretariat in Doha, and annual meetings will be held there and in the United States.
This year too, the second Muslim-Christian dialog was held in Qatar, a program developed in partnership with the office of Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury. Ambassador Al Dafa says that future meetings under this initiative will include members of the Jewish faith as well as representatives of other religions.
Both these initiatives contribute to increasing understanding in two critical arenas: Muslim-Christian relations on the religious level, and Arab-West relations on the political level. The ambassador says that such programs contribute to mutual understanding in areas where there has been a great deal of misunderstanding, on both sides. "We believe in a better dialog," the ambassador says.
And to underline its commitment to interfaith efforts, Qatar had donated land in Doha to a number of non-Muslim religious groups, a program the ambassador headed before being posted to Washington in 2000. The land is to be used for the construction of churches and temples. The ambassador says Qatar is the only Arab state to have done this.
A third annual conference, now in its fourth year, focuses on free trade and democracy. This is a natural extension of Doha's hosting of a World Trade Organization summit (which launched the Doha Round). The conference now attracts some 700 participants from 30 countries.
In April this year, there was the first NATO meeting held in Qatar to look at regional military and security issues.
To link Qatar's many forward-looking initiatives to the United States, the ambassador has built what he calls "a good team" of professionals at the embassy. "We try to come up with ideas that help bring better understanding between America and Qatar and the Arab World," he says, summarizing the embassy's mission.
The busy embassy is currently housed in an office building on Wisconsin Avenue, but later this year it will relocate to a beautiful new facility on M street, in Georgetown. Some of the art exhibitions, including one with VCU, and other cultural programs will find a fine new home there as well.
The embassy has a number of scholarship programs to increase contact between US and Qatari students, as well as sponsoring several traveling exhibitions of photography and Qatari art in the US and visits by US artists, including a group from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Qatar.
The embassy is a sponsor of Washington's Rock Creek International School, which offers the only education in both Arabic and English in the United States. It also sponsors an Arabic language program at the University of Maryland and a Qatar Post-Doctoral Fellowship on US-Arab Relations and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. It has helped with the funding of the first Arab-American Museum, which will soon be opened in Dearborn, Michigan.
From Michigan, the embassy organized a first delegation of some 30 owners of small and medium-sized businesses to visit Qatar and explore possible opportunities to set up local and regional businesses there. Two similar delegations, from Texas and New Mexico, have also been hosted in Doha. Ambassador Al Dafa says the aim is to foster investment in both countries.
He stresses that, "We are open to any new ideas and initiatives that would expand Qatar's relations with the United States." Although he notes with a smile that his boss, First Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister H.E Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani, complains that all his great ideas cost money.
The embassy hosts bi-monthly events for experts to speak on various topics. Recent themes have been energy and public diplomacy. The ambassador also hosts a monthly get-together at his home, usually with a presentation on a relevant theme as the centerpiece.
Among the friends of Qatar the ambassador counts former US ambassadors to his country as the best 'ambassadors' of Qatar, and the embassy has an active program to keep them connected, by sponsoring trips for them to Qatar and including them wherever possible in embassy programs.
There is also a 40-member US-Qatar caucus on the Hill, and each year a group of congressional staffers is invited to visit Doha to get first-hand knowledge.
All of this activity reflects an underlying commitment of Qatar to keeping close relations with the United States. "We are an ally of the United States and will always support the US," the ambassador says, summing up his country's policy.
He regrets the misunderstandings that have arisen between America and the Arab World since 9/11, but says more needs to be done on the people-to-people level to build mutual understanding and trust. Doha disagrees with Washington on several issues, including its policy on Israel and the Palestinians and the continued presence of US troops in Iraq ("It does not make sense to have US soldiers in Iraq," Al Dafa says), but these don't deter it from maintaining close ties.
Hosting the controversial news channel Al Jazeera, has brought Qatar not infrequent criticism from US leaders, including formal complaints from the State Department, but by hosting CENTCOM headquarters as well, Qatar has demonstrated unequivocal support for Washington in the region. And Qatar says it is committed to free speech, preventing it from curtailing Al Jazeera programming, although the government, which funds it, has communicated its concerns to the editorial board of the station.
Ambassador Al Dafa says, "Americans are fair people." He believes that if the United States "has a fair policy for the Palestinians, it will speak for itself," and there will be no need to fund projects such as Al Hurra TV, which was created by the US government to get America's message to the Arabs.
Bader Omar Al-Dafa
Ambassador of the State of Qatar to the United States & Mexico and Permanent Observer to OAS
A.A. Kalamazoo Community College in USA.
B.Sc. (Political Science) Western Michigan University - USA.
M.A.(Political Science) John Hopkins University - USA.
2000-present: Ambassador to USA.
2002-present: Non Resident Ambassador to Mexico
1998-2000: Director of European & American Affairs Department -Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Qatar.
1995-1998: Ambassador to The Russian Federation.
1997-1998: Non Resident Ambassador to Finland.
1997-1998: Non Resident Ambassador to Latvia.
1997-1998: Non Resident Ambassador to Lithuania.
1997-1998: Non Resident Ambassador to Estonia.
1993- 1995: Ambassador to France, & Non Resident Ambassador to Greece.
1993-1995: Non Resident Ambassador to Switzerland.
1988-1993: Ambassador to Egypt & Permanent Representative to the Arab League, in Cairo, Egypt.
1982-1988: Ambassador to Spain.
1981 1982: Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the State of Qatar.
1977-1981: First Secretary at the Embassy of the State of Qatar in Washington DC.
1976-1977: Diplomatic Attaché, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -Doha
Arabic, English, Spanish & French.
Reading, Painting & Music
Order National Du Merite- Republic of France
Married to Awatef Al Dafa
Three children (one son & two daughters)