ISLAMIC WORLD FORUM: Dialog in Doha
Thomas Cromwell

The State of Qatar proves that even a very minor figure on the world stage can play a significant role in global affairs if its leader has vision and the commitment and resources to do something to see that vision fulfilled.

Qatar's ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, took control of the government from his father in 1995. Since then, he has lifted his country from almost total obscurity to a position of leadership in the Middle East and, in some fields, in global issues.

Early on, he hosted a major conference on Middle East economic development, which brought together Arab and Israeli political and business leaders; then he hosted a critical ministerial round of WTO negotiations; he supported the creation of the first ever real news channel in the Arab world, Al Jazeera; he has allowed Qatar to be used as the base for the American military's Central Command; and he has sponsored several forward-looking inter-faith and international dialogs.

At the same time, he has gradually liberalized life in Qatar, and introduced some first steps towards a democratic system of government. And while using some of the fabulous wealth that Qatar enjoys as a major gas producer to make a mark on the international stage, he has also pushed his country towards being a regional center for education and health services.

Qatar's high profile today is remarkable when you consider that there are less than half a million people in the country, and only 20 percent of those are Qataris. And, other than gas underground, there are few natural resources for the nation to tap, being little more than a small, sandy thumb on the arid Arabian Peninsula. (Nevertheless, by 2005 revenues from gas are expected to give Qataris the highest per capita GDP in the world.)

In its most recent move on the world stage, Qatar in January this year hosted, in partnership with Washington's Brookings Institution, the second in an annual series of U.S.-Islamic World Forums. Held in a recently built, glittering Ritz Carlton Hotel on the Gulf shoreline, it headlined former U.S. President Bill Clinton and featured such heavyweights from his administration as former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrook and former ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk (now at Brookings, and a key organizer of the event).

Other well-known figures on the U.S. side were Fox's Tony Snow and the Baker Institute's Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and recently having prepared a report, under a mandate from President George W. Bush, on the very issue the conference was convened to discuss.

The Muslim world was represented by a broad spectrum of positions, with participants coming from countries around the world. Among the most articulate were Jordan's foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, who summarized the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Arab and Islamic worlds, and Musa Hitam, a former deputy prime minister of Malaysia who explained how Malaysia became democratic by pushing economic development for the people, thereby creating a large, well-educated middle class, which demanded a strong voice in government.

Djerejian reported that his study had found three key areas of concern to Muslims in regard to the United States: U.S. support for Israel; U.S. involvement in Iraq; and U.S. support for anti-democratic regimes in Muslim countries.

Some of the more vocal Muslim participants, notably Youssef Al Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric exiled to Qatar for his Muslim Brotherhood affiliation, and a strident voice on Al Jazeera, repeated the view that the U.S. could not expect good relations with the Islamic world unless it acts forcefully to resolve equitably the Israel-Palestine conflict. Qaradawi even went so far as to say he would oppose a Muslim-Jewish dialog with the conflict unresolved.

Holbrook countered that American commitment to Israel will not change and that in the absence of agreement on political issues, the U.S. and Islamic world could work together on global crises, such as HIV/AIDS and other health issues.

There was also recognition on the U.S. side, especially in a session chaired by former U.S. ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg, that economic cooperation between America and Muslim countries, and in particular the Arab World, could produce good results and did not need to wait for a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict. One of the objectives of promoting free trade with the region would be to also foster greater intra-Arab trade, now little more than 3 percent of all commerce in the area.

There was also some music for American ears. Iraq's Finance Minister, Kamel Al Keilani, praised Washington for its intervention in his country and its work to restore Iraq's economy. Similarly, Abdel Hamid Al Ansari, the dean of Qatar University's Sharia College, pointed to the many benefits that flowed from intense American involvement overseas, from post-World War II Japan and Germany to Bosnia and Afghanistan in recent times.

Qatar's emir, Al Thani, announced at the conference that a permanent secretariat for the U.S.-Islamic-World Forum will be set up in Doha, in collaboration with Brookings.

Whatever your view of the efficacy of dialogs such as this, you have to respect the commitment of a ruler to a process that can, at a minimum, inform and educate both sides of one of the modern world's most trenchant divides, and might indeed contribute to wiser words and policies from American and Muslim leaders.

Thomas Cromwell is the managing editor of DiplomaticTraffic.com