waving the qatar flag on the souq waqif

Guest Blog: The Model Arab League and My Trip to Qatar

Written by Bob King

What started as a fascination with the Arab world through an undergrad college linguistics project at the University of California-Berkeley has led 45 years later to a trip to Doha, Qatar.  This the same Qatar that is in the news as the center of a diplomatic, commercial and transportation dispute.

How and why I got there is a story of personal interest, institutional support, faculty mentoring and student success.

Ten years ago, my colleague (Perimeter College associate professor of history Marc Zayac) and I started preparing students for the Model Arab League (MAL), a national program coordinated and sustained by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.  In  2015, our latest  trip to the Southeastern Regional MAL  at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C.,  we brought 10 students, seven of whom garnered awards, five of which were the top awards.

Because of my role in mentoring students for this program, I was offered a chance to visit Qatar for a week this year (April 21-28). Five faculty mentors, along with 10 MAL students from around the United States, participated in an week of cultural and educational enrichment.

Five weeks later, on June 5, Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, severed diplomatic and transportation ties with Qatar.  The tensions—and cooperative relationships—go back over centuries, but the recent troubles might be seen through three very important, and some recent, factors: Islam, oil and ISIS.

Islam is the oldest of the three. Soon after the appearance of Islam in the 1400s, the religion cleaved into two major, and enduring, divisions, arising very early in Islam’s history over  disagreements about succession after Mohammed died: Sunnis, now led by Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi sect, and Shias, now led by Iran.

This religious division, “fueled” by oil and gas revenues, has morphed into a geopolitical stand-off, each side striving to increase its influence in the Middle East.  (Qatar shares equally in the largest gas fields in the world, 5 ½ times larger than the second largest—with Iran.  This requires a “light touch” on Qatar’s part with Iran.) Qatar sees itself as a mediator between the traditional and the modern, between the old-guard tribal states (the Saud tribe/family of Saudi Arabia, the Al Khalifa family of Bahrain, the Al Sabah family of Kuwait, the al-Thani family, while ruling for over a century, nonetheless sees itself as modernizing), and the increasing influence of certain populist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the Taliban,  which the West mostly labels as terrorists.

The third factor, ISIS, combines with the oil issue to explain the presence of U.S. troops in the Middle East.  The U.S Air Force’s largest airbase and the home of the U.S. Central Command’s largest forward-operating base have been in Qatar since 2003.  The principal mission of the U.S. military is to combat ISIS in nearby Syria and Iraq.  In addition, the large U.S. footprint has provided a level of protection for Qatar against its much larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia.  Though the United States has some serious reservations about Qatar’s funding for terrorist groups (with U.S.- and U.N.-named terrorists living openly in Qatar*), if the United States signals its neutrality in the Gulf crisis, the Saudis may have to think twice about pressing their feud with Qatar.

Meanwhile, it is almost surreal to think we were in Qatar not even two months ago.  We will have to wait and see if this is an ominous omen of upheaval or an unsettling tempest in a large teapot.

*http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11233407/Terror-financiers-are-living-freely-in-Qatar-US-discloses.html

Bob King is an associate professor of political science on Georgia State’s Clarkston Campus.

The Office of International Initiatives at Georgia State University is responsible for the strategic integration and coordination of the University’s international initiatives, partnerships, grants, program development and management, events and activities, study abroad programs, and the Confucius Institute.