Is anyone paying attention to the rise and rise of Qatar?

The country's quick backing of the Libyan rebel council was the behaviour of a reliable internationa

The man standing next to Cameron, Sarkozy and Merkel in the recent pictures at the Elysee Palace to mark the first 'Friends of Libya' meeting is the Emir of Qatar. Back in March Qatar was first, after France, in publically recognising the Libyan Opposition group, the National Transitional Council. Qatar then went on to not only provide military support for the NATO operation in Libya, but also played a proactive mediation role with members of the Arab League in gathering support for the NATO intervention.

Qatar has also shown strong political leadership, willingness and influence in bilateral relations with its Arab neighbours throughout the Arab Spring -- from rumours of having frozen their investments in Syria, to public messages of support for the opposition in Syria and Yemen -- though Qatar's role may not always seem consistent, as with Bahrain.

The key questions are -- Does the highly nationalistic Arab Spring need an Arab champion that will 'step in', with its military might, to help oust dictators; and what are Qatar's broader international political ambitions? Does the world now need new political players?

We may not have seen the Arab Spring coming, but the motives and ambitions of possible rich and powerful frontrunner countries that support opposition against dictatorship and are willing to fund long-term growth and stability, should not go ignored. That Qatar stepped in quickly with its shuttle diplomacy and military backing for the Libyan NTC and made clear their long-term plans for stability in Libya and the wider region is indeed laudable, and are the appropriate strategic trajectory moves of a reliable international relations player.

As relations between Turkey and Israel continue to slide downwards, stability in the Middle East during and post the Arab Spring rightly concerns many. While the quartet may send over Tony Blair to help mediate between Israelis and Palestinians, is it time to seek out other more capable partners? Qatar will show further leadership this week with their support of the Palestinian Authority's bid for UN recognition of Palestine, building on their recent supportive role at the Peace Initiative Committee in Doha.

While other emerging powers with strong balance sheets such as China and India appear to have more insular political agendas, where international forays are confined to the economic, and while traditional Arab allies are either disappearing, or like Saudi Arabia have remained relatively silent and inward looking, Qatar is perhaps seizing on political ambitions that others lack.

As Egypt has shown, whilst protesters are rejoicing in their nationalistic verve and strength in ousting a dictator and his cronies, hoping to replace them with more democratic government and institutions, they do not yet know what ideological or political colours those replacements should take. The vacuum that this could create across the Arab region -- with its oil, Islamic tone and over 100 million young people -- is what rightly interests many, including in the West.

So what do we really know about Qatar? Their 'vital statistics' are impressive to say the least. It is the world's richest country per capita with growth at 19.4 per cent in 2010, and projected growth beyond 2014 of 9 per cent, and with oil and liquid natural gas reserves, production and export capacity that would make Saudi oil pumps foam at the rim. Its ambitions for its future are remarkable -- while our own government seems to tie every policy initiative to 2015 (coincidentally the next election), Qatar is working to a vision for 2030.

We have seen Qatar burst to the forefront of the international agenda with its savvy and ambitious portfolio through winning the 2022 World Cup bid and investment in brands we all know, including Barclays, the London Stock Exchange, Harrods and the 2012 Olympic Park, and rumours of buying football clubs surface periodically. It has also established major international institutions in media through the Al Jazeera news network, banking through the Qatar Financial Centre, technology and R&D through Qatar Foundation and the Qatar Science and Technology Park attracting leading universities and think tanks from the US and UK to have bases in Doha.

Qatar has a population of just 300,000 Qataris, and over 1.3 million expatriates. The government has invested considerably to enrich the lives of its citizens, with unemployment in 2011 almost non-existent at 0.2 per cent, and the CIA World Factbook section for 'population below poverty line' for Qatar showing 'N/A'. In contrast, the section on foreign reserves and gold shows over $31bn in assets held.

Qatar is no democracy: it is an absolute monarchy with no political institutions, yet Qataris did not join their Arab neighbours to revolt against their leaders in the Arab Spring. Its local population appears content with its stability and national investment programmes to increase education, health and services and overall living standards, though its low-paid expat population still await higher labour standards. The internal call for democracy among young Qataris fell sharply from 68 per cent in 2008 to just 33 per cent in 2010. The question of involvement in the Arab Spring -- where protesters call for democratic governance and inclusion -- will unravel within Qatar's borders in time, no doubt.

At a time when a large proportion of the world's wealth and power is held by BRIC countries, where the question of 'are you a democracy?' is no longer the price of entry for engagement in international relations, and where long-term economic and political stability and citizens' rights are vital, the world does need more players willing to mediate, challenge and support intervention when necessary.

Qatar's ambitious and capable political trajectory should not go unnoticed.

Zamila Bunglawala is Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.