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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GM should not be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations

People may be opposed to GM crops and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But people facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice.

My parents researched malnutrition and under-nutrition in India, especially among children, and found that many diets recommended by Western nutritionists were in fact completely inapplicable to the poor. So they formulated cheap, healthy diets based on indigenous food with which people were familiar. Yet despite their many other efforts, a quarter of people in India and nearly one in nine people around the world do not have enough food to live a healthy active life.

The World Bank estimates that we will need to produce about 50 per cent more food by 2050 to feed a population of nine billion people. And the past 50 years have seen agricultural productivity soar – corn yields in the US have doubled, for example. But this has come with sharp increases in the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water which has brought its own problems. There is also no guarantee that this rate of increase in yields can be maintained.

Just as new agricultural techniques and equipment spurred on food production in the Middle Ages, and scientific crop breeding, fertilisers and pesticides did so for the Green Revolution of the 20th century, so we must rely on the latest technology to boost food production further. Genetic modification, or GM, used appropriately with proper regulation, may be part of the solution. Yet GM remains a highly contentious topic of debate where, unfortunately, the underlying facts are often obscured.

Views on GM differ across the world. Almost half of all crops grown in the US are GM, whereas widespread opposition in Europe means virtually no GM crops are grown there. In Canada, regulation is focused on the characteristics of the crop produced, while in the EU the focus is on how it has been modified. GM crops do not damage the environment by nature of their modification; GM is merely a technology, and it is the resulting product that we should be concerned about and regulate, just as we would any new product.

There are outstanding plant scientists who work on GM in the UK, but the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have declared their opposition to GM plants. Why is there such strong opposition in a country with great trust in scientists?

About 15 years ago when GM was just emerging, its main proponents and many of the initial products were from large multinational corporations – even though it was publicly funded scientists who produced much of the initial research. Understandably, many felt GM was a means for these corporations to impose a monopoly on crops and maximise their profits. This perception was not helped by some of the practices of these big companies, such as introducing herbicide resistant crops that led to the heavy use of herbicides – often made by the same companies.

The debate became polarised, and any sense that the evidence could be rationally assessed evaporated. There have been claims made about the negative health effects and economic costs of GM crops – claims later shown to be unsubstantiated. Today, half of those in the UK do not feel well informed about GM crops.

Everyday genetic modification

GM involves the introduction of very specific genes into plants. In many ways this is much more controlled than the random mutations that are selected for in traditional plant breeding. Most of the commonly grown crops that we consider natural actually bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors, having been selectively modified through cross-breeding over the thousands of years that humans have been farming crops – in a sense, this is a form of genetic modification itself.

In any case, we accept genetic modification in many other contexts: insulin used to treat diabetes is now made by GM microbes and has almost completely replaced animal insulin, for example. Many of the top selling drugs are proteins such as antibodies made entirely by GM, and now account for a third of all new medicines (and over half of the biggest selling ones). These are used to treat a host of diseases, from breast cancer to arthritis and leukaemia.



Millions of acres growing GM crops worldwide. Fafner/ISSSA, CC BY-SA

GM has been used to create insect-resistance in plants that greatly reduces or even eliminates the need for chemical insecticides, reducing the cost to the farmer and the environment. It also has the potential to make crops more nutritious, for example by adding healthier fats or more nutritious proteins. It’s been used to introduce nutrients such as beta carotene from which the body can make vitamin A – the so-called golden rice – which prevents night blindness in children. And GM can potentially create crops that are drought resistant – something that as water becomes scarce will become increasingly important.

More than 10% of the world’s arable land is now used to grow GM plants. An extensive study conducted by the US National Academies of Sciences recently reported that there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop since the widespread commercialisation of GM products 18 years ago. It also reported that there was no conclusive evidence of environmental problems resulting from GM crops.

GM is a tool, and how we use it is up to us. It certainly does not have to be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations. We can and should have adequate regulations to ensure the safety of any new crop strain (GM or otherwise) to both ourselves and the environment, and it is up to us to decide what traits in any new plant are acceptable. People may be opposed to GM crops for a variety of reasons and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But the one in nine people in poor countries facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice. The availability of cheap, healthy and nutritious food for them is a matter of life and death.

Alongside other improvements in farming practices, genetic modification is an important part of a sustainable solution to global food shortages. However, the motto of the Royal Society is nullius in verba; roughly, “take nobody’s word for it”. We need a well-informed debate based on an assessment of the evidence. The Royal Society has published GM Plants: questions and answers which can play its part in this. People should look at the evidence – not just loudly voiced opinions – for themselves and make up their own minds.

The ConversationVenki Ramakrishnan is President of the Royal Society, and Professor and Deputy Director at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article