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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

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