Life without an overcoat, Corniche pasties in Doha and an email from Carl Bernstein

Sholto Byrnes, editor of Think., on diversity, "Corniche pasties" and setting up shop in Doha.

“What’s it really like?” ask friends, former colleagues and authors, when they know I’m calling from Qatar. The curiosity is intense, which is not surprising, given the state’s international involvement in everything from investment, property and football to the UN and the geopolitics of Arab spring countries.
This curiosity served me well when I arrived in Doha in December 2011. Being the launch editor of a new publication, Think. – the global trends, international affairs and thought leadership quarterly of Qatar Foundation – was both exciting and daunting.
When I was commissioning for the NS, it used to be easy. Everyone knew of the magazine and most regarded it as an honour to be asked to contribute. Getting writers from across the globe to write a 3,000-word essay for a title that didn’t yet exist might, I feared, be different. Not so much. We soon secured Nobel Prizewinners, former and current prime ministers and presidents, garlanded novelists, and interviews with leading figures from across the arts. I even woke up one morning to find an email from the Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, happy to discuss a commission. Everyone’s heard of Qatar. And they’re very, very interested.

Movers and sheikhas

Clearing away a cloud of misconceptions is the first task. Take the role of women. Increasingly prevalent in the west seems to be the notion that the act of wearing a headscarf deprives a Muslim woman of her agency and ability to think for herself. Well, not in Qatar. The chair of Qatar Foundation, under whose umbrella come full degree-awarding branch campuses of American and European universities, extensive science and research programmes, community development agencies and the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, to name but a few, is the new emir’s mother, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. Qatar Museums Authority (which is about to mount the biggest ever exhibition of work by Damien Hirst) is led by her daughter, Sheikha Mayassa.
At Qatar Foundation, I answer to a nearly unbroken line of female executives, most of whom cover their heads. Anyone who doubts that these are powerful women would find their opinion swiftly refreshed on meeting them. Last year I went to the filming of one of the last in the series Doha Debates (it was chaired by Tim Sebastian, broadcast on BBC World and reached audiences of up to 350 million). As an abaya-clad student berated half the panel, making the most forceful point of the night, I thought: “If this woman is subjugated, someone forgot to tell her.”

Gulf of misunderstanding

Qatar’s role in the region’s politics is also misunderstood. The state’s past and present involvement in Libya and Syria is particularly well known, although relations with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban have raised some startling suggestions from that corps of western commentators who are obsessed with the “perils” of Islamism.
“A lot of what Qatar was doing was because it had a vision, not necessarily an Islamist one, but based on the view that what had preceded it, for instance in Egypt and Tunisia, had not served the Arab region well,” my friend Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha, told me. It’s about “pragmatism and building bridges”, he says. Although he concedes that aiding the opposition in Syria has not so far had the desired result, it is equally true that the search for a hidden Islamist agenda has been fruitless, simply because there isn’t one – hard though that may be for right-wing or liberal-fundamentalist conspiracy theorists to admit.

The difference is Doha

Yes, it’s hot here: it can reach 50°C in the summer. (However, I dismiss any doubts about Qatar’s ability to host the World Cup in such heat. If one of the most arid countries on the planet can plan to produce 90 per cent of its own food by 2024, attending to a little airconditioning issue should be a bagatelle.) But there are chilly months, too. I had occasion to wear an overcoat three times last winter. There are public parks, galleries and museums, malls, cinemas and familiar shops such as M&S and Debenhams. Yet it is not Dubai. Qatar is keen to preserve its own culture and has no need to become as liberal as its Emirati near-neighbour. The strong sense of local history and practice can be catching.
Another friend, Patrick Forbes, recently hosted his first majlis, a traditional Gulf event where guests gather to recline on cushions, eat, chat and smoke shishas until the early hours. A speech was given by Tim Makower, the architectural language adviser to Msheireb Properties, which is redeveloping a swath of Doha close to the Amiri Diwan (the emir’s court) and the curve of the Corniche, drawing on the Islamic architecture of the past and reimagining it for the 21st century.
That sums up much of what makes Qatar’s vision so distinctive. But it may have been lost on the vendor near my seafront office who sells “Corniche pasties”. I’m not sure if the joke’s on him or us.

Majority minorities

One of the most positive aspects of life in Qatar is its diversity. This is manifest not only in the array of cuisine available but also in the people. Qataris make up just 15 per cent of the 1.7 million population: over 50 per cent are from south Asia, 13 per cent come from other Arab countries and 11 per cent from the Philippines, while “others”, including those from Europe, the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, constitute 7 per cent. It sometimes feels as though Britain, even London, can be a little grudging in its acceptance of difference (those disgraceful Home Office vans being the latest case in point). Here, it is the norm.
I’m glad that our three-year-old son, in whose veins course Irish, English, French, Italian, Malay, Indian and Cocos Islander blood, should be growing up to think that natural. His friends have names like Yahya, Yagiz and Sheikha, as well as Matteo, Raffaella and Leonidas. My colleagues come from South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, as well as Ireland, Australia and Britain.
As it says in a verse from the Quran that I find particularly moving: “Lo! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another.”
Sholto Byrnes is the editor of Think.
The view from the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. Photograph: Getty Images.
Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.