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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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.