Qatar on my mind

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AMADO S. TOLENTINO, JR.

“FROM the bushes to the desert” was how a colleague jokingly described my diplomatic assignment from Papua New Guinea to Qatar. Looking back, both assignments were most welcome, challenging and fulfilling at the same time but my mind is on Qatar right now since a four-month-old geopolitical feud set the tiny but fabulously wealthy Qatar against its neighbors and rattled a previously placid part of the Middle East. The rift has affected the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and threatens to undermine regional stability. To think that the Gulf corner of the Middle East has been largely free of war, refugees or political turmoil in recent years.

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A recent news dispatch from the New York Times was not as alarming as before. Take note, “Talking about peace in the UN, but for the Persian Gulf” (19 September 2017) saying, “…Rather than seek to revive the moribund peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine…Mr. Trump is likely to wade back into the internecine feud between Qatar and its Persian Gulf neighbors.” Much preferable indeed to the previous, “Qatar buys Italian warships as Persian Gulf crisis deepens” (3 August 2017).

But intriguing were the ones headlined “Persian Gulf rivals competed to host Taliban, leaked emails show” (1 August 2017); “Does Qatar support extremism? Yes, and so does Saudi Arabia” (11 August 2017); ”Qatar restores full relations with Iran, deepening Gulf feud” (25 August 2017). A few sports news from the region gives a ray of hope, at least.

Qatar is the site of the largest American air base (Al-Udeid) in the region. Some neighboring countries, including Qatar, are key military partners of Washington and part of a broader US-led effort to facilitate peace in some parts of the world.

My stint in Qatar was during Al-Jazeera TV station’s rapid growth in popularity, which introduced Middle Eastern audiences to a whole new diverse range of opinion after years of controlled TV station output. It was also the period when the construction of the US military base was in full swing at which our OFWs comprised a large part of the labor force. Likewise, it was the beginning of the take-off of Qatar’s thrust at an epic scale investment in education with the objective of leading the country into a “knowledge economy” built on a well-educated workforce, ready for when income from gas and oil runs out. A global education city is now in place which blossomed from an international school, the Qatar Academy and the Qatar University (now two universities) offering varied degree courses at which female students constitute the majority and expanded to include extensions of US universities—Georgetown University, Cornell University, Northwestern University, Virginia Commonwealth University, to mention a few.

By coincidence, my stay in Doha saw the first time the country hosted an international environmental conference followed by that of the World Trade Organization at which our embassy had the experience of welcoming a high-level Philippine delegation led by Foreign Secretary Blas Ople. Since then, Qatar has continuously hosted conferences of the parties to multilateral environmental agreements on climate change, biological diversity and endangered species. It was also the height of Qatar hosting state visits of heads of state, among them Cuba’s President Fidel Castro and the young King of Jordan. Naturally, the diplomatic corps learned and figured much in the regular succession of state visitors.

It was the time for putting into fruition signed agreements between the the Philippines and Qatar. I remember the inauguration of Qatar Airways’ maiden flight to Manila. In a short time, its flights extended to every corner of the world utilizing the most modern aircraft carrying on board many Filipino crewmembers. Tourism was energized by the trip to Manila of a group of Qatari travel executives to meet with their counterparts along with side visits to our tourist sights, including Cebu. It was also the time of the Philippine President’s “Bring Home a Friend” program which proved very successful among our OFWs and their friends of various nationalities.

I experienced the dawn of the 21st century while in Doha. Philippines 21 consisted of monthly activities, an initiative of the Philippine Embassy to bring the Filipino community and Qatari society closer together. Among the notable monthly projects were: “Embassy on Wheels”; the tie-up with the Qatar Red Crescent Society; cultural presentations before children and young adults with disabilities; a performance by an outstanding Filipino concert pianist before Qatari students and a final performance before the OFWs and the Qatar diplomatic corps; an Asian painting exhibition; and sports competitions among various nationalities in Doha. Significantly, because I was deeply entrenched in environmental law work when called to diplomatic service, my first impulse was to introduce the Filipino community and their Qatari friends to environmental protection. It was a coastal area clean-up of debris consisting mostly of plastic wastes and planting of mangrove saplings backed by a big petroleum company. The project became an annual event and gained prominence after the 2004 Great Tsunami that hit 12 Asian countriesmwhich extensively publicized the value of mangroves to counter the effect of wave shocks and destruction. The simple gesture is now known in the world of environmental protection as ‘wetlands for disaster resilience’.

Guided by the third pillar of Philippine diplomacy, the Embassy was, apart from its attention to problems faced by OFWs, most cooperative in extending assistance, when requested, by other Asian embassies. Aware as they were of the extensive experience of the Philippines on the subject, they were most grateful when issues confronting their own overseas workers were resolved applying the Philippine experience. Most often, other embassies wonder at how labor became the third pillar of our diplomacy. Theirs rely solely on the traditional office of a labor attaché in their missions.

With the brief background on my attachment to Qatar, it cannot be helped that the place was foremost in my mind when the boycott in trade and domestic relations immediately followed by the cut-off of land, sea and air routes and the concomitant break-up of diplomatic ties were launched by its neighbors against the small but energy-giant Gulf state. While the eyes of the world are focused on the US as prime negotiator, friendly countries have not been wanting in efforts to extend a hand, i.e. Kuwait, Germany and Iran.

With so many avenues for peaceful settlement of international disputes available in international law (‘good offices,’ negotiation, mediation, inquiry, conciliation, etc.) “in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered,” I am optimistic the Gulf states’ issues will be resolved via non-judicial or diplomatic methods.

And then, again, as in olden times, brotherhood will reign supreme in those fabled Arab lands with guarantees of equal status as players in international affairs.

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