Mideast Education Reform Saudi Arabia Could Learn Much from Qatar

Article excerpt


Last week, a court in London found Saudi intelligence services guilty of using the newspaper Az-zaman to defame the wife of the emir of Qatar, Sheikha Mouza. According to court documents, Az-zaman, edited by Iraqi national Saad al-Bazzaz and controlled by Saudi intelligence services, accused Sheikha Mouza of improper interference in Qatari state affairs and secret dealings with Israel.

Why would the Saudi government go to such lengths to destroy the credibility of one of the most dynamic women in the Middle East? Perhaps because she has been an untiring advocate of woman's empowerment and education reform who also happens to be the wife of America's most powerful ally in the region.

After the British relinquished their rule of Qatar in 1970, this tiny nation of 250,000 lived in the shadow of its more powerful and religiously orthodox neighbor, Saudi Arabia. For years, Saudi Arabia provided military protection to Qatar in exchange for Qatar's allegiance to the Saudi royal family. In short, under the reign of its former ruler, Sheikh Khalifa, Qatar lacked political and economic autonomy. Since succeeding his father in a bloodless coup eight years ago, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has changed the dynamic of his country's relationship with the traditional rulers of Saudi Arabia. This visionary leader and his dynamic wife have started the gradual transformation of all aspects of Qatar's socio economic and political institutions, thereby markedly distinguishing it from Saudi Arabia.

Today, the two countries are governed quite differently. Qatar, home to the world's second-largest natural-gas reserves, has embarked on a steady course of political, educational, social and cultural reform. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has only paid lip service to reform. While it would be an exaggeration to call Saudi Arabia an "outpost of tyranny," to use Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's terminology, it has unfortunately devolved into an outpost of intolerance and religious radicalism. For the sake of global energy security (Saudi Arabia is home to 20 percent of the world's remaining oil reserves) and if the West wants to decouple terrorism from Islam, Saudi Arabia must be reformed, or perhaps, saved from itself. Toward this end, Saudi Arabia could learn much from 21st-century Qatar.

Unlike the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Hamad does not see any contradictions between Islam and democracy. If Arab countries like Qatar embrace pluralism rather than authoritarianism, he reasons, then citizens with differing ideologies - secular versus religious, traditionalist versus modernist - can participate in the political life of their nations and effect change, or at least be heard without resorting to terror and mayhem. …