It's a late May evening in Doha, capital of the Gulf emirate of Qatar, and the temperature has dropped to a balmy 38ÂºC from a blistering daytime high of 45ÂºC.
Luckily, the air-conditioning is keeping things cool in the large room at the headquarters complex of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development where The Doha Debates, a public affairs program now concluding its third season on BBC World News, is being taped for later broadcast.
Tonight's guest is top Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar, who will field questions from host Tim Sebastian and an audience of Qatari students and other young Arabs from around the region.
As the taping gets under way, things quickly heat up, with Sebastian challenging Zahar in the patented take-no-prisoners style he perfected during his years as host of the BBC interview program, HARDtalk.
Raising the issue of the Kassam rockets shot daily from Gaza on Sderot and other Israeli communities, Sebastian asks bluntly: "You call this self-defense? Indiscriminate attacks against innocent civilians in Israel? You don't care who you kill, do you?"
Zahar surely anticipated such treatment from Sebastian when he signed up to do The Doha Debates. Less expected, perhaps, is the grilling he subsequently receives from the audience. While his rote denunciations of Israel garner dutiful applause, the Hamas leader finds himself the subject of a stream of blistering inquiries from the young Arabs seated before him.
"How do you consider yourself an Islamic organization, when Islam forbids killing innocent people and civilians, even when they belong to an enemy?" asks one.
"You are criticizing the Israelis for doing things against the Palestinians that Hamas is itself doing," says another.
A young woman who identifies herself as a Palestinian shoots out in a strong voice: "Not only are Hamas's activities creating a negative image of Palestinians, both in the Arab world and international community, but it's also costing many, many lives - so how can you allow this to continue?"
There's no program other than The Doha Debates in the Middle East that allows Arab audiences to so openly confront a figure such as Zahar, and it's hard to imagine any other place in the Arab world they could do so other than in Qatar. The uniqueness of program is emblematic of Qatar's exceptional role in the region - one sending out ripples of change throughout the Middle East - and generating a strong counterreaction, as well.
QATAR SITS on a small peninsula that juts up like a left-hand thumb from the east coast of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf. It shares many of the same characteristics of the other Gulf states: It sits on a huge ocean of oil (an estimated 15 billion barrels) and natural gas, making it the richest nation in the world per capita; it is still ruled by a dynastic sheikhdom, although it has recently introduced some democratic reforms; the rising oil economy has powered a local construction boom, leaving Doha's skyline dotted by ultra-modern skyscrapers in various stages of construction or completion; and its native population of about 350,000 is outnumbered by some four times that number of foreign workers. (When I arrive in Doha, I am greeted at the airport by a Chinese woman, taken to my hotel by a Filipino driver and checked in by an Indian receptionist.)
In other ways, though, Qatar has carved out for itself its own exceptional identity among neighbors that include Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. My own presence there last week is indicative of one aspect of this special status. Qatar was the first Gulf state to openly establish diplomatic relations with Israel, and after suspending them with the outbreak of the second intifada, it reestablished trade relations in 2005, allowing Jerusalem to open a commercial office in Doha. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni visited there two months ago, to attend the Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade, and other Israelis are allowed to visit if they receive government permission for a visa.
These developments are part of a relatively dramatic (in terms of the Gulf) push forward toward Westernization and liberalization over the past decade, following the ascension to its throne of Qatar's current ruler, Emir Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani. Hamid has expanded women's rights, including the right to vote in local elections and for a newly formed parliament; recently allowed the first church to open to serve the Christian foreign labor population; and has significantly invested in and opened up the nation's educational facilities, including a literal "Education City," whose colleges include local branches of Carnegie-Mellon, Georgetown, Cornell, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth.
Credit for many of these developments, especially the latter, is also given to the emir's dynamic wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, who has emerged in recent years as second only to Jordan's Queen Rania as the most prominent female ruler in the Arab political world. She makes her influence felt through her role as chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation, which serves as the principle sponsor of The Doha Debates (and also sponsored my visit to Qatar).
Beyond education, it is in media through which Qatar has made its most notable impact on the region. The most prominent manifestation of this - and the most controversial - is the Arabic Al Jazeera satellite TV news network, founded in 1996, and joined two years ago by an English-language sister channel.
Al Jazeera has, of course, been bitterly attacked in Israel recently for its slanted reporting of the Gaza situation, as well as by the US and Iraq on its coverage of the latter's ongoing conflict. But there's no denying its impact on the Arab world in presenting reports dealing with sensitive political, social and religious issues with a critical openness that has proved groundbreaking for the Arab broadcast media (and this includes giving Israeli officials a chance to have their say directly to Arab audiences).
Qatar is now looking to expand that outreach in other media outlets.
While in Doha, for example, I meet with Abdulaziz al-Mahmoud, editor-in-chief of a new daily, Al Arab, that started publishing in November and has hopes to become a regional paper.
Before this, al-Mahmoud served as a senior editor at Al Jazeera, and still sits on the board. He defends the station from charges of bias, but when I suggest that the station is also serving political purposes, he concedes, "Yes, you can say that" - although when I ask what they are, he responds with a smile, "To be honest, I'm not sure."
Al Arab is different, he assures me, more of commercial venture sponsored by local investors (Al Jazeera gets direct government funding) and one in which he has a freer editorial hand.
An engaging personality, Mahmoud is at ease discussing and debating an Israeli journalist on various regional issues. But ordinary Qataris (if there is such a thing) are apparently less comfortable with the idea, he concedes, telling me the Israeli trade office had initial difficulty finding someone to rent it space until the government intervened. Full normalization will only come, he insists, after a final agreement with the Palestinians is reached.
As for Qatar's own normalization in the area of press freedom, it has clearly made some impressive strides. Earlier this year the emir authorized the establishment of the Doha Media Center, an NGO set up in collaboration with the international organization Reporters Without Borders, whose mission will be to "focus on violations committed against media in the Arab world and other countries."
Still, even Reporters Without Borders last year ranked Qatar in 79th place on its Worldwide Press Freedom Index, below neighbors Kuwait and the UAE (Israel was 44th). Al Jazeera may feel free to criticize Jerusalem and other Arab regimes, but it is noticed that it rarely turns that critical eye on Qatar's own government, especially Emir Hamid and Sheikha Moza.
ONE MAN in Qatar who insists he operates under no editorial restrictions at all is Doha Debates creator and host Tim Sebastian.
"I just wouldn't have accepted working here under any other condition," the veteran BBC reporter insists, in the same self-certain tone he used to such great effect taking on various world leaders in his years on HARDtalk.
The Doha Debates evolved out of a conversation Sebastian had four years ago with Sheik Hamid, "in which he asked me what kind of program I would do here if I had the freedom to do so, and I said one based on the Oxford Union debates," in which notable figures take sides over a particular motion, and a student audience votes afterward, either in favor or against.
Like much else in Qatar that happens with lightning speed once the emir gives his assent, a pilot program was quickly set up on the motion: "This House believes the Arab world is not interested in genuine reform," and Sebastian recruited an old colleague, Ali Willis, to act as producer.
"Initially we thought this might be a one-off or limited series," says Willis. "It was only after the third program, when it got picked up by BBC World, that we realized it would be a continuing series."
The only input from the sponsors, she says, "was a request that we take down a portrait of the emir that we had hung in the background for the first show."
There certainly seems to be virtually no regional hot-button topic the program has not dealt with in the past four years, including: "This House believes in the separation of mosque and state"; "This House believes that Iran poses the greatest threat to security in the region"; "This House believes Hizbullah had no right to fight a war on Lebanon's behalf"; and "This House believes that Arab women should have full equality with men."
In January 2007, Shimon Peres was invited to appear on the program, becoming the first high-ranking Israeli to visit Qatar in more than a decade, and he has been followed by Meretz MK Yossi Beilin and former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. The Doha Debates segments dealing with the Israeli-Arab conflict are among the most controversial and popular, according to Willis.
"The show on the motion 'This House believes the Palestinians should give up their full right of return,' probably generated the greatest response," she says.
Unfortunately, that motion was rejected, although last month's "This House believes the Palestinians risk becoming their own worst enemy" was approved. Certainly it's harder to imagine a better example of that proposition than Zahar, who, during his contentious 90-minute give-and-take with the studio audience, rejected any criticism of Hamas, showed not the slightest sign of any possible acceptance of Israel's existence and displayed not even a sliver of self-doubt or remorse in his organization's policy of deliberately targeting innocent civilians (or, for that matter, attacking fellow Palestinians it considers a threat).
Certainly on this occasion, The Doha Debates lived up to its stated mission as "a public forum for dialogue and freedom of speech in Qatar."
Sitting in the crowd is 24-year old Almuhannad al-Hammadi, one of the bright young Qataris who regularly attend, and who recently began working in the country's Foreign Ministry.
"It is helping to open up the country to discussion and debate, giving the people courage to speak out about certain issues that were once considered taboo," he says.
One sign of this is that just three months ago the country held its first-ever student debating competition, organized by the recently formed Qatar Debate Society, which next autumn will also be sending a national team (three of whom are girls) to the World Schools Debating Championships in Washington DC.
So impressive and quick are the apparent strides being made by Qatar in the realm of free expression, one can't help wonder if it may pose a possible danger to the country's social and political stability down the line.
"It's true that it is still primarily the younger Qataris, the students seen as the 'Qatar Foundation' generation, that is being influenced by all this," says al-Hammadi. "And they are being given certain expectations that could become problematic if these aren't met."
If the possibility of a local backlash against this rapid liberalization should remain a concern, that trend is already evident on a regional level. In February, the Arab League adopted a new "satellite channel charter" that officially allows its member-states to withdraw broadcast permits from stations that "offend the leaders or national and religious symbols" or "damage social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional values" of Arab countries. Clearly, outlets such as Al Jazeera, and programs like The Doha Debates, were the spur to the measure - and Qatar and Lebanon were the only countries that voted against it.
"It's a worrying development," says Sebastian. "Free speech in the region is under pressure, and we stand out even more as a forum where people can say things they can't say anywhere else."
The Doha Debates featuring Mahmoud Zahar will be broadcast on BBC World on June 7 and 8.
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