Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Doha Debates - Critical reflection in the Gulf

I attended my first "Doha Debates" tonight. Wow! Was it ever fascinating. The "Doha Debates" have been sponsored by the Qatar Foundation since 2005 and they are broadcast worldwide via BBCWorld. The viewership is 300 million people in more than 200 countries and what an exciting initiative to provide a voice of critical reflection in the Arabian Gulf.

Tonight's debate was particularly controversial. The resolution was "This House believes Arab Governments couldn't care less about Darfur." To even pose the question in such a way was a significant risk for the program but it was highly effective in stimulating debate among the panelists and in spurring those of us in attendance to ask questions. If you can get to a TV that carries BBCWorld, you really should watch it. The 23 January debate will be on BBC this weekend both Saturday and Sunday; it depends on your local programming when it might be available.

The debate was conducted in very traditional form and stimulated lots of controversy. Ultimately, the resolution passed, meaning that 80% of those in attendance believed that Arab countries are doing little to stem the bloodshed in Darfur. Statements were made about monetary contributions but ultimately the views of listeners turned when the issue of personal responsibility and care arose. Some expressed that they believed that Arab countries stand by as a result of tacit agreements to stay out of each others' business. Whether or not this is a reflection of reality or the perception of the people is unclear. The point is that the people believe that Arab governments should do more.

There was a moment in the debate when the conversation shifted to the role of the U.S.A. An unfortunate and very debilitating result of the Iraq War is that foreign policy in the U.S.A. is presumed by some to be driven by self-interest of those who seek control, or at least significant influence, in countries that have oil. Sudan is such a place and at one point several statements were made about the role the U.S.A. has played in perpetuating the conflict in Darfur. Again, whether foreign policy is really driven by the motivation to control oil reserves matters little - it is the perception that counts.

I deeply appreciate the opportunity to debate such topics right in the middle of the Arab world. Indeed, it is a proud moment when people find and express their voices freely. This expression will no doubt have an impact on governments and leadership and perhaps, just perhaps, there will be future action to deal with the disaster of Darfur.

If you're interested, don't miss the BBC broadcast and then start watching for the next "Doha Debates."

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