Qatar for Peace?

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen derives much of its charm as a novel from the patent implausibility of its plot. The recent film version, by all accounts, rather seems to miss the boat — though the Yemen tourism board in London claims to have been “inundated” by inquiries from British holidaymakers. Tourists would do well to heed the current Foreign Office advice: don’t go to Yemen, even with your own armed guards; if you’re there already, leave at once — although direct flights to London were suspended more than two years ago because of bomb plots; don’t expect us to help if you are kidnapped, trafficked or murdered. And, of course, there’s no salmon fishing in Yemen.

Would Playing Soccer in the Desert make an equally implausible sequel? Clearly not, because the Gulf state of Qatar has been chosen to stage the 2022 Fifa World Cup, in temperatures approaching 50°C. It’s not just five climate-controlled stadiums that Qatar has to design and build over the next decade. It’s the huge infrastructure needed to support them, transport links including a new metro and brand new cities where there were not even tents before.

Visiting the capital, you get the feeling that this soaring ambition is well within Qatar’s grasp. Vast areas of Doha are given over to construction sites. With oil and gas revenues giving its people the highest per capita income in the world, Qatar has imported armies of guest-workers to build its future.

One of those guest-workers is Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, who retires in September as president of the UK Supreme Court. He has accepted an invitation to succeed Lord Woolf as president of the Qatar International Court. “I’m sure he’ll be suitably insulted,” one envious lawyer murmured to me, referring to the fiction that barristers are “insulted” by  the offer of a fee for their services and “very insulted” by the offer of a large fee.

Staffed mainly by commercial barristers, legal academics and retired judges from the UK, the Qatar court operates according to common law principles, reassuring foreign contractors that their disputes will be decided by tribunals in which they can have confidence. The court has mandatory jurisdiction over disputes involving companies and institutions registered at the Qatar Financial Centre and can hear cases by agreement from anywhere in the world. Though the judges are part-time and can sit, where appropriate, without leaving home, the court’s chief executive, Bob Musgrove, moved to Qatar with his wife in 2010 after 25 years service in the civil justice system of England and Wales.

At the beginning of May, Qatar invited 400 delegates from 60 jurisdictions — including several British appeal judges — to a law forum at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Flights and accommodation were paid for by the Qatar government, allowing Michael Napier, the solicitor who chaired a session on equal access to the law, to joke that the conference was “open to all — like the Ritz hotel”. 

Writing in Standpoint about the first Qatar law forum three years ago, I remarked on the irony of discussing the rule of law in a country run by an absolute monarch who had come to power in a bloodless coup. The theme this year was global commitment to the rule of law in a time of change — a reference to the Arab spring and the international financial crisis.

But what really brought the conference alive for me was the suggestion that Qatar might be able to buy an even greater prize than football or the rule of law. Over breakfast, one very well-connected delegate told me that Qatar had been trying to act as an honest broker between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

The first speaker that morning was Sheikh Hamad, Qatar’s prime minister and foreign minister, who made a depressingly predictable reference to the “daily crimes that violate the rights of the Palestinian people”. But that was followed by a session on the international courts chaired by Malik Dahlan, the well-connected Harvard-educated lawyer who runs an international law and policy firm called Quraysh. The last time we had spoken he told me I had incorrectly reported that nobody from Israel had attended the last Qatar law forum.

This time, Dahlan referred to Israel from the platform, suggesting it could become part of a regional grouping that would include Turkey. When I questioned  him further he summed up his hopes to the largely Arab audience in flawless Hebrew. “I want peace now,” Dahlan declared, hinting — as I understood it — that a settlement was essential before Iran acquired nuclear weapons.

Making Peace in the Middle East sounds just as implausible as Playing Soccer in the Desert. But what Dahlan seems to realise more clearly than most is that nobody will want to play football in a region recovering from a nuclear war.

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