A view of the world from Doha

The 18th annual Doha Forum took place on December 15–16, and although I am not an expert on politics in the Middle East, I was intrigued to go and see what was going on in Qatar, given that the country has been under a blockade for 18 months. I was invited because of my expertise in the politics of populism, but also as an American, at an event where there weren’t very many American officials in evidence. A few conservative outlets have focused on the few Republican and Democratic officials/former officials who were there. This was definitely not a U.S.-centric meeting. There were many officials from other parts of the world who clearly appreciated the opportunity to share their views.

I have spent much of the last four months traveling to various venues to discuss the issue of immigration, the radical right and populism. I was invited to the Forum by a former student who is now a researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. The panel focused on changing societies and the impact of populism in the world. It isn’t the first time I have attended a major international forum, for many years I attended the Brussels Forum, organized by the German Marshall Fund. The format was similar to Brussels in format, but there were twice as many attendees (~1800), and it was a much more diverse crowd in Doha as compared to Brussels.

It’s clear that PR was very much on the mind of Qatari officials, and many of the diplomats from other countries, like Iran and Somalia, but there was also interesting discussion of significant issues that resonate beyond the Middle East. The theme of the forum was “Diplomacy, Dialogue, Diversity” and the keynote speakers touched on this theme in a variety of ways. For example, the issue of populism came up in several discussions, including the speech by the Emir of Qatar that opened the conference.

In his opening speech, the Emir stated, “we have moved from talking about cosmopolitanism to concern over politicizing xenophobia by the populist movements that rally the public along ethnic, national, religious and sectarian affiliations; and we have also moved from being optimistic about market globalization and elimination of borders to dealing with protectionist economic policies.” The Emir was clearly speaking to the politics surrounding immigration and trade in the U.S. and Europe.

The Emir was followed by the President of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, who focused more directly on the conference theme, saying that we should respect all kinds of diversity, in fact, the world would be boring without diversity. He also noted that diversity is there to be enjoyed, not suffered. He pointed out that the poorest citizens need to be heard and emphasized the importance of dialogue.

The President of the UN Assembly, Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, spoke about rising inequality and the ongoing push for sustainable development goals and the Global Compact on Migration, which was officially endorsed by the UN General Assembly on December 19th.

Although there was controversy over giving the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif a platform to criticize U.S. foreign policy, he was also pressed on human rights issues.

These speeches laid the groundwork for a conference that would cover a variety of topics from trade and investment to cyber security the wars in Syria and Yemen. The blockade of Qatar by Saudia Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain was a thread woven through many of the speeches and discussions. Qatari officials emphasized the benefits that the country has brought to the region, including education and independent media (i.e., Al Jazeera — which Saudi Arabia has demanded be shut down), and the fact that the country has managed to thrive, in spite of the blockade.

Global inequality was another theme that was touched on by many of the speakers. There were several references to the UN’s sustainable development goals, emerging markets, access to markets and shifting resources from a focus on threats to a focus on economic growth. Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad provided compelling testimony of the ongoing suffering of Yazidi women and communities in Iraq.

My own panel focused on the topic raised by many of the speakers, populism and changing societies. Starting with a discussion of issues in the U.S., including the election of Donald Trump, the far right, terrorism and the recent midterm elections, the panelists pointed out the differences in populist rhetoric vs. actual policies. Although Trump’s speeches may be populist, policies like tax cuts have not favored the working class, not even the white working class who support Trump in large numbers.

I noted that there are contending social movements that are having a direct impact on electoral politics. On the right, the march and violence in Charlottesville raised alarms about far-right attacks. We also discussed the influence of Trump’s racist and anti-media speech on those who would turn to violence like the attacks on the synagogue in Pittsburgh and the recent spate of bombs sent to media and political figures. On the other side of the divide, the Black Lives Matter movement and the mobilization of Latinos and Asians clearly had an impact on the midterm elections, where the Democratic party had a “blue wave” of forty seats won in the House of Representatives.

The panelists concluded that the future of Trumpism and populism is unclear in the U.S., the divisions will continue to have an impact on society, particularly revolving around issues such as immigration, inequality and approaches to globalization. The issues of inequality and globalization are also playing a role in populist politics in Europe. Populism is being seen on both the left and right in Europe. It’s not clear yet if the recent protests in France by the Gilets Jaune will play into the rhetoric of the Left or Right — both sides played a role once the protests had gotten underway.

There was a focus on women in foreign policy in several panels that focused on themes such as a panel on “Enforcing Norms in Cyberspace,” and “Gender and Mediation: The Role of Women in Conflict Resolution.” It was clear that there was an effort to include women’s voices throughout the forum. Overall, there were many voices who raised important issues such as climate change, refugees and poverty.

Video of the plenary sessions is available on YouTube here:https://www.youtube.com/user/DohaForum13/videos



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Terri Givens

Terri Givens

Founder/CEO Brighter Higher Ed. Political scientist & consultant. Higher Ed, Radical right parties, immigration politics & European politics