Sep
21

Contemporary Qatar

Edited books are challenging to summarize, this post surveys some of the chapters and key points that stood out to me in this new collection, Contemporary Qatar (2021), edited by Zweiri and Al Qawasmi.

Ch 1 outlines the challenges experienced by the new state, often driven by external actors but which slowed the process of state building, which included the oil embargo (1973/4), oil crisis (1979), Iranian revolution (1979), Egypt-Israel peace treaty (1979), Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), GCC (1981), invasion of Kuwait, Gulf War (1990/1), Soviet collapse (1991), Jordan-Israel peace treaty (1994), failed coup (1996). The resources that Qatar holds today, largely LNG, were not a certain investment in the 1990s, when prices were low, but paid off in the long run. LNG development began in 1991, with the first export in 1997, the economic benefits of this enabled economic diversification in the 2000s, and beyond. The authors also note the niche areas of diplomacy that develop: (1) peace diplomacy / conflict resolution in Yemen, Sudan, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Eritrea; (2) higher education, with Education City, (3) Media  with Al Jazeera Media Network from 1996, and (4) Sport via 2008 Asian Games, 2011 Pan Arab Games, to FIFA and beyond.

Ch 2 is historical, and there are several book length efforts on this. I'll leave the summary as I have done that for the other books. Ch 3 on governance highlights unique directions of Qatar for the region, and what consequences this had - namely supporting a generation of young leaders and expanding freedoms, which created some tensions in the region with other nations whose leaders did not share this vision. Ch 4 covers political participation - there is much said about the 2021 elections, but municipal elections have been on-going since 1999; the author shows a relatively low voter registration, variable voter turn out, and declining candidates. This chapter is quite quantitative. There appears to be a need to delve into the qualitative aspects of why.

Ch 5 covers foreign policy (also covered by Kamrava, I'll avoid repetition here). Ch 6 explores the peace diplomacy, drawing on first hand experiences, and outlines the cases of Yemen, Lebanon, Sudan, Djibouti, Palestine, and Afghanistan. Some unique contributions in this chapter for those interested. Ch 7 offers a detailed case study on foreign relations with Palestine while Ch 8 outlines the expansion of military capacity and capability following the 2017 blockade of Qatar. Ch 9 broadens the conversation on sport in Qatar, moving beyond its international and tourism purposes, but also its cultural and bottom-up social drivers. Ch 10 re-orients the rentier framing of Qatar to one in the political realm, as a developmental state; this seems a useful re-conceptualization, as far too often broad generalizations are made of groups of states, which may not hold. Ch 11 covers the geopolitical of gas, specifically in relation to the US shale gas market and Qatar's LNG. 

Ch 12 is one of the few in this collection that address domestic social issues, it focusing on national identity. The drivers resonate with many other chapters (economic, education, big projects, blockade), what is unique about this chapter is that the author presents recommendations on how the emerging national identity issues could be address, which include: (1) cultural criteria for immigrants (in a country where the majority are not citizens); (2) a labour market shift that focuses upon the longer term / multi-generational migrants who are 'local' as opposed to revolving shifts of foreign workers; (3) strengthen public schools via state investment and training with an aim to increase their appeal and phase out coupon system currently in place for private schools; (4) ensure the urban housing policy facilitates residential structures that are intentionally mixed, slowly addressing the legacy of some families living in particular areas to enable greater interaction and solidarity across society. Ch 13 addresses the memory of the blockade, and makes an interesting case about the rise of nationalist sentiment before the blockade that enabled the government to take a bold stance, which thereafter increased nationalist sentiments. Ch 14 covers women in the workforce, with Qatar being positioned as having a low female work force participation and lacking a 'female friendly' work environment. However, the chapter would have been enhanced with regional and international comparisons - Qatar has relatively high female labour force participation (similar to Germany and the UK) and has a rate nearly triple that of other regional countries (e.g. Saudi, Egypt, Iran). The interesting question seems to be the converse - what enabled Qatar to be so different (while acknowledging that further progress could yet be made on enable greater labour participation). 

This is an excellent collection of works for those interested in Qatar. A limitation is that a lot focuses on the political and economic realms (domestic and international) and less on the social issues (other than national identity and female labour participation). Nonetheless, for those interested in the subject areas covered, this is an important contribution. 

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Jun
19

How to Rig an Election

"The greatest political paradox of our time is this: there are more elections than ever before, and yet the world is becoming less democratic" (p. 1). This paradox is explained in How to Rig an Election (2018) by Cheeseman and Klaas (published by Yale). In sum: "How is it possible that the flourishing of elections has coincided with a decade of democratic decline? The answer is that dictators, despots and counterfeit democrats have figured out how to rig elections and get away with it." (p. 3) The book is an excellent read for undergraduate students, it is clear and accessible. The chapters cover gerrymandering (Ch 1), vote buying (Ch 2), repression (Ch 3), hacking the election (Ch 4), stuffing the ballot box (Ch 5), playing the international community (Ch 6). Each chapter provides a range of examples of each issue, from a set of countries the authors have more experience with (which are global in nature). The focus of the book is on contexts where democracy does not have deep roots (they say the emphasis of cases is more on how to "strengthen or build democracy, rather than rescue or defend it").

The chapter on hacking the election is fascinating in that it sheds light on new directions of rigging, particularly the use of technology. The authors state that there is "a clear risk that we are heading towards a future, previously imagined only in science fiction movies, in which our actions and beliefs are recorded and manipulated at a level of detail that was hitherto unthinkable. And whether we like it or not, such methods are being increasingly deployed in an ever-larger number of elections, with important consequences. When elections are decided by small margins, big data can be decisive." (p. 148)

Conclusion? "In the twenty-first century, elections will be rigged with strategies both old and new, because autocrats have learnt a simple but sad truth: it is easier to stay in power by rigging elections than by not holding them at all. For that reason, we must learn an even more uncomfortable truth: right now, those who rig elections are outfoxing not only their own people but also the international community. Unless we learn how to identify these strategies and address them, then election quality will continue to decline. Over time, this is likely to call the basic legitimacy of democracy into question, as people grow frustrated with elections that fail to usher in change." (p. 239) 

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Jun
14

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

Gates' How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (2021) is well written. The book seems to aim for an audience that has had minimal engagement with climate change conversations. The first chapter sets the scene for the author's positionality, followed by a few chapters on climate science 101. For those moderately versed in the climate conversation, these might be skimmed. Chapters 4 to 9 present the crux of the subtitle, available solutions and needed breakthroughs. Unsurprisingly, the book takes a technological focus on mitigation, and admittedly it offers little on politics, economics, values or societal transformation.

This book was not on my reading list, but I picked it up after a guest lecturer made mention of it positively. I was most interested in the proposals (Chapters 4-9). In Ch 4 we get nuclear, offshore wind, hydrogen, carbon capture, amongst a few others. The chapter raises some interesting points that infrequently come up in transition conversations, such as all the infrastructure requirements - from massive transmission systems to housing electrical services (we tend to focus on supply infrastructure and use, not distribution). Gates does not much engage with all the metals required for the proposals to occur. Ch 5 reiterates the point as an enabler for changing how we produce products and raises the challenge of cement as a GHG producer with no simple replacement. Ch 6 grapples with agriculture and land use, calling for changing foods (artificial and lab meat) and reducing food waste; it points to the challenges of fertilizer and deforestation. Ch 7 covers transportation and calls for electrofuels, advanced biofuels and electrification all around, but does not really contest how the system works nor where all those metals are to be sourced (nor the injustices in the extractives sector). Ch 8 deals with heating and cooling; proposals are clean electricity and efficiency. Ch 9 delves into adaptation, which includes a pitch for CGIAR and agricultural research, with an emphasis on tech solutions; calls for climate smart city planning, restoring ecosystems, desalination, climate financing and a cautious bit on geoengineering. Ch 10 touches on "smart energy policies"; some recap from previous chapters, a call for research, and a wide range of brief points. Ch 11 has "the plan": research (more, high risk/high reward, prioritized); market shifts (governments lead via incentives, regulation / standards, price carbon). Ch 12 concludes with what "we" do, citizens, which include advocacy and personal adjustments.

Given that Gates has been involved in some experimental blue skies work, one surprise is how inside-the-box much of this book is. Keep driving (electric), keep flying (advanced biofuels), keep your diet (lab grown meat), make minor adjustments (reduce food waste, energy efficient heating/cooling); whether it was intended or not, the message is not all that demanding nor urgent. There is no talk of serious redistribution (beyond the charity model). There is no talk of climate justice. Quite comfortable. Even so, if Gates is keen on this messaging spreading, why not make the book open access? It does not appear that Gates is in need of book sales revenue, why not make it accessible to more people? That would align with the Gates Foundation position on open research... 

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Jun
10

Another Now

What would the world look like is the 2008 financial crisis inspired a radical transformation of society as we know it (rather than bailing out the banks to continue the status quo)? Yanis Varoufakis has ventured some answers in his Another Now (2020). The book is fictional, which the author uses to present a range of viewpoints and perspectives. In this regard, the characters provide a unique opportunity to have a discussion. For those interested in alternatives, this will be of interest. I won't spoil the story, but as a preview, the author writes:

"Costa's long-standing assessment of the crash of 2008 was that it had been too good a crisis to waste, and yet waste it we did. It could have been used to transform society radically. Instead, we not only rebuilt the world as it had been before but, by bailing out the banks and making the working people pay off the debt, we had doubled down on it, instituting a global regime in which, effectively, political and economic power had been handed over wholesale to the most bankrupt of bankers. Costa had always believed that an alternative had been available to us. A road we never took. Now, it seemed, he had Kosti's dispatches to prove it." (p. 39) 

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