Friday, January 14, 2011

Qatar Jan 13

We wound up the trip in Doha, Qatar, where Clinton was participating in "The Forum for the Future" -- a sort of regular gabfest for officials, business types and NGO people from the region. Last year it was held in Morocco (that was my first trip with Clinton) and this year Qatar -- perhaps the richest of the Gulf Arab emirates.

The first bit of the trip was dominated by the crisis in Lebanon. We got a "senior administration official" to speak to us on the plane from Oman, and he repeated the U.S. backing for Lebanon's stability and the work of the U.N. Tribunal, which Hezbollah is trying to thwart. They weren't terribly strong comments but they were the first official U.S. reaction, so I was able to "snap" them (send one sentence alerts) via blackberry as the plane landed.

Because we were late, we went directly to the Ritz, where the conference was being held. After a week touring various five star Gulf hotels they all begin to look alike..a lot of marble, "statement" chandeliers, people milling around. The security was pretty tight tho, presumably because they have so many sheikhs and emirs and whatnot attending.

We waited again for Clinton who showed up an hour late for what is billed as a "press avail" -- she appears with the foreign minster of whatever place it is that she is visiting (in this case Qatar) and they take a total of four questions -- two from the U.S. side and two from the Qatari side.

Our questions were focused on Lebanon and she gave a strong statement -- that the U.S. viewed the crisis as an intentional effort to subvert justice, as embodied in the U.N. Tribunal. It was intersting that the Qatari journalists' questions were all about Sudan...but then Qatar has been trying to mediate there so perhaps they feel that is their baby.

Anyway after that we finished up our stories and headed to our hotel. We were billeted at the Kempinski Suites...and it turned out that each of us was allocated a three (or in one case four) bedroom apartment. It felt spooky and crazy. A brand new highrise, not particularly well built, surrounded by other newly built or in the process of being built highrises. The entire place creaked in the wind, but the inside was all pared down modernism in its most basic form. It would have made a great setting for a modern day Gulf ghost story -- nobody around, these vast echoing apartments, each room with a huge flatscreen TV pre-set to a somnabulatory music channel that played the same plinky piano etudes...weird.

But when you're tired one bed is good, and if there are three bedrooms you just pick one and sleep.

We went back to the Ritz in the morning. Clinton was due to take part in a panel discussion at about 10, so a colleague and I decided to have breakfast at the Ritz. We were a little worried about the cost, but luckily we found that the Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa was also having breakfast there, so we did an interview with him about Lebanon (that means I can expense the breakfast!). He didn't say much -- which seems par for the course for the Arab League -- but at least it was another voice speaking about the story of the day.

Clinton's address to the panel was surprisingly frank -- she said many Arab governments risk "sinking into the sand" because they are not keeping pace with the technological, demographic, and political changes in their countries. She said this was leaving a opening that al Qaeda and other militants can exploit. It was obviously not a message that many government reps in the audience -- almost all of them representing non-democratic regimes -- would like to hear, at least so publicly. But Clinton steps up in times like this, at least to make the public's not as tho the U.S. is going to put any real pressure on these guys, given that they keep America's cars running. But a nudge here and there publicly makes for interesting PR.

And..that was it. We stopped off at the embassy for the traditional "meet and greet" and then back to the airport and on the plane home. My seat (a window "economy" seat in the way back) was broken -- it was stuck in full recline mode. Not good for the back. But we did see some things along the way home. Above is one of the real estate developments taking over the islands for the plutocrat who wants privacy, but in a community (only one house built on this particular archipelago, at least that I could see). I think we also saw Mt. Ararat in the distance as we were flying over Kurdistan.

In Shannon, where we refuel, Clinton came out briefly for a picture with some of the troops headed (still!) to Afghanistan. At moments like this you realize that, declining as it may be, America is still an Empire.

It is good to be home tho.