What the news reports usually don’t tell you about conferences in Qatar is just how plush some of the hotels are — which may help account for the popularity of Doha as a meeting place for folks spending other people’s money. This past spring I gave a paper at a conference in the Qatari capital of Doha; I went there expecting generic lodgings. Instead, it was a voyage through luxury, from the chilled orange juice served at the hotel registration desk, to the designer French soap in the bathrooms, the marble floors, lavishly stocked breakfast buffet, flowers, chocolates, outdoor jacuzzi, assorted swimming pools and beach-side cafes. Lined up at one of the hotels, awaiting the pleasure of guests who might wish to rent a vehicle, was a row of Porsche SUV’s. (All this was some distance up the road from the squalid housing into which oil-rich Qatar crams its legions of guest-workers from places such as Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and so on).
These richly appointed hotels are the setting right now for the UN’s Sixth Conference on New and Restored Democracies, from Oct. 29-Nov. 1. If that sounds promising — after all, why not spend a few days coddling the aspiring democrats of the world? — look again.
For starters, the host country, Qatar, which has now taken over the presidency of this conference, is no democracy. Qatar is run by an Emir, and New York-based Freedom House notes that “Qataris cannot change their government democratically.” And while the guest list does include some genuine democrats and dissidents, the organizers have also arranged to include officials from a roster of countries where democracy is neither “new” nor “restored,” for the simple reason that there isn’t any. Among the countries sending official representatives are Zimbabwe, Cuba, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Togo, Cameroon, Vietnam, and Sudan… (it almost starts to sound like your average meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. Or for that matter, the UN General Assembly in New York… so why bother flying everyone to Doha?). Also on the guest list is the head of the despot-packed Arab League, Amr Moussa, as well as a fellow from the Organization of the Islamic Conference; and folks who can boast of having won “elections,” but who are evidently opposed to coupling that with such principles as liberty and decent rule of law. These include members of the terrorist group, Hamas, and the foreign minister of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. And of course these are plenty of officials from the UN, available no doubt to explain to the participants how the UN, in order to assemble this crowd, has decided to define “democracy.”
(Addendum, keeping in mind the comforts of conferencing in Doha: According to the list of participants, the 10 delegates from Lebanon are accompanied by more than 40 people listed as “translators” or “interpreters,” outdoing even the Egyptians, who will have in tow more than 20).