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Qatar: An oasis for exiles

In granting nationality to M.F. Husain, the Gulf state of Qatar has done what it always does best — providing refuge to those in trouble back home, writes Ruben Banerjee.

art and culture Updated: Feb 27, 2010 23:40 IST

In granting nationality to M.F. Husain, the Gulf state of Qatar has done what it always does best — providing refuge to those in trouble back home.

Whatever be the repercussions in India — ranging from shame to jubilation — the decision has further bolstered Doha’s reputation as the ‘exile capital’ of the world.

Husain happens to be just the latest in a long list of people, who, on being driven out of their homes, have found shelter in the sleepy Qatari capital.

The most high profile of them have been the wife and daughters of Saddam Hussein. Saddam went into hiding after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, while wife Sajjad, accompanied by daughters, Raghad and Rana, slipped into Qatar to live anonymously.

There have been others: Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, the ex-Mauritania President who moved to Doha, after a coup ended his rule, to Omar bin Laden, the son of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, who took up an address in Doha after Spain rejected his asylum appeal and Egypt wouldn’t let him in.

Opening its doors to the “homeless” has been Qatar’s hallmark.

The citizenship for Husain therefore comes as no surprise. His presence has been the talk of the town, at least amongst Indian expatriates. He has been spotted dining and shopping and there is talk of his unlimited access to the royal family.

But what does Qatar get out of allowing Husain or others to inhabit its sparsely-populated territory?

Undoubtedly, it is the high profile that its tiny size could never have guaranteed. Being in the limelight has been Qatar’s state policy — something that it has pursued relentlessly.

The oil- and gas-rich country startled everyone by becoming the first Middle Eastern country to host the Asian Games in 2006. It is now bidding for the 2022 Football World Cup.

It is also Qatar’s desire to leave a global footprint that inspired it to launch Al Jazeera. It is through this bilingual television channel that the country of just 1.6 million seeks to challenge international broadcasters such as CNN and BBC.

What it does is set Qatar apart in a region raven with strife and hatred. It has attempted to bridge divides and broker peace between countries much larger than itself such as Lebanon and Sudan.

Carving a niche is obviously the goal. And Qatar’s position as an unlikely melting pot is cemented by its open door policy, taking in all those in dire need.

Husain has accepted Qatari citizenship and by offering to embrace this Indian artist, Qatar has proven to be bold and different. That is what Brand-Qatar is all about.

Ruben Banerjee is a journalist with Al Jazeera in Qatar.