x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Debates push boundaries in Doha

What began as a relatively small in-house forum has become a challenging and often controversial platform for discussing the Arab world.

When the Doha Debates began five years ago as an in-house experiment by the state-run Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, few could have predicted they would become, arguably, the Arab world's freest platform for debate, winning regional and global renown in the process. Season five finished in May with a typically controversial debate - the motion: This House believes that Muslim women should be free to marry anyone they choose. It produced a vigorous exchange and a surprising result - the motion was passed.

The sixth season will begin in October, with producers planning to keep the motions as challenging and controversial as they have been over the past five years. "Iran, Pakistan and the actions of the Obama administration will probably feature large in our debates next season," Tim Sebastian, the host of the debates, said in an interview. "We've invited President Obama to a special session ? and we very much hope that he will accept the opportunity to engage on vital issues with young people from all over the Middle East."

According to Sebastian, the debates were originally an experiment in creating a forum for free speech in Qatar that he had discussed over lunch with Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, and Sheikha Mozah Nasser al Misnad. "A few weeks later I wrote back to the palace, outlining an idea for town hall debates - the idea being to touch on all the controversial issues that no one was discussing openly in the region," Sebastian said. "They accepted the concept and we began in September that year. The BBC liked what they saw and have televised every event since the third debate."

With a format taken from the centuries-old Oxford Union debates at Oxford University, the Doha Debates, broadcast by BBC World News to more than 200 countries, are something of an anomaly in the Arab world, allowing a freedom of expression and comprising a range of topics and guests many Arab media would be loathe to touch. In no other Arab venue has an Israeli president (Shimon Peres) been invited to sit before a largely Arab audience and allowed to state his case, in between fielding questions. Conversely, the top Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar appeared at a Doha Debates special session only to be subjected to a barrage of angry questions, many of which bordered on accusations, regarding the group's conduct.

These two sessions were among Sebastian's favourites, along with a debate on whether the Muslim world could do more to combat terrorism - one that attracted a great deal of attention in the West - and an interview with Bill Clinton. Sebastian has won plaudits too. Having cultivated a muscular interview style over several years as a BBC correspondent and then host of the BBC interview show Hardtalk, the chair of the Doha Debates does not hold back when questioning panelists, be they Islamic preachers, human rights activists or presidents of countries.

It was he who secured the debates' editorial independence, saying from the beginning he would not participate without it. "There was no question of advertising ourselves as a free-speech forum, unless we had the right to say exactly what we wanted and invite anyone we chose. "The BBC would never have broadcast a debate that was subject to any kind of censorship or interference - and I think everyone understood that ? No official from anywhere has tried to steer us, pressure us - or influence the debates in any way at all."

According to Nadim Hasbani, an Arabic media analyst at the International Crisis Group in Brussels who has appeared on the show, the Doha Debates have taken the level of media debate in the Arab world to a "much higher standard". "They debated sensitive topics and, uniquely, in an extremely professional manner," he said. The debates are also pushing boundaries in Qatar, allowing for unprecedented criticism of the country and its treatment of foreign workers with a motion entitled: This House believes that Gulf Arabs value profit over people. Incidentally, the motion was passed by 75 per cent.

The format for the Doha Debates is that a controversial motion is debated by four speakers, two for and two against. After the panelists have made their arguments they field questions from both the chair - Sebastian - and the audience, before the debate concludes with the audience voting on the motion. The often surprising results have been the subject of much attention in western media, though analysts point out that the audience is made up largely of students and educated guests who have travelled to be there, so cannot be relied upon to reflect popular opinion in the Middle East.

In a debate, in April for instance, the motion "This House believes that Arab states should hand over the Sudanese president to the International Criminal Court" was passed by 55 per cent. But a subsequent opinion poll commissioned by the Doha Debates and conducted by YouGov found that 72 per cent of Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa disagreed with that, believing the arrest would destabilise Sudan.

Similarly, a YouGov poll found 85 per cent of Arabs in the same region said it was prohibited for Muslim women to marry outside their religion, in opposition to the Doha Debates' audience in May when 62 per cent voted that they could. Some analysts say the debates are more deeply flawed, with one rejecting the claim of complete editorial freedom. Mamoun Fandy, the director of the Middle East programme at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, was invited to participate in two debates but was refused entry to the country by Qatari authorities on both occasions.

"The myth that the whole thing has free editorial control is just that - a myth," Mr Fandy said. And even admirers admit to its limitations. Mr Hasbani, the Arabic media analyst, pointed out that the debates can only broach the range of subjects and guests they do because they are conducted in English. "Unlimited freedom of speech cannot hurt the regional dictators because of limited impact on Arab public opinion. In Arabic, its impact on the public would have been much larger," he said.

Still, for Mr Hasbani, the more forums of this kind in the Arab world the better. "I can only wish the same programme with the exact working standards will exist in Arabic," he said. "Maybe BBC Arabic can do it?" jspollen@thenational.ae