x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Qatar paying for giant mosque in Tajikistan

The Gulf state is putting up the money for one of the biggest mosques in the world, to be built in a strategically important Central Asian country

DOHA // Qatar is paying for the construction in Dushanbe, the capital of the central Asian state of Tajikistan, of what will be one of the largest mosques in the world. Construction of the mosque, designed to accommodate up to 150,000 worshippers, began this week and is due to continue until 2014. Local reports suggest the building will cost tens of millions of dollars. At the televised start of the project, the Tajik president, Emomali Rakhmon, said the mosque should unite people and must not be allowed to foster extremism or be used as "a platform for non-traditional and alien ideas".

"It must not become a place for the propaganda of enmity, hatred and extremism with the goal of breaking apart our society," he said. A UAE-based firm, Adnan Saffarini, will build the mosque in the country of 7.3 million people, 90 per cent of whom are Muslims. According to Hady Amr, the director of the Brookings Doha Centre, a political research institute, Qatar's decision to fund the mosque shows the peninsular nation is keen to extend its sphere of influence beyond the Middle East.

"Qatar is a very small country and they don't have a significant military presence, nor do they want to have one, so their primary form of advancing their own society is through improving the quality of their relationships," he said. Mr Amr said Qatar's main foreign policy focus was on Saudi Arabia and Iran and the nations that bordered them, but added it was keen to strengthen links with countries further afield.

"As Qatar's global influence grows, it can focus not just on the immediate concerns of Saudi Arabia and Iran, but on the next level," he said. "This includes nearby countries like Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt and the next tier, which includes countries like Tajikistan, Afghanistan and others." (Tajikistan's borders touch China, Pakistan and Afghanistan - but not Iran). Qatar is currently building its own State Mosque in Doha at a cost estimated in reports at between US$77 million and $115m (Dh282.8m to Dh422.4m). This will have space for 20,000 worshippers.

Mr Amr said this project, rather than the building of a mosque in Tajikistan, was a sufficient demonstration to a domestic audience of the leadership's commitment to Islam. "I don't think [the Tajikistan mosque] is to placate domestic concerns," he said. "I think it's simply an effort to project and to build a more co-operative relationship with a country that's relevant to the political and military power balance Qatar finds itself in."

However, he said if the decision to fund the mosque in Tajikistan was in fact partly to cater to a domestic Islamic audience, it was "a brilliant" project, as it showed the country's commitment to Islam, but would not alienate western powers such as the United States. "It's a clean, benevolent thing to do," he said. Qatar, he said, placed great importance on the significance of large statement buildings, its French embassy, for example, having one of the most prestigious addresses in Paris, on the Champs Elysees.

There are already strong links between Qatar and Tajikistan. In 2007, Mr Rakhmon went to Qatar, while the Emir of Qatar, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa, made an official visit in the opposite direction later that year. It was also announced recently that the state-owned investment company Qatari Diar was investing $150m in a luxuryrproperty project in Dushanbe. According to Steven Wright, an assistant professor of international relations at Qatar University in Doha, Qatar sees developing countries such as Tajikistan as offering sound investment opportunities for its sovereign wealth fund, and further investments may follow.

Such financial ties may also provide an indication of why Qatar chose to pay for a mosque in Tajikistan, Mr Wright said. "It is conceivable that future Qatari investments in Tajikistan and similar countries' agricultural sectors will follow," he said. "In terms of the mosque, I see it as part of a basket of economic, social and political ties which are progressively strengthening between the two countries."

Mr Wright said the mosque could also be viewed as demonstrating a commitment from Qatar to the peaceful promotion of Islam outside its borders. "It's something the other Gulf states all try to do ideally," he said. According to Mark Farha, who teaches at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar, it is not always clear that Qatar's overseas philanthropy, whether seen in the building of a mosque or in its efforts to calm international flashpoints, have wider significance linked to the country's own economic or political interests. "In their mediation in Darfur or Lebanon [for example], it's not always the case they're thinking this will benefit them," he said.

The mosque will include fountains to symbolise Tajikistan's large water reserves, and elements of traditional Tajik architecture. Other features will include a museum, library and conference halls. "The mosque will be decorated with a majestic minaret, seven painted columns, embodying the seven steps of God creating the world and the seven gates to paradise, as well as water reservoirs and fountains," a presidential spokesman said in reports.

Its building comes after the forced closure by Mr Rakhmon of dozens of unauthorised mosques in recent years. The country's military was involved earlier this year in battles with militants near the Afghan border thought to be linked to the Taliban, leading to fears that instability in Afghanistan could spill over into Tajikistan. The mosque will be larger than the Turkmenbashi mosque in neighbouring Turkmenistan, which includes excerpts from the writings of the late Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006.

dbardsley@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse