WTO to Hide Out in Qatar

A way to ensure no deaths for anti-globalization protesters is simply to see to it that there are no protesters. That is what the World Trade Organization is doing as it prepares for its summit in November. Earlier this year, the WTO announced that the host for the upcoming round of trade negotiations will be Doha, Qatar, the capital of a remote oil and gas sheikdom located on a tiny thumb of desert poking into the Persian Gulf. The obscure, secure kingdom is surrounded by a moat of water, save for a mainland border it shares with Saudi Arabia; across the gulf is Iraq.

In 1999, at an N30-eve pep rally in Seattle, Michael Moore -- the lefty filmmaker, not the WTO's globalization cheerleader -- revved up a crowd of Teamsters and turtles by shouting from the stage: "Seattle? What were they thinking?" Indeed, the WTO seemed to have bought the sales pitch from Seattle's civic leaders touting the city as a world-class free-trade center -- a kind of Singapore without the paddling. Lost was the fact that Seattle is also been a hotbed of alternative culture and boasts a long (and occasionally violent) history of labor and political activism. Seattle proved to be a lion's den of anti-globalization forces, as the WTO soon learned.

In response to the Seattle protests, the WTO promised to be more open, inclusive, and transparent. Many leaders, including then-President Bill Clinton, claimed to have heard the voices of protest on the streets. In response, they've demonstrated their new resolve by holding their open meeting in a closed country.

In fact, you could not pick a place that is more un-Seattle, nor one that better fits the protesters' image of the WTO as an outfit eager to exploit workers and advance the cause of big business at the expense of other values. Most of Qatar's workers are imported from other Arab countries or India. They do not have the rights of citizens, and labor unions for all workers are outlawed. Qatar is a monarchy. There is no constitution and are no political parties. Protests cannot be held without government sanction; other than an anti-Israeli demonstration last year, they virtually never happen. There is no religious freedom to speak of, though they have not executed any Christian converts since the 1970s. Qatar is eager to do bidness by continuing to develop its energy and petrochemical resources: It has an embassy in Washington, DC, of course, and its only U.S. consulate is, appropriately, in Houston.

The Qataris are working with the WTO to limit access during the summit. Qatar has virtually no tourism. No one can get into Qatar without an in-country sponsor -- usually an employer. For visitors, a hotel could act as your sponsor: if you have a reservation, you would be granted a visa upon arrival. But during the November 9-13 summit, all hotel rooms in Qatar are booked, reserved for WTO delegates and accredited media. To get a hotel room -- and therefore a sponsor and a visa -- you must be pre-approved by the WTO. Media are also screened by the Qatari government. If you pass muster, you're assigned a hotel room. Then you can make a flight reservation. Don't waste time looking for great deals: Qatar is not a frequent flyer destination.

In short, not only are protesters being squeezed out, but the media are being restricted to those sanctioned by the WTO, not to mention outlets that can afford the expense of sending staffers halfway around the globe. The cheapest hotel rooms are more than $100 per night, with no guarantee that you'll get them.

Globalization protesters worry that the lesson police and civil authorities have learned from Seattle, Washington, DC, Quebec, Genoa and elsewhere is to get tough, and crack heads -- or worse. The dead -- and the missing -- in Genoa are testament to that trend. But a more insidious response is to preempt protests from the beginning by finding summit sites that are in effect open-air backrooms, safe from scrutiny, safe from dissent, safe from the clang of democracy. While the G-8 prepare for their next meeting in the wilds of Alberta, the WTO will be setting the trend by hiding in a country where the local McDonalds (yes, Qatar has them) will be safe from the black blocs, and where the delegates won't have to listen to anything but the sound of their own voices.

this story originally appeared at on www.knute.com.


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