The signing of an “air service agreement
” on May 12, 2016 between the unknown and underdeveloped Eastern Caribbean country of St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) and the well known and super-rich Persian Gulf country of Qatar is certainly bound to raise a lot of incredulous eyebrows. Why Qatar? Why SVG?
A Qatar palace
Most disbelievers would probably assume that this was just another Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves publicity stunt along the lines of his silly landing of small LIAT planes on the unfinished Argyle airport runway during last year’s election campaign. But there is a bit more to this than meets the eye of the skeptical observer.
Given its vast oil and gas wealth, Qatar, an ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim nation bordering Saudi Arabia, has soared from being one of the poorest nations on earth to being one with the highest per capita citizen income level on the planet.
Though the country is governed with an iron fist by a hereditary monarchy, does not allow political parties or trades unions, and is governed by strictly-enforced Islamic Sharia law, it is still ranked by the United Nations, an association where hypocrisy knows no bounds, as a country of very high “human development”, indeed the most advanced of the Arab states when it comes to human development.
As is well known, the presence of traditional Islamic law means that: (1) in Qatar’s Sharia-based family courts, a female's testimony is sometimes worth half a man's and in some cases a female witness is not accepted at all; (2) a Muslim man is permitted to have four wives at the same time, suggesting that one man has the worth of four women; (3) flogging is a punishment for alcohol consumption or extra-marital sexual relations. (The punishment for adultery is 100 lashes, a sure death sentence in many cases); (4) stoning is a legal punishment; (5) blasphemy is punishable by up to seven years in prison and trying to convert someone to Christianity can be punished by up to ten years in prison; and (6) homosexuality is a crime punishable by the death penalty.
Still, as we also well know, politics makes strange bedfellows including when, except for extreme homophobia, there could hardly be two countries in the world that shared so little in so many areas as Qatar and SVG. (Adultery in SVG, for example, generally elicits praise for the “tone boss” who is virile enough “to get wife” – at least if he doesn’t have to pay for it -- from another man’s spouse.)
Qatar also differs from SVG in being an influential world nation. For example, the country is considered a “middle power” by global standards and is slated to host the 2022 World Cup of soccer; a tournament critics argue was obtained by bribing FIFA officials.
Qatar’s 1.8 million population is some 16 times larger than SVG’s but most of these are insecurely employed migrant labourers and lowly service workers who, as elsewhere in the Gulf, are not allowed to acquire citizenship, a status reserved for the host Qatari population of only 278,000 mostly wealthy people. Still, none of these expatriates lives below the poverty line and less than one percent are unemployed.
According to its Wikipedia entry:
“Established in 2005, Qatar Investment Authority is the country's sovereign wealth fund, specialising in foreign investment. Due to billions of dollars in surpluses from the oil and gas industry, the Qatari government has directed investments into United States, Europe, and Asia Pacific. As of 2013, the holdings were valued at $ [US] 100 billion in assets. Qatar Holding is the international investment arm of QIA. Since 2009, Qatar Holding has received $30–40bn a year from the state. As of 2014, it has investments around the world in Valentino, Siemens, Printemps, Harrods, The Shard, Barclays Bank, Heathrow Airport, Paris Saint-Germain FC, Volkswagen Group, Royal Dutch Shell, Bank of America, Tiffany, Agricultural Bank of China, Sainsbury's, BlackBerry, and Santander Brasil.”
Notably missing from this list is any mention of investment in SVG (or anywhere else in the Caribbean).
One of Qatar’s most prized assets is its state-owned airline, Qatar Airways
, which flies to “... over 150 international destinations across Africa, Central Asia, Europe, Far East, South Asia, Middle East, North America, South America and Oceania … using a fleet of more than 150 aircraft”.
Qatar Airways is not only one of the world’s largest airlines but one of the most prestigious having won the highly regarded World’s Best Airline
award three times (2011, 2012, 2015).
“It is a new age of airline dining and it is centred around you. Relish extraordinary cuisine designed by world-renowned chefs. Savour exclusive vintages expertly served. An on-demand à la carte service menu lets you enjoy mouth-watering dishes whenever you like. Each seat has a large dining area that makes the perfect setting for world-class dining.” (Qatar Airways website)
Though it is an elite airline if there ever was one, there is no service to the Caribbean or Central America. Indeed, its only two Southern Hemisphere destinations are Brazil and Argentina.
Given all these facts, what are we to make of an air service agreement between the two countries that is said to be “paving the way for airlines to operate any number of flights between both countries without any restrictions”.
With the incompatible cultural differences between the two nation-states and the easy access from Qatar to some of the most desirable holiday destinations in the world in nearby Europe, South Asia, and elsewhere, can we ever expect planeloads of Arab visitors on our shores in the near or distant future? What, for example, will Sharia law adherents make of our high levels of public profanity, indecent female dress, public intoxication, and urban decay, not to mention our libertinism in nearly all things sexual?
More important, given that these potential tourists would be very wealthy individuals who would view even the elegant Buccament Bay Resort as below their notice, where would there be for them to stay besides a pricey villa in Mustique, a locale long visited by the rich and famous of the world in the absence of an international airport at Argyle?
If there is a pent-up demand for rich Qataris to fly here on holiday which is unmet only because of a lack of direct flights, why hasn’t this also been true for rich Barbadians who should have been flocking to our nearby shores for decades to visit an island so captivatingly different from their own?
If wealthy Qataris are not going to fly to our still unfinished airport at Argyle via their world renowned state airline, what is behind this agreement besides its public relations implications? The plain answer is that every country, more so Arab ones, needs all the friends and allies they can get in an increasingly unstable world.
So the most obvious reply to the questions, “Why Qatar? Why SVG?” is that an agreement that contains no promises and no costs is simply one of many examples of the unbalanced reciprocity that exists between rich and poor countries: a harmless diplomatic favour requested by our prime minister from one of the richest countries in the world in tacit exchange for continued political and other support from one of the poorest at various world bodies such as the United Nations -- nothing more, nothing less.
This is the 27th in a series of essays on the folly of the proposed Argyle International Airport.
My other AIA pieces may be found at:
Get ready for a November election in St Vincent and the Grenadines! But which November?
Lessons for Argyle International Airport from Canada's Montreal-Mirabel International Airport
Lessons for Argyle International Airport from the cruise ship industry
Lessons from Target Canada for Argyle International Airport in St Vincent
Lessons from Trinidad and Tobago for Argyle International Airport
The dark side of tourism: Lessons for Argyle Airport
Why Argyle won't fly: Lessons from Dominica
Ken Boyea and the Phantom City at Arnos Vale
Airport envy Vincie-style
Fully realising our country's tourism potential
Airport without a cause
The unnatural place for an international airport
The Potemkin Folly at Argyle
False patriotism and deceitful promises at Argyle
Airport politics and betrayal Vincie-style
Phony airport completion election promises, Vincie-style
Is Argyle International Airport really a ‘huge game-changer for us’?
Has the cat got your tongue, prime minister?
More proof that Argyle won't fly
Our very own Vincentian cargo cult at Argyle
The missing Argyle Airport feasibility studies
The world's four most amazing abandoned airports
Farming, fishing, and foolish talk about Argyle International Airport
Argyle Airport amateur hour
St Vincent's place in the world of travel
Investing in St Vincent's tourism industry