60 Minutes journalist and producer Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson on how the nation is blending tradition and progression – and following its own path rather than succumbing to pressure
The beauty and luck of doing what I do is the discovery of places and its people. Like most journalists, I read and try to inform myself as best I can about the subject. There’s a fine line as to how much background to take in, because that can also create some sort of prejudice.
This time, though, I wasn’t on assignment for 60 Minutes, but invited to travel to Qatar and participate in Qatar Foundation’s (QF) Education City Speaker Series (ECSS) to talk about my career path and where I find the current state of the profession. 60 Minutes has profiled Qatar several times in the last 16 years. During my conversation last week at the ECSS, one of the questions I was asked was why such a program would do that many profiles of the same place.
I’m familiar with the region. Before I joined 60 Minutes, my late boss Ed Bradley had profiled Qatar. So had other colleagues, but somehow I’d never made it there myself. Based on the pieces, and chats with friends at the office, Qatar was always described to me as “yes, you’ve been to the region but Qatar is different”. Why? In which way?
My first full day in Doha started with a guided tour of the Museum of Islamic Art. The building was architect I.M. Pei’s last work and, while I am no expert in the field of architecture, I felt that he put every last breath of his being in this masterpiece, the crescendo to an illustrious career, changing the landscape and lives of people throughout generations. The thought and sensitivity put into the building itself showed that he’d done more than his homework; he’d absorbed the faith and its rich history. It’s simply spectacular. The collection is like none I’ve ever seen and the calming cadre allows you to take in every masterpiece from Qur’anic scripture to swords, rugs, and everything in between. I kept saying this was one place that was necessary for me to see again during my very busy stay. Alas, that couldn’t happen.
As the days progressed, I visited yet another architectural wonder, the National Museum of Qatar, shaped like a desert rose. I walked through Souq Waqif and got a taste of the sport of falconry. I was also given a tour of QF’s Al Shaqab equestrian center, home to one of the largest collections of Arabian horses in the region, and shown the Education City Stadium that will host matches at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Visions aren’t always executed. But that’s not the case in Qatar
These are all the bright and shiny “objects” to showcase to any foreigner coming in, one might say. So what’s underneath it all, the reporter in me wondered? The explanation lies in QF and the vision of its Chairperson, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, for education and social reform. “Visions” are often extolled by leaders and embraced by their followers. Who doesn’t like a great idea? After the idea’s been taken in, we all wait for the results and – as evidenced in history, most recently in countries with civil unrest – visions aren’t always executed. But that’s not the case in Qatar.
What I saw was a society that’s progressive while keeping up with tradition
Most of the people I interacted with in positions of prominence were women, all of whom know the inner workings of QF and, more importantly, are instrumental in shaping the progress of Qatar’s vision, particularly in the fields of education and community development.
Education City, which has campuses of six US universities (Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth) as well as HEC Paris and UCL, is quite a sight. I have to admit a feeling of envy, wishing that I were younger or perhaps that something like this would’ve existed for me in my time. It’s hard not to feel that when seeing the various lectures and courses offered on any day of the week.
Visiting deans from Northwestern and Georgetown underscored the reality of this “vision”, giving me ample proof of its continuing success. A conversation with Dr. Ahmad Hasnah of QF’s own Hamad bin Khalifa University was a history lesson for me. And perhaps the most gratifying portion of this entire experience was meeting with first year students from Northwestern University in Qatar during their journalism class. Their questions were smart and sharp. Young people from Oman to Uganda to Egypt all wanted to know about my journey but, more importantly, were concerned about how certain media outlets cover particular stories in non-western areas of the world. It was an animated discussion that I hope to continue one of these days.
Finally, and primarily, what’s not lost on me is the solidarity of Qataris. I forgot I was in a country in the midst of a blockade of the nation. Now in its third year, it’s a situation that has disrupted one of the most coveted aspects of the society: the family unit. One the numerous demands made by the Saudi government and those of the other blockading countries, in exchange for lifting the blockade, would be to close down Al Jazeera. But this is a country that doesn’t succumb to pressure, no matter what.
So life continues in Qatar, with its emphasis on education being priority number one. Her Excellency Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al Thani, Vice Chairperson and CEO of Qatar Foundation, has kept the focus on just that, saying: “Education touches the life of every citizen and resident of Qatar. Everyone deserves a good education, and we would like to, at the very least, give every young person the opportunity to reach their full potential.” That is what I have seen. And let’s not forget the “neighborhood” in which Qatar finds itself. While it is an oasis, it hasn’t forgotten the pain of its neighbors: initiatives have been set in place to help some 2-3 million refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as reconstruction efforts in Syria.
This small country in this ever-changing world is keeping up and, very much like a thoroughbred, it has its blinders on in order to keep its eyes on the finish line – or the “vision” - and not be distracted by what’s on either side or behind. The only difference is that Qatar can go beyond the finish line.