A local magazine “Qatar Today” has published some of the stories of 2013, that captured our attention, tragedies that tugged at our heart strings and staggering developments that changed our world forever. From mass protests in the streets to peaceful political transitions, from devastating natural calamities to new life, from seismic shifts in the business world to personal triumphs, the year was one we can look back on with bittersweet nostalgia.
First commercial flight on GTL jet fuel
A Qatar Airways Airbus A340-600 flight from Doha to London marked the introduction of commercial-scale synthetic blended jet fuel produced in Qatar. Supplies of the natural gas-to-liquid (GTL) jet fuel, which is blended 50/50 with conventional Jet-A1, are being produced by the Pearl GTL plant, a venture involving Qatar Petroleum and Shell. The GTL fuel will initially be restricted to use by Qatar Airways. but it is likely to be supplied to other airlines serving Doha International Airport at some stage in the future.
North Korea’s nuclear test causes tensions
Defying UN Security Council regulations and drawing worldwide condemnation, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test using a miniaturised nuclear device detonated underground, bringing it closer to being capable of producing long-range missiles. This development was met with concern by the UN, and an emergency Security Council meeting was convened. China, Oyongyang’s only economic and political ally, also firmly opposed the test and warned its neighbour against worsening the situation in the Korean Peninsula.
Qatar gave QR364 million ($100 million) in aid to Syrians stricken by their country’s civil war, Qatar’s state news agency said, the first tranche of at least QR3.2 billion ($900 million) pledged by Gulf Arab states.
Hollywood honours its very best
Life of Pi, Les Misérables, Django Unchained, Skyfall, Lincoln and Argo were some of the multiple award winners on Hollywood’s biggest night – the 85th Academy Awards. First Lady Michelle Obama made a surprise appearance via video conference and announced the winner for the Best Picture live from the Diplomatic Room in the White House.
More gas found in Qatar
Qatar discovered additional reserves of 2.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in a northern offshore field. The discovery was made in Block 4 North in North Field at a water depth of around 70 metres. The gas discovery was made “after four years of intensive exploration activities, including the drilling of two exploration wells”, according to the Energy minister, HE Mohammed Al Sada. The field is operated by Qatar Petroleum and its German partner Wintershall, as well as Japan’s Mitsui Gas Development Qatar. North Field was discovered in 1971 and contains 900 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas.
Pope Francis takes charge of the world’s Catholics
After the shocking resignation of Pope Benedict a couple of weeks earlier, Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who later took the name Francis, was elected as the new Catholic pope by the College of Cardinals.Pope Francis was the most talked-about name on the Internet this year, ahead of Obamacare and the National Security Agency, according to a Global Language Monitor survey. In addition to being exceedingly modest and shunning the fanfare that comes with the papacy, Pope Francis has been a strong supportive voice on the side of the poor and the disenfranchised against the forces of capitalism and rampant, unsustainable development. He is the first pope to recommend a softer stance on homosexuality and is very likely the only one to have featured in a “selfie” (which, by the way, is Word of the Year according to Oxford Dictionaries) when he obligingly posed for a picture with a few youths in St Peter’s Basilica.
Goodbye, Iron Lady
Britain’s first and only woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who ran the country for 11 years, succumbed to a stroke after years of ill health. Her funeral was conducted with full military honours at St Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Queen attended. Meanwhile, revellers, mostly left-wing supporters, celebrated her demise in the streets of the capital. Violence flared as mobs clashed with police who sought to disperse these “death parties”. Though they seemed in poor taste, it wasn’t a surprise that Thatcher, who had faded into oblivion since stepping down as Prime Minister after a divisive and controversial term, was remembered with such bitterness and discontent upon her death.
Tremors rock Qatar
The first tremors in recent history were felt in Qatar after a massive earthquake hit Bushehr in Iran. A second tremor was experienced a week later following a quake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale that rocked the border area between Iran and Pakistan. The powerful earthquake killed at least 34 people in Pakistan, destroying hundreds of houses and shaking buildings as far away as India.
Bangladesh garment factory collapse shocks the world
The complete collapse of Rana Plaza in Greater Dhaka, which housed over 5,000 garment workers who manufactured clothes for top fashion brands like Benetton, Bonmarché, Mango, Primark and Walmart, resulted in the deaths of 1,129 people and over 2,500 injuries. Local media reported that cracks had been discovered in the building the day before and authorities had asked for the evacuation and closure of the premises. But while the shops and the bank in the building complied, the garment workers were made to come to work the following day. The tragedy threw fresh light on lack of basic safety standards in a majority of the garment factories that are the bread and butter of Bangladesh’s economy. There was also a greater push among international labels to pay closer attention to their supply chain and ensure ethical practices throughout.
A democratic handover
For Pakistan, the world’s second-largest Muslim democracy, the general election this year was a milestone. It was the country’s first-ever civilian transfer of government. By most accounts it was a successful one, too. Almost 60% of the 86 million citizens registered to vote turned up to have their voice heard. Nawaz Sharif, two-time prime minister and once-exiled party leader, saw himself heading a stronger coalition with his party only a few seats short of a majority. Meanwhile the Karachi stock market cheered at the prospect of Sharif’s return to power. The former prime minister is known for his penchant for free markets and deregulation.
On top of the world
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Thani became the first Qatari to scale Mount Everest as part of his Seven Summit Challenge. The young father of three has one more summit to go.
London Machete attack
Not just about the park
…though it did all start with Istanbul’s Gezi Park and plans to replace it with a shopping mall. Protests and sit-ins by environmentalists and concerned citizens had been taking place sporadically since the announcement of the plans the year before, but it was the police’s violent raid on the camp in May that proved to be the tipping point for bottled-up grievances including lack of freedom of expression and freedom of press and the government’s narrow-minded views on religion. The protests grew day by day (mostly through social media, as the mainstream media largely stayed away from covering the unrest during the early days) as did the police crackdowns. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially dismissed the protesters as “just a bunch of looters”, aggravating the situation further. World leaders, particularly in the EU, condemned Turkey for excessive use of force on the largely peaceful protestors. Over 8,000 people were injured in the clashes with police and 5,000 arrested.
NSA’s shameful secret
The intrusive and extralegal surveillance conducted by the US National Security Agency, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, sent shock waves through the country and the world. Computer specialist, former CIA employee and NSA contractor Snowden carefully collected over 200,000 secret documents detailing the PRISM data mining programme and handed them over to the media, giving journalist Glenn Greenwald his biggest scoop to date and the biggest story of the year. The US government charged Snowden with treason and espionage and launched a worldwide manhunt to bring him back to the country for trial. Snowden is currently living in Moscow under the temporary asylum granted by Russia.
A new dawn for Qatar
The latest power transition in Qatar was nothing like the last one. But there was one similarity, though. HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was the star protagonist on both occasions. In 1995, his daring coup against his father, done with military precision, no bloodshed or fuss, brought home the fact that the new Emir was a man with a plan. Eighteen years on, this is still true. Today’s Qatar, and the Qatar that’ll spring up tomorrow, is his legacy alone. Claiming that it was time for the youth of the country to take Qatar forward, Sheikh Hamad abdicated his throne to make way for 33 year-old Heir Apparent HH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the youngest reigning monarch in the world. The young Emir has big shoes to fill, but he went about it in a deft and efficient manner, reshuffling his entire cabinet within a week of his ascent to power and giving them all new directives and goals. Taking recent foreign relations setbacks in his stride, the new Emir is keen to shift the focus to the internal affairs of the country. And whether he is delivering an address at the UN or enjoying a football match in Paris, there is an air of calm and confidence about him that seems to say there is plenty of time and potential for him to craft his own legacy.
Flash floods sweep across Northern India
Incessant rains triggered flash floods and landslides along the winding gorges and roads through the valleys of Uttarakhand. Each passing day the death toll continued to mount but there was no time to mourn. For each person who was missing or dead, there were 10 others who were stranded across the state, their paths cut off by raging waters and impassable roads. In a coordinated rescue effort, the army evacuated over 100,000 mostly elderly pilgrims from the devastated areas. The death count varies from 1,000 to 5,000. Some have even ventured to go as high as 10,000. At Kedarnath Valley the temple remained miraculously standing as every day local people cremated more dead bodies.
Taliban HQ opens in Doha
When the Taliban opened their new office in the swanky West Bay neighbourhood it was to be their first political base overseas and a place from where talks could be conducted with both the Afghanistan government and their allies. This came to a grinding halt when the flag and the name of the office were revealed – “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, the placard outside the office announced. This was taken as a slight by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said the implication was that the Taliban were setting up a government-in-exile to rival the one in Kabul (this was Afghanistan’s official name under Taliban rule). Diplomacy quickly broke down and the office was abandoned in just two days. The office was officially closed within 20 days. The Taliban are now considering opening another office in either Saudi Arabia or Turkey.
Closure for Villaggio fire victims
Qatari courts handed down six-year jail terms for four of the accused in the tragic Villaggio Mall fire case, and a fifth person received a five-year jail term. All five of them were convicted of negligence that resulted in the death of 19 people, 13 of whom were young children at the Gympanzee daycare centre. Those convicted include the two owners of the daycare centre, Sheikh Ali bin Jassim Al Thani (currently Qatar’s ambassador to Belgium) and his wife Iman Al Kuwari (daughter of the culture and heritage minister); Villaggio’s Chairman Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al Rabban and mall manager TzouliosTzouliou; and Ministry of Business and Trade employee Mansour Nasir Fazzaa Al Shahwani, who was responsible for giving Gympanzee its permit. The judge also ordered the payment of blood money to the tune of QR200,000 per victim. During the appeal, which has already begun, all five defendants pleaded not guilty and asked Nike to be charged, as the fire originated in its store. The hearing has been postponed to December to allow Nike to be represented in the proceedings.
The Royal Baby arrives
The most awaited baby of the year, third in line to the British crown and Prince William’s first-born, arrived amidst the biggest media circus seen in recent times. George Alexander Louis’s first glimpse of the world was filled with millions of camera flashes and the gasps and awwws of hundreds of reporters and well-wishers wanting to welcome the youngest member of the royal family.
Egypt’s new democracy crumbles
Exactly a year after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi took on the mantle of president, Egyptians poured into the streets calling for his removal. Initially the millions of people who expressed dissent on the streets did so peacefully. But events soon turned violent, with anti-Morsi protesters clashing with Morsi supporters and attacking the Brotherhood headquarters. The military, headed by Defence Minister Abdul Fattah Al Sisi, stepped in to depose the democratically-elected president in what many have hesitated to call by its real name, a coup. The military came down with a heavy hand on Morsi supporters who had sat-in for six weeks to protest the arrest of Morsi and other Brotherhood members, leaving over 600 people dead. The military imposed a state of emergency, along with its usual trappings – censorship, mass arrest and crackdowns. While elections have been announced for early next year, it remains to be seen if the military will follow through with its promise or linger on, undoing all the work of the past two years post the revolution and returning the country to its days under military leadership.
Al Jazeera launches new American channel
After years of trying unsuccessfully to penetrate the US TV market, where many cable and satellite carriers won’t even distribute Al Jazeera English, the network apparently decided to bulldoze its way in. The young Qatar-based channel burst onto the scene with the launch of a domestic US news channel to cater for those looking for a different perspective on the daily news. Three months on, the new channel is struggling to bring in the numbers. The New York Post reported that it averages 13,000 viewers despite being available in 44 million households. With Time Warner Cable now agreeing to broadcast AJAM, it will beamed to 10 million more homes but will still struggle to compete with other news channels for viewers.
Massive chemical attack in Syria
The bitter and disastrous two-year civil war in Syria took a shocking turn when rockets containing the nerve agent sarin rained on several opposition-controlled and disputed areas in Ghouta. The estimated death toll varies between 200 to 1,700 and data confirmation is hard in the war-torn nation. With the government and opposition blaming each other, this seemed like a watershed moment that would decisively change the course of the civil war. UN chemical weapons inspectors, who had just landed to look into alleged chemical weapons use by the government prior to this incident, were barely a few kilometres away from the site of the attack. While the purity of the sarin pointed to President Bashar Al Assad, he continued to contest the claim, saying it was a ploy by the weakening opposition forces to draw the West into the battle. However US President Barack Obama struggled to find support for an offensive, with Britain backing out from a military strike and opposition mounting in the United States itself for such an action. Finally, a diplomatic solution proposed by Russia and agreed to by Assad saw Syria join the UN-backed Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is currently overseeing the destruction of Syria’s stockpile as well as some of its chemical weapons production equipment.
Qatar’s first foray into space
Es’hailsat 1, jointly built by Qatar’s satellite company Es’hailsat and Eutelsat, was successfully launched by space transportation company Arianespace from Kourou in French Guiana. The Ariane 5 rocket carried the 6.3-tonne satellite to its geostationary orbit, from where it will serve broadcasters, businesses and public agencies in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. The launch was attended by several high-profile Qatari government officials, including Information and Technology Minister HE Dr Hessa Al Jaber. Es’hailsat is already working on its second satellite, Es’hailsat 2, this time to be built independently in Qatar.
Microsoft acquires Nokia
In a year that saw plenty of major takeovers led by tech giants like Yahoo and Google, Microsoft’s $7.2 billion buyout of Nokia’s devices and services division took the cake. The purchase, which included the business, patents and licences and use of Nokia’s mapping services, was recently approved by Nokia shareholders. Microsoft and Nokia have been working closely since the new line of Nokia phones started operating on Windows, moving away from proprietary operating systems like Symbian and MeeGo. Stephen Elop, who took over as CEO of Nokia after leaving Microsoft, will now return to the tech giant as Head of Devices. He is also being tipped as a hot contender for the position of CEO at Microsoft once Steve Ballmer steps down in 2014.
Konichiwa, Olympics 2020
Tokyo elbowed out competing cities Istanbul and Madrid to land the 2020 summer Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee announced. It was undoubtedly an ecstatic victory for the country, which had decided to stand by its bid after the devastating earthquake and tsunami two years back. The National Olympic Stadium is to get a $1 billion facelift in addition to the 11 new venues that are scheduled to be constructed.
Mall trip turns into massacre
The Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, an upscale destination that attracts wealthy Kenyans, expats and diplomats, became a battleground after masked terrorists wielding assault rifles stormed the premises throwing grenades and firing indiscriminately. The terrorists were later identified as members of the Al Qaeda-aligned Al Shabaab, a Somali militant group. A siege that lasted till September 24 resulted in over 70 deaths, according to the Kenyan Red Cross.
The Guardian sheds global media light on Qatar
Qatar’s prospects of hosting FIFA World Cup 2022 was already in doldrums due to bribing scandals and weather concerns when The Guardian’s article was published, exacerbating the situation and turning global opinion against allowing Qatar to host the sporting spectacle. Accusing the country of allowing the practice of modern-day slavery, it detailed how low-income migrant workers were often victims of unsafe living and working conditions, unethical practices like confiscation of passports, unreasonable recruiting fees and contractual breaches. The most damning part of the article, was perhaps the dire prediction that the various construction projects leading upto 2022 will leave at least 4,000 workers dead.
Widespread condemnation poured in and FIFA was urged to pressure Qatar to change the system or reconsider its World Cup bid. The International Trade Union Confederation, Human Rights Watch, The Builders and Wood Worker’s International and Amnesty International have all, in the same year, inspected the situation and presented reports that call for immediate and drastic remedies.
The phone call that started it all
For the first time since the total diplomatic fallout that followed the 1979 Iranian revolution, the heads of state of Iran and America spoke over the phone, during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to New York City, where he addressed the UN General Assembly. This historic high-level exchange rapidly opened new doors for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, leading to the new nuclear deal that was signed two months later in Geneva. For days before this deal was announced, world powers were eager to begin some sort of reconciliation process but sceptical about Iran’s intentions and unaligned about how much of a concession they were willing to make and in exchange for what. Israel was, and remains mistrustful and has opposed the new deal. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking before the announcement of the deal, said that though he supported the ongoing talks, Iran would not give up any of its basic “nuclear rights”, and that he had set a “red line” for the envoys in Geneva. The deal itself is a six-month trial during which Iran is required to slow down its nuclear development programme in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions.
US government shuts down
The United States government’s third-longest shutdown in its history reportedly cost the economy $24 billion and shaved 0.6% off GDP, according to Standard & Poor’s. With debate over the contentious Obamacare splitting the House of Representatives, the health bill was unsuccessfully held hostage against the shutdown. While the government continued not to yield to the attempts to defund President Obama’s legacy, the fiscal year-end came and there was still no budget plan in sight. As a result, the government was forced to cut down on all non-essential spending until the issue was resolved, which led to over 800,000 federal employees being furloughed and a further 1.3 million required to work without any assurances on payment dates. Tourist spots, national parks, monuments, museums and other government-run sites were indefinitely shut. Growing public dissent and fears of causing a ripple effect on global economies led Congress to hurriedly sign a short-term spending bill that’ll last till mid-January.
Even with the reduced number of permits and many pilgrims deciding to not participate in the Hajj this year because of MERS concerns, over two million people descended on Mecca to uphold one of the five pillars of Islam.
Europe’s dismal unemployment rates
Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, released some rather depressing unemployment figures – 12.2% of the population in the 17 countries that make up the euro area (and 11% among all 28 members of the EU) are out of work; an increase from last year’s numbers. Greece and Spain were the largest contributors to the average, with their respective rates at 27.6% and 26.6%.
US Drones down Pakistan’s Taliban leader
Hakimullah Mehsud was killed when multiple missiles were launched by US drones in North Waziristan. Mehsud, who succeeded in 2009 after the then-Taliban chief was himself was killed in a drone attack, had a $5 million bounty on his head and had told the BBC in an interview that he was willing to start talks with the government. These peace talks, which were on the verge of being initialised, have now been put on hold and it is unclear how this attack will shape the direction of the discourse in the future.
Typhoon Haiyan wreaks havoc
Though it wasn’t the most powerful storm to make landfall in the Philippines, it was certainly the deadliest. Days after the storm hit Philippine shores, the death toll continued to rise steadily and as we go to print, it stands at over 5,500 with 11 million people affected, according to the UN. Funds and aid have been pouring in from the international community (over 80 tonnes of aid material including food, tents, blankets, clothes and medications have been sent on two flights from Qatar, in addition to independent efforts by charity organisations and individuals in the country) but at ground level citizens are still struggling to find shelter, food, water and medical supplies. The Qatar Computing Research Institute is working closely with the UN to assist humanitarian work using crisis mapping tools like MicroMappers, which scans online data available through tweets, social media posts, etc. and uploads them in real time onto satellite maps for aid agencies to better coordinate relief efforts.
A new high for the art world
When news started coming out that Christie’s in New York had sold Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud to an unidentified bidder for a cool $142.4 million, art commentators were tripping over themselves to guess who had splurged this eye-popping amount, the highest-ever bid for any piece of art in history (not adjusting for inflation). Qatar’s Sheikha Al Mayassa was the strongest candidate until Acquavella Galleries, which did the bidding on behalf of the client, reportedly spoke out to deny these reports.