At the beginning of May, Qatar invited 400 delegates from 60 jurisdictions — including several British appeal judges — to a law forum at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Flights and accommodation were paid for by the Qatar government, allowing Michael Napier, the solicitor who chaired a session on equal access to the law, to joke that the conference was "open to all — like the Ritz hotel".
Writing in Standpoint about the first Qatar law forum three years ago, I remarked on the irony of discussing the rule of law in a country run by an absolute monarch who had come to power in a bloodless coup. The theme this year was global commitment to the rule of law in a time of change — a reference to the Arab spring and the international financial crisis.
But what really brought the conference alive for me was the suggestion that Qatar might be able to buy an even greater prize than football or the rule of law. Over breakfast, one very well-connected delegate told me that Qatar had been trying to act as an honest broker between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
The first speaker that morning was Sheikh Hamad, Qatar's prime minister and foreign minister, who made a depressingly predictable reference to the "daily crimes that violate the rights of the Palestinian people". But that was followed by a session on the international courts chaired by Malik Dahlan, the well-connected Harvard-educated lawyer who runs an international law and policy firm called Quraysh. The last time we had spoken he told me I had incorrectly reported that nobody from Israel had attended the last Qatar law forum.
This time, Dahlan referred to Israel from the platform, suggesting it could become part of a regional grouping that would include Turkey. When I questioned him further he summed up his hopes to the largely Arab audience in flawless Hebrew. "I want peace now," Dahlan declared, hinting — as I understood it — that a settlement was essential before Iran acquired nuclear weapons.
Making Peace in the Middle East sounds just as implausible as Playing Soccer in the Desert. But what Dahlan seems to realise more clearly than most is that nobody will want to play football in a region recovering from a nuclear war.