While students were studying for finals last semester, Sonny Branham, assistant professor of government, was sitting in a Qatari airport listening to “Silent Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
“Here you are in a 90 percent Muslim country and Christmas carols are being played over the loud speaker,” Branham said. “That wouldn’t happen at JFK or at Reagan or at Tulsa because it would be seen as culturally insensitive to someone.”
Branham was in Qatar as part of the Malone Fellowship program. Five Model Arab League advisers and 10 students attended the educational trip to learn about Qatar in detail.
Before he left, Branham said he prayed John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.”
“I just felt I got the confirmation that yes you were when I was sitting in the airport getting ready to get on the plane to come back and to hear those Christmas carols,” Branham said.
Branham is the adviser for ORU’s Model Arab League, a club whose mission is to learn about the Middle East. The club is similar to Model United Nations in that each team is assigned a Middle Eastern country and competes against other universities in the same region.
“The group that puts it on, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, is an educational group,” he said. “Their mission is to have Americans become more familiar with what the Middle East is like.”
Branham initially applied for the Malone Fellowship to be able to bring back experience for the Model Arab League, whose assigned countries this competition are Qatar and Jordan.
“Just seeing on-the-ground perspective, I believe helps me to be a better teacher,” he said. “It wasn’t for long, but I got a sampling, got a taste and can speak to the situations in a more informative way maybe than they could get on the Internet or a 30-second sound bite on TV.”
In competition, Model Arab League splits into five committees covering economic, social and political issues. The delegation is at an advantage, for Branham formally sat down with Qatari officials to discuss these exact subjects.
The week preceding the Malone Fellowship trip Qatari government officials hosted 12 U.S. congressmen’s chiefs of staff for a chamber of commerce tour. The Qatari embassy in Washington, D.C. heard of the Malone Fellows and told the Qatar officials to duplicate the tour. Thus, Branham said, “We were treated like royalty.”
He said the meetings with these officials were very formal, but plenty of info was exchanged. Qatar gained independence from being a British protectorate in 1971. It has developed into a wealthy Middle Eastern nation with massive natural gas reserves. It has the highest per capita income in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook.
“The leadership is a very ruling, elite, wealthy, tribal family, but that family encourages many democratic principles like open elections, political parties,” he said. “Just as long as it doesn’t get extreme.”
For an Arab country, these democratic principles make Qatar very “progressive,” Branham said.
Qatar holds an immense immigrant population. There is an estimated 200-250,000 Qataris in the country and one million immigrant laborers, he said.
“There’s not enough people to run the country of Qatar,” said Branham. “So they have to import educators, laborers, technicians, computer operators from everywhere simply to have their country function.”
When it comes to U.S.-Qatari relations, it can be deemed a love-hate relationship. The U.S.’s Central Command is located in Qatar, but Branham said the U.S. criticizes Qatar for its support of groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The reason why the Qatari government does so is because…they’re for the persecuted people that are in the Gulf area,” Branham said. “They see Muslim Brotherhood, they see Hamas as the outside groups that are addressing and challenging the government to change.”
Model Arab League has competed for two years and was assigned the countries of Yemen and Oman. Branham said the team is at its strongest with 12 delegates. They will compete against schools in the region in Commerce, Texas April 9-11.