DOHA, Qatar – Holding a high-profile U.N. climate change conference in Qatar, smack in the middle of the region that produces so much of the fossil fuel blamed for global warming, was a gamble. In the end, it displayed the hosts' drive for a leading place on the world stage and evoked a surprising new regional awareness of the environmental crisis.
The two-week conference that ended Saturday challenged the tight control Qatar and other Gulf nations keep over their societies, and protesters took the brunt of that. It tested the ability of Qatar's ambitious effort to pilot an unwieldy gathering with divergent ideas to a successful conclusion as an example of its capabilities for future efforts, and the hosts got mixed grades.
In an unexpected bonus, the very presence of the U.N. climate talks in energy-rich Qatar introduced the big-spending Gulf public to the issue of climate change close up for the first time. Dozens of young Arab activists from across the region — most of whom never attended climate talks before — headed home inspired to pressure their governments to do more for the environment.
In a classic culture clash, the conference highlighted some of Qatar's growing pains as it seeks to expand its global profile.
Gulf countries want to reach out for events that offer prestige, but international conferences also feature messy debates and protests that conflict with the region's strict controls, which effectively outlaw public criticism of local rulers or their policies.
"I'm glad it was in Qatar for many reasons," said Wael Hmaidan, a Lebanese activist and director of the Climate Action Network who challenged the host country for much of the week to show greater leadership.
"The main reason was how it impacted the region, how initiatives started in region, how it change of mindset on all levels," he said.
Qatar, which until recently showed little interest in climate negotiations, saw the conference as a chance to boost its image. Tiny Qatar already has an outsized presence on the world stage, including winning the bidding to host the football's 2022 World Cup and taking a leading role in aiding Syrian rebels.
Its lack of environmental expertise emerged early in the climate talks. It struggled to build consensus among the nearly 200 nations over a deal to extend the legally binding Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce emissions until 2020 and develop a work plan ahead a decision to adopt a new global climate pact by 2015.
Draft agreements were not ready until the last second, and Qatar did little in the first 10 days to bring together key ministers to craft a grand deal, as past hosts have. The conference had to be extended a day because agreements were not in place.
"They were pretty rubbish," said Iain Keith, senior campaigner with activist group Avaaz. "They lacked the capacity to sort out the choreography and ensure the right trade-offs were happening at the right time. That is the reason we went into overtime." Then conference was due to end Friday.
Civil society groups had an even less charitable opinion of Qatar, which keeps a tight lid on political dissent and rarely allows protests of any kind.
Activists were accustomed to sit-ins, noisy demonstrations and clashes with police at previous talks. But in Qatar, they were only allowed one march outside the conference center. Their protests were otherwise limited to some chanting and holding of signs.
Two young activists found out the hard way about Qatar's strict limits on dissent after they unveiled a banner criticizing Qatar's leadership without prior approval. They were kicked out of the conference and deported.
Several nations said Qatar stepped up when it mattered. It won praise for appointing several seasoned delegates to act as facilitators on Friday night, when talks appeared deadlocked over financing to poor countries, and helping push through approve the Kyoto extension in the face of opposition from Russia, Ukraine and several other eastern European countries.
"The political ideas were sometimes doubted, but my personal impression was that Qatar was not impressed by big countries or by rich countries," said Germany's Environmental Minister Peter Altmaier, one of those appointed by Qatar to move talks forward. "Qatar was interested in reaching and achieving a compromise in the interest of climate protection."
Others said Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries demonstrated how their attitudes about climate change are radically changing in the face of mounting evidence that water shortages, rising seas and droughts are linked to global warming. Rather than defending their oil and blocking progress as some had done in the past, the Gulf countries repeatedly spoke up at the conference in support of a climate change deal, and even Saudi Arabia — which has long been a thorn in the U.N.'s climate control side — praised the final deal as historic.
Reinforcing their newfound ideals, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia announced for the first time that they will eventually make emissions pledges and work to diversify their economies. They also held regular workshops and set up huge exhibits to demonstrate their plans to invest in solar and other renewables in the coming decade.
Thani al-Zeyoudi, director of Energy and Climate Change of the UAE's Foreign Ministry, said the deal was a change for the oil-rich country "to get full recognition" of its efforts to battle climate change.
"I am sure that the region's image, especially the Gulf region, has changed a lot," said Mohamed Abdel Raouf, a research fellow in the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. "It improved, in fact, from being just a rich oil and gas producing region that is blocking climate talks to a very positive one that cares about the future of the planet."