DOHA, Qatar - His Royal Highness Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, ruler of Qatar, seems to be one of those rarities in world history: a genuinely benevolent despot.
Qatar consists, essentially, of the capital city of Doha and some oil wells in the desert. Doha is an attractive city, with broad avenues lined with palm trees, attractive homes and apartments, modern office buildings, and a huge indoor shopping center.
Half the Qatari men and nearly all the Qatari women wear traditional dress in public, but they are relaxed about having Westerners in their midst. Street signs and signs in all public buildings are in English and Arabic.
Sheikh al-Thani is an aggressive modernizer. He has established a university complex in northwest Doha and has invited a number of U.S. universities to establish campuses there. He hopes to make Qatar an education center for Arabs throughout the Persian Gulf.
Though the emir opposes the war in Iraq, he allowed the U.S. military to establish its regional headquarters here after Saudi Arabia denied permission for the United States to use U.S. bases in that country.
Sheikh al-Thani is a hereditary and absolute ruler, like most Arab monarchs, but he keeps pushing his country toward democracy.
On Monday, there was an election for the Municipal Council in Doha, the second in Qatari history. One of the victorious candidates was a woman, Sheikha Yousef Hassan al-Jufairi. This would happen in neighboring Saudi Arabia about the time the first outdoor ice-skating rink would open in Riyadh.
Last year nearby Bahrain permitted women to run for public office, but none won seats. Women can vote and seek office in Oman.
The municipal elections are paving the way for establishing a national parliament. A draft constitution has been submitted to the emir, but has yet to be approved. The parliament envisioned would have 45 members, of whom 30 would be elected and 15 would be appointed by Sheikh al-Thani. (Absolute monarchs who voluntarily become constitutional monarchs are entitled to some concessions.)
There were few surprises in the municipal elections, but there was a hopeful sign. A member of the royal family, a cabinet minister, Sheikh Falah bin Jassem al-Thani, waited patiently in line at a polling place to cast his vote.
Sheikh al-Thani has been pushing moderation and tolerance in other ways, too. Monday night was the opening of a three-day Muslim-Christian seminar at the Ritz-Carlton, sponsored by the emir.
In remarks opening the conference, Sheikh al-Thani proposed to create in Qatar a permanent body for dialogue between Islam and Christianity to promote tolerance.
President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair hope to create a model Persian Gulf democracy in post-war Iraq. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani may beat them to it.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jack Kelly, a former Marine, was deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration.25.29457 51.51944