In just four decades, Qatar has gone from being a small, impoverished enclave eking out a living out of pearl hunting to being at the center of international economy and diplomacy, thanks to its immense gas and oil reserves and to its skill at diplomatic independence. A peninsula that is just 180 kilometers long and 75 kilometers wide is home to 2,6 million people, of whom barely 300,000 are Qatari citizens. The rest are workers who have arrived from the four corners of the planet. Considered the most open and advanced of the Arab nations, Qatar has invested a substantial amount of resources into attracting renowned university institutions and opening world-class museums, designed by great architects such as I. M. Pei or Jean Nouvel. The most successful Arab TV network in the world, Al-Jazeera, has its headquarters in Doha, the emirate’s capital. The current emir, Tamim Al-Thani, came to power in 2013 and is 37 years old. He has come accompanied by a generation of young managers who face now the gravest diplomatic crisis in the history of their country, due to the blockade enforced by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.
Question. Qatar’s blockade has been going on for five months. To announce it, Saudi Arabia and its allies used something very much in force today: a piece of fake news, with some statement allegedly made by the emir, Tamim Al-Thani, about Hammas and Iran.
Answer. It’s true, this blockade was provoked by some fake press release that a hacker included in our news agency. The fake release said that the Emir had spoken during a military commencement ceremony, something that did not happen. They purposely published it after midnight, at 12.15am, so that there would not be a response before late in the morning. We thwarted their plan; we published a statement by the Government’s Communication Office at 1.00am, explaining that our news agency had been hacked in order to publish a fake press release.
Q. What do you think is the goal of this blockade?
A. Very simple: they want to outsource our foreign policy. We have differences of opinion with them. They want to rob us of our independence and our sovereignty and they want to shut down free media. As His Highness the Emir said recently: there is nothing more important than our dignity, our sovereignty and our independence. The reason is that we have different views. Several days before the crisis started, we went to Riyadh to a meeting of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), and they didn’t indicate that they had any issues with us.
Q. Is there still an orchestrated fake news campaign?
A. Yes, there is. They have chosen a method that has always been used in this part of the world but never with as much emphasis in the GCC. They use the Twitter armies and websites they manage to spread these fake news. There are networks like Al Arabiya o Sky News Arabic that have become more like ministries rather than media outlets. The aim of these channels then becomes to push Western media outlets to carry these fake news stories. The problem with their strategy that it does not take into consideration the public awareness, and the variety of news sources available today .
Q. One of their first demands on June 5 was to shut down Al Jazeera, a network whose journalists have been persecuted in countries ranging from Iraq to Egypt.
A. As His Highness said in his recent interview, Al Jazeera will always be recognized, even 50 and 60 and 70 years from now, because it brought a new idea of freedom of speech to this part of the world, and it made the Arabic voice come from the Arab world, from the Arab people themselves. This is not the first time they have requested this, and I don’t think it will be the last. They have embarrassed themselves and the GCC by such requests and other childish acts.
Q. A part of this conflict has to do with freedom of speech.
A. Yes. This whole crisis is about differences of opinion. Although we share the same culture, we share the same traditions, we share the same religion, we view, for example, the Arab Spring and such other regional matters differently. We do not believe in violence, we do not believe that violence is the solution for anything, that is why during the Arab Spring we stood with the people, we stood with their requests, and what the people were asking for was simple, they were asking for dignity, respect, rights. I think that now, in the 21stcentury, you cannot just deal with or counter these things by using violence or arresting people for such matters, so we supported the people. It seems that they supported the other side, which is fine—we do not dictate our choices on others. We choose to be a principled country that respects international law, and we believe that the region will reach its full potential only by investing in the people and allowing them to shape their own countries.
Q. The world’s largest Arab nation, Egypt, has joined the blockade in a surprising turn of events, because Qatar has been extremely supportive of Egypt.
A. We have always supported the people of Egypt. We do not support individuals. We definitely do not support political parties. Some say that we supported the Muslim Brotherhood; we have never supported the Muslim Brotherhood. We supported the people of Egypt while the Muslim Brotherhood were in government, we supported the people of Egypt before they were in government, and after they left. I’ll give you an example. We have sent five shipments of gas, free of charge; the last shipment of gas reached them in 2016, just before the end of the year, so for them to say that we have an issue with Egypt … we do not.
Q. The truth is that the Muslim Brotherhood won the only democratic election in the history of Egypt.
A. Yes. And we do not get involved in the internal affairs of others, and that is why we supported the people and why we did not get involved before, nor after, nor during that period, although people claim we did. Why did Egypt join the blockade? That is a question they should be asked, whether they were persuaded or otherwise. What I do know is that we had no issues with Egypt. There is a large Egyptian community here in Qatar, a very large one, almost 200,000 people, they are treated as are all other expats living here, they enjoy the same respect and dignity as any other person living in Qatar.
Q. That is a vital point. Are you aware that there is concern over the working conditions of the expatriates here? They make up about 80 per cent of residents. What is the government doing to solve the problem?
A. We had previous issues with the workers, especially the labor part, in the past, and we have developed several protection laws in the last three years. We’ve listened to the criticism, and we’ve accelerated change in our laws. In 2008 His Highness the Emir launched the program called 2030 Vision, which has a social aspect to it, and that is to grant both citizens and expats, everyone living in Doha, a high standard of life, guaranteeing their rights, dignity and respect, something that we do not just pursue in our foreign policy. We were already on the path to doing that. The benefits of 2022 (FIFA World Cup) are that it has accelerated these changes. That’s a positive thing. We have worked really hard, and today I can say that we have a very developed system, which doesn’t mean we will not develop it further. We have an open door to non-governmental agencies with expertise in such fields. Engaging with them has helped us develop our laws and procedures and we thank them for that, for the base upon we are going to go forward.
Q. One of the main areas of these conscious attacks you have described, of political pressure and fake news, is actually the 2022 World Cup. They are questioning whether Qatar may or may not be able to actually finish on time.
A. Some people from blockading countries have pushed forth the idea that if Qatar renounces organizing the World Cup, this crisis will end, and this blockade will end. This is recent, from the past few weeks. So their reasons for the blockade were at first a fabricated statement, then moved to the false accusation that we support terrorism, and now it turns out to be it is about 2022. The World Cup is something that this country has worked very hard to do. We did not decide suddenly one day to host the World Cup. It has taken us years. Beginning in 1999, we have organized small competitions, we successfully hosted the Asian Games in 2006, we have hosted many, many events, and we have worked hard on bringing the World Cup to the region. This is not just our World Cup, this is a World cup for the whole region, the first one in the Arab World. Hosting it in Qatar, in a multi-cultural city, in a country that is open, that is understanding, that is tolerant, will be very positive for the world of sports in general.
Q. You were talking of multi-culturalism. Here in Qatar, you see women in many levels of government, private companies, education. Do you think it is something that makes your neighbors uncomfortable?
A. It is a little like when you are at school, you have an exam and your friend does much better than you. Some people will want everyone else to fail because they failed. I think we are moving too fast for them. They would rather have just PR stunts, changes of image rather than real meaningful changes, while as we are really focused on real change, on making the lives of the citizens and expats better. So yes, we have many women in official posts, we have many women in the private sector who are successful, we have women who are in academia, and other technical sectors such as health. We have a Minister of Health, Dr. Hanan Al Kuwari, who all her life has been in the health management field, my sister Alya Al Thani, who I am so proud of, she us our Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, she has been in foreign policy, human rights issues and women’s rights issues her whole career.
Q. The other day she actually said something very interesting, that education is the best way to fight extremism.
A. When it comes to countering terrorism, countering violent extremism through education, we are focused on crisis areas such as Syria, we are focused on providing support, on providing donations to create education programs that give the youth the opportunity to get an education, so they can continue. This has been a work that my sister has been doing from her post at UN and that our Foreign Affairs Ministry has been doing. And they have been doing it successfully.
Q. Here in Doha, the world’s main universities have campuses, and you have Education City, that is actually led by women. Where does this interest for education come from, this willingness to turn Doha into the education hub for the Middle East?
A. We always had a focus on education throughout the last three decades, but especially in the 90s when we focused on moving from an energy-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, and to do that education had to play a key role. So His Highness —the Father Emir—, His Highness established many institutes and many entities, and also encouraged the private sector to get into the education sector, with private schools. In Doha you will find a wide variety of schools. You have Arabic, French, Spanish, Indian and many other schools. So you have a wide variety of curricula to choose from. This goes to show the diversity in our society and how we are open to it. This is one of the key areas.
Q. It’s interesting that you go back to how education and funding education can help fight terrorism. It’s also one main point of concern because one of the most repeated statements from the countries that now form the blockade is that Qatar supports terrorism.
A. We do not support terrorism, not from near, not from far. We do not support terrorism. Why do they accuse us of it? People know us, governments know us. Yes, they are creating a buzz by doing this and we are dealing with it. But we continue to deal with it from a moral high ground. We are not doing the same to blockading countries, although we could. We chose not to do the same because it’s a matter of principle, because we are a principled country and we will not go as low as they are going. Their people and our people are family. It’s the first time in the history of the GCC that they have purposely mixed politics with the social fabric of the GCC. And that is a scar that will take years or decades to heal.
Q. The latest IMF report says that Qatar is adapting to the situation because it’s showing strength, but could this kind of behavior backfire and affect the whole region?
A. Well, it’s one of the first reports that have come out. Economically, Qatar is flexible enough. Prior to June, 90% of our goods came by land. We are flexible enough to change our suppliers. We are flexible enough to encourage our private sector to look for other suppliers. We do have bilateral relationships to do that. But, yes, long term, it will affect all the GCC and the wider region. Through their fake news, they are saying that there is some sort of economic struggling here. But what they have forgotten to mention —or maybe some of them do not understand how economics work— is that, at the end of the day, Qatar is the customer of their companies. We were buying from them. So their businesses are losing customers, and we are a big customer to lose. In the GCC we had a sort of gentlemen's agreement to buy products from each other as a courtesy and to support the private sectors in the GCC. If that changes, it’s not a problem for us. We are the customers. In the end, the blockading countries are harming their own economies and their own private sectors.
Q. Is it affecting in any way the conflict in Yemen?
A. We are worried about the human impact of what’s happening in Yemen. We all need to worry about the health situation and the food situation, the shortage situation in Yemen. We left the coalition during the first few weeks of the crisis following a request from them. Our involvement in Yemen was, as our Minister of State for Defense said in an interview a few months ago, to be on the Saudi side of the borders, supporting the main objective of the original mission. That was the extent of our involvement. We did it because it was a GCC request, because of the Houthis’ threats against The GCC.
Q. My question was made rather in the sense that Qatar has been the only country in the neighborhood that has said: “Be careful because there might be a humanitarian crisis going on.”
A. Political dialogue and mediation are the way to solve any differences of opinion, rather than aggression. We believe it’s always the best way – to sit around a table. This is what we have been saying since day one of the crisis, that dialogue is the way to have positive developments for the sake of the people of the GCC, for the sake of stability of the region. And we still believe this is best for everyone.