“We don’t want what happened to us in Qatar to happen to another country”
The director of the Government Communications Office speaks to EL PAÍS about the blockade against the country and the misinformation campaign against the 2022 World Cup
The blockade that Arab countries – led by Saudi Arabia – have been imposing against Qatar has not achieved any of its initial demands. On the contrary, the small emirate, which counts on huge reserves of crude oil and gas, has remained defiant, while its GDP grew 2.2% in 2017, according to data from its Economy Ministry. That’s not to say that the crisis is over. The Saudi government refuses to negotiate, while the emir of Qatar, Tamim al Thani, has suggested to the West the creation of a security deal in the Gulf that would stop a crisis such as this one from being repeated. In the background, a fake news campaign is seeking to deprive the emirate of the FIFA World Cup in 2022. The director of Qatar’s Government Communications Office, Saif al Thani, who spoke to EL PAÍS from London, explains that disinformation in the Gulf is even worse than that seen in the West.
Question. Qatar recently asked the UN Human Rights Council to take measures against the blockade that was established last June. I want to ask you, why have you appealed to the Human Rights Council?
Answer. We respect international law. We believe in international law. We have approached the UN from the start to keep them aware of the illegal actions that have been taken, that have been taken not just on Qataris but on expats, on Gulf citizens, everyone that has been affected by the illegal blockade. More than 26,000 people have been affected. Families have been affected.
Q. Affected how?
A. The blockade has targeted the public. It has targeted the society, families, brothers and sisters, businesses. We are pursuing legal actions whether through the UN or whether through other mechanisms to make sure that blockading countries are held accountable for their actions.
They have blocked our aviation, they have blocked the skies, they have blocked the sea, they have blocked the land. The blockade has failed
Q. But Foreign Affairs Minister Muhammad bin Abdel Raman al Thani has said that the reason for the blockade is racism.
A. What the minister was referring to was a component of a number of different reasons. Summarizing all, whether it’s racism, whether it’s other words you want to use, their main aim is to curtail our independence and take control of our decisions. And they thought they could do this by putting pressure on our society, by putting pressure on the families, on people trying to practice their religion.
Q. Has there been retaliation against Qatari people trying to do the Haj? Have they been prevented from doing it?
A. Unfortunately yes, there has been restraints on them.
Q. That’s very serious.
A. Socially this has affected the religious practice, affected families and it’s ruining a lot of lives.
Q. We are at a point where your government is not only asking for the blockade to stop but also for some compensation. What type of compensation will you be satisfied with?
A. We want compensation to be determined after a thorough legal process. We will not ask for things we don’t think are right. They have blocked our aviation, they have blocked the skies, they have blocked the sea, they have blocked the land. The blockade has failed. It has not resulted in the way they wanted to. They wanted to take control of our decisions and get us to comply with their demands. That’s failed. Qatar will never be for sale to the blockading countries or to anyone else. We are a sovereign country, we will remain a sovereign country and what we ask for is all to simply abide by international law, to abide by responsibilities and accountability.
Q. Are the blockading countries willing and able to negotiate?
A. So far there are no signs that they are willing. We have said from day one that dialogue and negotiation is the only way out. The region is safer when the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] works together for conflict resolution and policy coordination. We appreciate the role of the State of Kuwait and the wisdom of His Highness the Emir of Kuwait for his role in leading the mediation efforts and continuing to call for dialogue.
Q. There was a recent meeting in Riyadh of the so-called members of the Al Thani family saying they want to clean up the country. Why do you think there was this meeting and why in Riyadh?
A. We have seen many random acts from the blockading countries. We have seen them do everything, from gathering tribes, gathering individuals. It’s not a surprise because you see the fake news that’s happening, you see media campaigns that they are organizing. They are trying to do their best to forcefully convince people that what they are doing is justified. Thankfully people are aware in the region. So, all these random things have failed.
Q. Why is what happens in Qatar so important to Saudi Arabia and other countries?
A. Qatar is a major energy player. We are a major supplier of gas. We are a major supplier of other by-products of gas. We are a key player in the region when it comes to mediation, when it comes to humanitarian aid. We are a major player in sports. We will be hosting the 2022 World Cup. We are a major global player in investments. We are a very active UN member that believes in the UN mechanisms. Internally we have developed many sectors from strengthening our private sector to reaching the number-one ranking of highest income per person. The leadership throughout the past two decades has worked hard in creating an overall general high standard of living for the citizens of Qatar. We have further focused on education and healthcare as key components for the people of Qatar and for the future of Qatar. These are all things we have worked over the last two decades to achieve, all of these achievements did not happen overnight, and maybe all of these achievements and decisions made us a target – we have been moving too fast for some.
The blockading countries are a perfect example of how fake news has been used as a tool. And not just fake news, but having social media armies organizing social media campaigns
Q. The Saudi Government has said that the actions that Qatar takes and their decisions are actually the decisions of Iran. Riyadh wants to turn this into Saudi Arabia against Iran.
A. As I said earlier on, the blockade is in place to outsource our decisions, to take our independence away from us. This will never happen. We will hold on to our independence and sovereignty as a nation from anyone who tries to do so – either the blockading countries or any other country. Over the last few months the relationship with Iran has developed specifically in economic relations, especially in trade and transport routes. The blockade has meant that our routes in and out have been illegally limited by the blockading countries. That doesn’t mean we don’t have differences of opinion with Iran, differences in the region among other issues.
Q. Recently the Emir said that what’s going on in Ghouta is a crime against humanity.
A. We have always had a public voice, a loud public voice in Syria. We will continue to do so. We respect the Syrian people’s requests for their rights and their dignity. We have provided and will continue to provide humanitarian aid in regards to refugees. We support the decision of the UN for a ceasefire to stop the violence toward the Syrian people.
Q. Recently the Saudi channel Al Arabiya said that Qatar was going to be stripped of their right to host the World Cup. It was fake news that only quoted a Saudi official source. Is this type of fake news causing any unrest within Qatar?
A. This is actually great for us because people see how some countries are in the region and see how we are in the region. We are a developed country, we are a modern country. I think we have enough of an adult mindset to pass over childish comments. Now, about the 2022 World Cup, I think the international soccer community and the public in general will not look over comments from the blockading countries. More recently, decisions from the Asian football League are a perfect example. Their disregard for media ethics has blown back on them numerous times and they still insist on these methods and not learning, even though some of their channels are being removed from regulators in Europe.
Q. Has there been an increase in fake news and intervention campaigns?
A. In regards to fake news it’s growing. The blockading countries are a perfect example of how fake news has been used as a tool. And not just fake news, but having social media armies organizing social media campaigns.
Q. We have been told by several American officials that the Emir is planning a visit to the USA. They have invited other representatives from the Gulf and have even suggested the idea there could be a summit before the summer. Is this feasible?
A. Yes, we do have an official visit in April in USA. It’s a bilateral visit. We have a very strategic partnership with the US that is in the field of military collaboration, foreign policy cooperation and other sectors. One of the key sectors is counter-terrorism cooperation and partnership. The aim of the visit is to further strengthen our bilateral relationship. It’s also to discuss regional stability, and, of course, the crisis is a part of that. We have not heard any news about the summit but as we have said from day one we welcome any step forward in this matter to resolve the issue
Q. How will the agreement benefit Western countries?
A. We don’t want what happened to us in Qatar to happen again to another country. We have overcome the blockade. We have financial stability. We are a stable country, culturally, politically and economically. These are all reasons why the blockade has failed.
Q. Would you be willing to actually talk about this to Spain and other European countries?
A. Yes, we are. We are seeing people we have met at the Munich conference, the results and interest, and we are seeing that sort of agreement because it will build the unity in the region. And I’m including all the region here.