- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2019

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

A top Qatari diplomat says the damaging feud between her country and Saudi Arabia that has divided the two American allies over the past two years and created a Middle East headache for the Trump administration is unlikely to be put to rest anytime soon.

“The answer is no,” Lolwah Al-Khater, spokeswoman for the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Washington Times when asked whether the rift among Arab nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council is any closer to resolution today than when it began in June 2017.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are still imposing economic and diplomatic blockades on Doha.

Ms. Al-Khater praised U.S. attempts to mediate the crisis, but she roundly accused the others of clinging to an “intolerance” that undergirds the Middle East’s reputation as a region mired in conflict.



“We’ve been asking for [them to] come to the table of negotiations. Let’s put all of the cards on the table and discuss,” she said, claiming Qatar seeks dialogue even if it vehemently disagrees with Saudi- and Emirati-led allegations that Doha conspires with Iran, supports the Muslim Brotherhood and funds jihadi terrorist groups.

The Saudis and Emiratis “have shut down everything single channel, even the back channels,” Ms. Al-Khater said.

Qatar is allowed to participate in “certain portfolios,” such as GCC multinational military exercises and some counterterrorism initiatives, but the “manufactured rivalry” fomented by the others is damaging to U.S. interests, she said, including the Trump administration’s push for deeper regional defense coordination.

“Arab NATO, whatever terminology you prefer,” Ms. Al-Khater said, “is kind of not going anywhere, and part of the reason is that the supposed allies are not talking to each other.”

She made the comments in a wide-ranging discussion with reporters and editors last week at The Times, where she framed Doha as a clutch U.S. ally. Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base hosts some 11,000 U.S. military personnel and serves as the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command — and promoter of a forward-leaning pluralism in the 21st-century Middle East.

Qatar and its 2.7 million people have been riding high on the global natural gas boom and, much to the chagrin of other Gulf Arab monarchies, Doha is hosting the 2022 World Cup.

Ms. Al-Khater expressed hope that global soccer’s quadrennial showcase, for which Qatar is building a slate of state-of-the-art, air-conditioned stadiums, will be unifying despite the regional acrimony. Doha’s hosting could show the world “this region is not all about conflict, it’s not all about wars,” she said. “This is to give the people of the region some hope for the first time in years.”

It may be difficult, though. The GCC crisis has made flying in and out of Doha tricky from other regional capitals. Still, Ms. Al-Khater said Qatar will be committed to delivering for fans — even if they are Saudi or Emirati fans and even if the crisis stretches out three more years. “We really hope that this will be resolved before the World Cup,” she said. “But even if it isn’t, our commitment is that all of them will be welcomed and will not face any sort of discrimination.”

Working with Iran?

Ms. Al-Khater bristled at allegations the Saudis and others have leveled against Qatar. She scoffed at demands that Doha curb its ties with Iran and, specifically, expel members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from Qatar.

The very allegation of an Iranian guards presence in Qatar is just false, she said. “It does not exist,” she told The Times. “I mean, just please imagine, Al Udeid military base is there and the Revolutionary Guard? How is this just possible?”

Qatar is a majority Sunni Arab nation like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, but Ms. Al Khater acknowledged that Doha has ties to Shiite Iran. Qatar, she said, has relied on Iran for food imports to undercut the GCC embargo.

But the Qataris also share ownership with Iran over the massive South Pars/North Dome offshore natural gas field near the center of the Persian Gulf, a field that has fueled Doha’s growth as a major regional player in recent decades.

Analysts say it’s a complicated relationship that could prove vexing for the Trump administration’s push to isolate Tehran through a global embargo on Iranian oil and sanctions against Iran’s wider energy sector.

Several U.S. allies — including Japan, India and the United Kingdom — depend on natural gas drawn from the South Pars/North Dome field. Ms. Al-Khater noted that even the United Arab Emirates — despite the GCC crisis — buys large quantities of energy from Qatar.

On the Trump administration’s push for an embargo, she said, “There are implications globally. It’s very, very complicated, and that’s why this is one of the things that has yet to be addressed and discussed. … [But] we are confident we will reach a formula that will work for all.”

She pushed back against the characterization of Qatar as a middleman selling Iranian natural gas. “I wouldn’t put it this way,” she told The Times. “Qatar is producing its own natural gas.

“Iran is just opening the borders offering us a passage,” she said.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Ms. Al-Khater also rejected the notion that Qatar supports extremism. The Saudis and others made that insinuation two years ago by demanding that Qatar sever ties to “terrorist organizations,” including the Muslim Brotherhood, and formally declare the entity a terrorist group.

Qatar does not support the Muslim Brotherhood,” she said, although she noted the “brotherhood is not designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., not in Europe either.”

“All Arab countries, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, do not designate it as such,” Ms. Al-Khater said. “But there’s a wide spectrum between designating an entity or entities as a terrorist organization and supporting it.”

“We don’t antagonize [the Brotherhood],” she said. “But we don’t support it.”

She added that, on counterterrorism more broadly, U.S.-Qatari relations are as strong as they have ever been. She pointed to an expansion underway at Al Udeid and a special memorandum Doha signed in 2017 that included a promise to crack down on suspected fundraising for terrorist organizations by individuals with Qatari bank accounts.

She noted an early-2018 assertion by Rex W. Tillerson, as secretary of state, that Doha had made “significant progress to improve efforts to combat terrorism.”

Ms. Al-Khater said Doha held its tongue last year to avoid worsening regional tension around the grisly killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, even when international allegations swirled of Saudi royal family involvement. “We could politicize this. Qatar could have played this easily,” she said, asserting that, instead, “we took the back seat, simply because it was … the right thing to do.”

She suggested that the most frustrating allegation against Qatar has involved Al Jazeera, which Doha funds. The Saudis, Emiratis and others have demanded the network be shuttered.

The reason, Ms. Al-Khater said, is they fear Al Jazeera’s coverage of dissents. “They cannot tolerate any different opinion,” she said, claiming a “crackdown” is underway by the Emirates and “Saudi Arabia more prominently” against “everyone, not only the clergy, the liberals, women feminists, everyone literally.”

“They have reached a point of intolerance for the multiplicity of opinions that is just beyond anyone’s comprehension,” Ms. Al-Khater said. “This is the kind of mindset they live in. To me, this is a reproduction of the totalitarian revolutionary regimes that we witnessed in the Arab region in the 1950s and ‘60s.”

It would be better for the dozens of satellite TV channels of the region to compete freely, she said, even if it means Saudi and Emirati stations countering “whatever Al Jazeera is saying.

“Let them say nasty things about Qatar and let them expose Qatar. Let them do whatever. I mean, they have many platforms to do so. Yet, it’s just this mindset that [they] cannot tolerate — cannot accept — the fact that we live in a different era, whether we like it or not.”

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