Virtual Meeting

A Conversation With Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani of Qatar

Thursday, September 23, 2021
Naseem Zeitoon/REUTERS
Speaker

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Qatar

Presider

Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani discusses developments in Afghanistan, engagements with Palestinians, policy priorities for Qatar-U.S. relations, and broader regional concerns.

HAASS: Good afternoon. Almost good evening, but not quite, though it is good evening in your part of the world. Qatar, or—(changes pronunciation)—Qatar if you prefer, is a small country with a small population, but it’s a country that also, as we would say, punches far above its weight. If you look at the contemporary Middle East, virtually any of the major challenges it is contending with, dealing with successfully or unsuccessfully in one dimension and another, Qatar will be—will be involved.

Even beyond the Middle East, it hosted the talks between representatives of the United States and the Taliban that culminated in the February 2020 agreement that set the stage and the timetable for American military withdrawal. It is now involved in some very helpful ways with the evacuation of Afghans and other foreign nationals from Afghanistan. It is host, if my facts are correct—sometimes they are—to the largest U.S. military base outside the continental United States. It is host to Al Jazeera. Which is another way of saying there’s no shortage of important issues to talk about, and I’ve hardly mentioned any of them.

So we are, though, particularly fortunate with our guest today, His Excellency Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, who is among other things the foreign minister but even before that is the deputy prime minister, and is also the head of the investment authority. And so he will be doing a conversation with Meghan O’Sullivan, who intended to be here but, thanks to our airlines, our infrastructure challenges, and the weather, no doubt exacerbated by climate change, is a few hundred miles—actually, even less than that, two hundred miles to our north.

Meghan and the foreign minister—excuse me, Professor O’Sullivan and the foreign minister will have a conversation for about twenty-five, thirty minutes. We’ll then turn it over to our members here, some in New York physically, the rest scattered around the country and the world virtually.

Mr. Minister, the meeting is on the record, which is another way of saying anything you say can and will be used against you. So you’ve been warned. But really, I just wanted to say on behalf of all of us this is one of the busiest weeks of the year for any minister, and I really want to thank you for taking time out and coming back to the Council on Foreign Relations. We are honored and thrilled to have you.

And with that, Dr. Professor O’Sullivan, the floor is yours.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you very much, Ambassador President Dr. Haass. It’s great to see you and it’s even more wonderful to see His Excellency.

I apologize for not being in person. I was particularly hopeful that I could see the deputy prime minister and foreign minister in person. He was one of the last people I met in person before the pandemic, in Doha on the margins of the Doha Forum, and I was hoping by seeing him today in person it would be a bit of a bookend on the pandemic. But that was not to be. It’s still a thrill to see you, Your Excellency, and thank you for taking time to speak with CFR and our members.

There’s so much for us to discuss, as Richard pointed out, but I’d like to begin with Afghanistan because I know that has been a real focus of your efforts and a huge contribution by Qatar over the last several weeks. I’d like to point out that you actually are a recipient of the Defense Department’s—one of the highest awards that the Department of—the U.S. Department of Defense gives a foreign official, and that is the Distinguished Public Service Award. And that was given to you at the beginning of this year, and a lot of it in recognition of your efforts to work with the U.S. and to work with the U.S. in the context of Afghanistan.

So let me just give you an opportunity to tell us a little bit about the role that Qatar has been playing in one of the largest if not the largest evacuation effort in history, because our members may not be fully aware of Qatar’s critical role.

AL-THANI: Well, thank you very much, Meghan, for hosting me today. Thank you, Richard, for this kind introduction as well, and for having me here. I wish to have you in person, but unfortunately due to the weather conditions you couldn’t make it. And I’m glad to be here at CFR this year.

You just mentioned about Afghanistan and about Qatar’s role in the evacuation recently. Actually, Qatar has hosted the talks between Taliban and the U.S. for years at the U.S. government request in order to find a peaceful way out of Afghanistan, and also then to follow on with the Afghans themselves to find also a peaceful power-sharing format or a peaceful transition that can include everybody. One part, which is the U.S.-Taliban, that we managed and it happened, took place, the agreement, but unfortunately the other part for multiple reasons didn’t work and it imposed a new reality after 15th of August.

On the evacuation front, we’ve been anticipating that together, I mean, with the U.S. that there will be a need for people to be evacuated, especially the people who have helped the allies’ forces in Afghanistan, in order to protect them from being prosecuted by Taliban if they will take over. And we’ve been arranging this with the United States in order to help in evacuating part of those vulnerable people, but things has happened quite quickly. So we should step up and help and support the U.S. efforts, also not to put those people or even the forces which are in Afghanistan at risk.

The evacuation size, approximately, was 120,000 in total that—handled by the U.S. Qatar has took 60,000 out of this evacuation. Most of them, they have been already reaching their final destinations. Some of them remains in Qatar.

There is another evacuation operation which was mainly led by Qatar, and it was done directly with different organizations, whether it’s the media organizations, some of the—some of the newspapers’ teams, some of the TV channels’ teams, or other organizations related to education and especially related to girls’ education. And we managed in that operation around 1,800 people. Among them there were, like, Afghan girls from different schools and also there are what—they call them the team of dreamers; they’re girls who have been offered the scholarship in Qatar now.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you. And I know that Qatar’s played a very critical role in helping with the American University in Afghanistan as well, so we’re thankful for that.

You visited Kabul I think just about ten days ago, and if I’m correct you are the most senior foreign official to meet with the Taliban and the Taliban government. And if press reports are correct, you apparently urged them to respect women’s rights and perhaps some other issues. And a lot—a lot of people here hope—maybe against history, but hope that this Taliban will be more moderate than the Taliban of the past. And I’m wondering if you could give our members your sense of what this Taliban is like and what the international community can expect from them, and particularly what you see is Afghanistan’s future in the next year. Any government coming into this situation would be in a very difficult position. We’ve heard from the World Food Programme that only 5 percent of Afghan households today have enough food to eat. So that would be a tall order, a big crisis to manage of any government, especially one that has a lot of—a lot of international skepticism. So would love your views on the Taliban and the challenges they face and the nature of the government itself as someone who knows it better than maybe any of us.

AL-THANI: Well, regarding my trip to Kabul, there were different reasons for this trip. There are some urgent issues that needed to be addressed and resolved, and there are some mid-term issues that we need to look at and think about it strategically as the international community when it comes to deal with Taliban and the situation in Afghanistan.

The first urgent issue was providing a safe passage and freedom of travel for the people in Afghanistan. We have seen that this remains one of the main challenges in Afghanistan. Actually, it was a main stimulator for this entire evacuation that people believed that if Taliban will take control they will not be able to travel or to leave the country and they will be at risk. So in order to preserve also for Afghanistan the talented people in order to help in running the country in the future, we need to show and to demonstrate that there is supporter from outside as an international community, but also to urge Taliban to show that it’s open for them to leave at any point of time so they will feel safer and they will stay home if this was their choice.

So the main focus, first, was the airport issue, which is—we have, actually in coordination with the U.S. before the—for the withdrawal, and then together with Turkey we’ve been working and repairing the airport in order to make it at least at the minimum level of operation in order to be able to operate at what we call an emergency mode for humanitarian flights and for evacuation, and try to get some clarity on the issues of the—of security at the airport, which remains a big concern for all of us. And this main issue, we believe it’s urgent. It’s very important for us, for everyone, as the international community is watching the progress over there.

The second urgent issue is not to see any behavior that can reverse the progress that Afghanistan has achieved, whether it’s on the girls going back to school, whether it’s prosecuting people who used to work in the previous government, inclusiveness. These are issues, if we are not going to address them at early stage and we see that there are actions on the ground against these things, those are going to be irreversible. And we believe that it’s very important for us as countries and especially as Muslim countries to urge Taliban and to explain for them that these things are against our religion even if you are—if you are going to do so. And we are drawing the example as our country, as the state of Qatar is a Muslim country and in our constitution it’s an Islamic system, and it doesn’t prohibit the girls from working; in fact, they are—the girls are outnumbering the men—the men in the higher education, which shows that they’ve been throughout the school system outnumbering the men. And also, in the government forces the women are also more than the men who are working. And we are showing that this is a Muslim country that—following the Islamic system and the Islamic principles, yet it doesn’t abuse the women, their rights, or mistreat the women.

And also, the—what we think as a mid-term issues that we need to address and we need to urge Taliban to take care of. One is the national reconciliation because the country have been in a war now for forty years, and it will take time and efforts in order to bring everyone together. That will require a lot of leadership, and I think that we need to show there’s international support for such a process in order to sustain the stability in Afghanistan. Of course, there are other issues like counterterrorism has been discussed as well, and dealing with the international system and ensuring that the humanitarian aid is not interrupted by any of the forces who are there on the ground.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you.

And it’s not surprising that this withdrawal has generated a lot of discussion about the U.S. role in the region. And even as you talk about some of the priorities going forward, I have to ask you, how has this been received in the region? We heard President Biden at the U.N. the other day talking about how America for the first time in twenty years is not engaged in war. How is it perceived in the region? And more specifically, what would Qatar like to see from the United States not just in terms of Afghanistan, but in terms of the region as a whole in helping ensure regional stability? Is there—is there something that is part of your message in your conversations with the administration today?

AL-THANI: Well, I think there is a big difference between withdrawing from the region or the U.S. backing off from the region and ending a war that lasted for twenty years. And what happened in Afghanistan, the main purpose of it was ending the war and try to find a sustainable solution. We’ve been in the middle of these negotiations and we have seen that there are also groups from, like, for example, for Taliban who were willing to fight for another twenty years if they are not going to reach such a settlement. So I think that the first step, which is ending war, this is something that, all of us, we should support.

And we believe that the U.S. role in the region should be supporting the partnerships that we built with them historically, supporting the security of the region, supporting the prosperity of the region, and there is a huge role for the U.S. to improve in these areas. But also, we shouldn’t forget that the region itself has a responsibility to build their capabilities—to build our own capabilities, to build our own means to protect ourselves and to protect our own existence. In fact, if we are going to look at what happened in the last twenty years, it’s showing that there was a way of dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan as an approach that led us to this stage. And I think that it’s important that we revisit this effort and we look at where are the mistakes, all of us. I am not blaming here the U.S., but all of us also as countries in the region has conducted.

And we know that throughout history, I mean, imposing regimes or systems from outside, it never works. It never sustains. It can hold on for a while and then it will collapse and we will have what we—what we are having right now.

O’SULLIVAN: I think that’s a useful start on the conversation that I think we Americans and with our friends will be having a great deal over the coming years, which is what are the lessons that we can learn from the last twenty years and from this engagement, not just in Afghanistan but in the region more broadly.

And talk to me about the region more broadly. I know that I’ve spent too much time with Richard when I notice that my notes say exactly the same phrases that he says, but you know, I do think Qatar is a country that bats above its weight. And this has been true because, you know, there’s been an element of survival for Qatar, of course, and a premium on neutrality for Qatar. And I know that you personally have been very involved in one of the standard-bearer elements of Qatar’s strategy, which is to be a problem solver, to try to resolve conflicts in the region. And in a region where so much is changing, could you tell us a little bit about your strategic vision for Qatar and whether that is changing as the region itself is changing?

AL-THANI: Well, first, actually, I wanted to respond to Richard’s comment on punching over our weight. I don’t know which scale is he using for—(laughter)—to measure the weight of Qatar, but I can tell you that Qatar, yes, small country, but with a lot of good friends and strong alliances with a lot of the countries in the world.

Basically, our strategy is very simple. We are a small country in a turbulent region. We are blessed with resources. And these resources, we want to invest it for the future generation and to ensure the sustainability of our economy, the prosperity for our people. But in order for this to happen, we need to provide security in the region. And Qatar, given it’s a small country, it’s easier for Qatar to be accepted as a mediator between the parties. We have a strong alliance and partnership with the United States, which is very important for us and we consider as one of our most important partnership that we have. And we have good relation and friendly relation with all the countries, and we cannot afford enemies at all.

So that’s why Qatar is trying to use its good offices to help in solving problem, to help in avoiding conflict, to help in de-escalating. We have—we have a region which is—which, if we are going to look at the last seventy years, we have been through from a conflict to another. And if we put down some of them, in a couple of years the others are popping up again. So I think that if we will stay passive and won’t do anything, we are not sure if there are other players who are willing to do so because they have also their own problem. And for the protection of our security—of our regional security, of our resources, of our economy, for the prosperity of our people, we believe that we have an obligation toward our region and toward the people of our region.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. I’d like to get to an issue that actually is very important for Qatar and hasn’t yet been raised in Richard’s comments or mine, and that’s the one I originally know you in the context of, and that is energy. And of course, our members will know that Qatar is the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world, and we would all probably be very interested in what Qatar is thinking about its future as this kind of energy provider, as we’re in a world where there’s an increasing focus on transitioning away from fossil fuels. How does Qatar see the future of being a leader in liquefied natural gas? And is it trying to make a big transition in its domestic economy, trying to diversify its economic base like many of its neighbors are trying very hard to do, given their reliance predominantly on oil?

AL-THANI: Well, Meghan, actually, just before the conversation started I was mentioning to Richard I know that you are specialized in energy and I barely know one—or one energy, so I will try my best to—

O’SULLIVAN: (Laughs.) I doubt that.

AL-THANI: —(laughs)—to answer your question.

But, no, let me tell you what’s our perspective in the energy. We believe that the LNG will remain a very important element for—even for the transition of the energy because, for the countries who want to transform from coal to renewables, they need something in between. And the LNG is proven as one of the cleanest—the cleanest way of producing energy, just, you know, below the renewables. So that element we believe is important, and we give our—we give some focus for.

But what happened, actually, at the—at the beginning of the pandemic and the crash in the oil prices and in the energy prices gave a wakeup call for everyone, actually, in the region, and making all of us realizing that despite the diversification effort which we started already years ago it needs—we need to intensify these efforts in order to make sure that we can achieve diversification sooner than what we were planning. And Qatar, of course, we have done—conducted a whole review for our economic structure at the beginning of the pandemic. We are having some reforms in our system. We are doubling down on our investments in the sovereign wealth fund, which is a main tool of diversification in the future. And we really try to capitalize on what we have invested in the country as infrastructure for the World Cup and infrastructure which was part of the Vision 2030.

And we believe that our region has a lot of untapped potential that we can do together in partnership. I mean, Qatar and—as part of the GCC, there is a lot of complementarity among each other, and we are engaging in such a conversation. How can we transform that region as well as the rest of the region, if we are talking about Iran, Iraq? All of them, they are countries with a lot of potential. What they need is just stability, and that’s what we are aiming for.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. I’m going to resist the urge to follow up on the GCC because I’m sure one of our members will do exactly that.

And my last question before we move to our audience or our participants and members would be to ask you something that you would wear your deputy prime minister hat for. And many of our members may not be aware that Qatar is having its first elections to the Consultative Assembly in just a couple of weeks, on October 5th, and these are elections that had been delayed, if I’m correct, since 2013. And I wondered if you could describe, is this—is this part of a political reform program in Qatar? And more specifically, how do you expect governance in Qatar to change, if at all, as a result of these elections? And your own role—will your own role be different, having this body be an elected one?

AL-THANI: Well, we believe—we believe transformation and progress need to be in steady steps. And it needs to happen gradual for the people to understand and to have the buy-in from the people and from the government as well.

This—actually, the election that we are having, it has been in our—mentioned in our constitution which was approved by the people in the referendum back in 2001. And it took us some time to implement it, which we believe it was needed for us, for the people to start to be adopted to the new system, and we’ve been implementing that step by step. We started with the municipality election, ensuring women participation in that election, and then did some reforms with the government making sure that the three different authorities are separated. And also, once this—the election is in place, we have—we ensure that there is an accountability for the government in place.

So the Shura Council, we cannot expect that from the first year it will have, like, a full role of any parliament. We have our own system, which we believe that fits our society, and we are supporting this experience and we want to make it successful. But at the end of the day, all of us, we know that it’s experimental for us. It’s experimental for our community. We still—it’s a very, very new way of managing things in the country, and we hope that it will be successful.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Well, I wish you luck with that and I get the message of keeping expectations in check. But as you said, this has been an election twenty years in the making so we’ll be watching it closely.

We’re at the half-hour mark. And although there are many things I’d still like to ask you myself directly, I’d like to turn to our members. And I think we’ll begin by taking a virtual question. So, Kayla, could you help us with a virtual question?

OPERATOR: We will take our first question from Peter Galbraith.

Q: Minister, I wanted to turn to the subject of reconciliation in Afghanistan. As you know, the Taliban government not only doesn’t include any women, but it includes no Hazaras, one Tajik, and one Uzbek. And I wonder whether the political process that at least you—as you see it and perhaps are involved—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—would be reaching out to includes these ethnic communities in the government and whether a process of reconciliation might also include, in your view, a devolution of significant powers to these communities, whose culture may not accept the kind of rigorous approach to Islam that the Taliban are promoting.

AL-THANI: Well, I think it’s—first of all, inclusiveness and national reconciliation, it’s not something that will benefit us as an international community. It’s going to benefit the Afghans in the first place and it’s going to benefit Afghanistan. So for the sake of stability and sustainable stability for Afghanistan, it’s very important to have a genuine national reconciliation process.

We are—we are willing to offer our help if we are—if we are agreed among the parties. We are not—we have not been asked. We are urging Taliban, we are urging other Afghan leaders. In fact, in my visit in Kabul I went to see Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai, and urging them to engage constructively and positively with Taliban. And honestly, I heard a lot of positive answers from them and they are willing to engage. Taliban as well, I was urging them to engage in the national reconciliation. They were promising that they are going to accommodate others. Yes, it’s not maybe up to the expectation. They took a step yesterday on appointing some of different ethnicities, but all of us, we want to see more. This is for the sake of Afghanistan, for the sake of Afghanistan being stable in the longer term.

On the approach on the issues that are related to religion, I believe that there is something needed to be understanded—understood among them, all among the Afghans. We want to—if they want to implement the Islamic principles, we have a lot of examples of Islamic principles which are moderate and are not as extreme or as aggressive as others expect. So we hope that Taliban and we urge them to see these examples and to adopt these examples, not to go to the other extreme.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. I’d like to now take a question from our audience in person, please.

Q: Thank you so much. And, Your Excellency, thank you very much for being here and for this discussion with us.

My question relates to something Meghan alluded to, the GCC, and I’d love to follow up on that. And it relates to the blockade, specifically. And you know, four years ago, when the blockade first happened with your regional neighbors, I think there was a lot of worry. I’m personally a keen observer of the region, and no one knew how this was going to play out. And you know, looking at it objectively, your country not only persevered but emerged victorious in many ways, and four years ago I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that, you know, Lionel Messi would be the soft-power cherry on top of everything for you all. So the question I have for you is: From a personal perspective, what is the single most important lesson you took away from this as to why you persevered and how to look at the future?

O’SULLIVAN: And could I just ask you to identify yourself to the audience? Sorry.

Q: I am so sorry, Meghan. My name is Mustafa Riffat and I work with a firm called Edelman.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Thank you.

AL-THANI: Regarding the GCC crisis that took place since 2017 until early 2021, actually, first of all, there is no winner out of the crisis, and I believe the only winning was when we resolved it and we put an end for it. We lost a lot of time. We lost a lot of opportunities as GCC country working together collaboratively.

GCC has been always the stable bloc in this region, and we wanted to solidify this stability with cooperation. Of course, we learned a lot of lessons, not us only but also other GCC members, from what happened in the crisis. But I believe that the main lesson, that never—never go—never resort to actions before dialogue. And this is something very important, that we should always solve our issues with dialogue through peaceful means.

The second one is resilience is important for everyone. We have seen the GCC crisis has tested this resilience. COVID has tested the resilience of the countries. So resilience is an important factor as well.

The way forward, I believe, for us as GCC is building a common ground, a common interest among each other. We believe there is a huge potential in the economic partnership that we are all focusing on right now. And building for the future and establishing a system and a place that can safeguard the GCC from any crisis in the future.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you. Let’s go to our virtual audience again, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Mary Beth Long.

Q; Hello, Mr. Minister. It’s so nice to see you again. I look forward to seeing you in the Doha Forum in a couple weeks.

I wanted to ask you a question but first thank you personally. For those of you listening, I’ve been working with some teams to get Afghans and American citizens out, and it’s much more than just taking care of the airport that Qatar is doing. They intervened in getting people through lines and taking people in Al Udeid and other places. So it is an honor to work so closely with our Qatari friends, and thank you on behalf of the families of all of those that you’ve assisted.

Some of our colleagues raised the GCC embargo and some of the aftereffects of that, and I think everyone listening is well aware of how well Qatar responded to the embargo and how she has come out stronger. Going forward, what are your plannings strategically in enhancing and avoiding those kinds of conflicts with your neighbors—your immediate neighbors and some of our allies? And what role would you see the United States and its allies playing in assisting with this closening of the GCC members? Thank you.

AL-THANI: Thank you, Mary, for this question. Actually, what we are looking for as GCC countries and what we’ve been focusing on is building an area of common interests for all of us, a common ground and an economic partnership between all the countries that will be a very important safeguard for any conflict in the future—from any conflict in the future. So that’s the first element that we are focusing on.

The second element, building on our experience and what we have learned throughout the crisis and throughout the other regional crises, I believe there is a genuine desire to reach to a coherent security arrangement between our countries in order to safeguard ourself from any external threats, and also engaging and extending our hands to the rest of the region, whether it’s Iran or other countries as Iraq and Yemen, and see how can we play a positive role in the regional stability.

What the U.S. can do from our perspective—of course, U.S. partnership with GCC is vital. It’s very important, important alliance that has been historically there. The U.S. is an ally of the six countries of the GCC and there is—there always—there is always a common ground when it comes to U.S.-GCC partnership. So I think that intensifying our partnership, and the U.S. can act actually as—also as a stimulator for this economic partnership that we are doing together. And this will be mutually beneficial for all of us—for the U.S. and for all the Gulf countries.

But there is significant room—as I mentioned in my comment on the U.S. role in the Middle East, there is significant room where the U.S. can help and can support the Middle East region through economic prosperity, through partnerships, through defense relationship. There are a lot more and beyond the troops and participating together in roles.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you. And we more than 150 people watching online, so I’m going to be proportionate and turn again to the virtual world for a question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Mansoor Shams.

Q: (Speaks in Arabic)—Your Excellency. My name is Mansoor Shams and I’m the founder of MuslimMarine.org.

From your lens, how much of the clashes between the East and the West over the past decades has to do with Islam? Many, unfortunately, in the West see Islam from the lens of terrorism. You have the former president of the United States who talked of Muslim bans and once even said, quote, “I think Islam hates us.” What do you think are practical ways to bridge gaps in understanding amongst these two different worlds? Thank you.

AL-THANI: Well, Mansoor, thank you for your question.

Look, there is, unfortunately, a growing phenomena in the West about the Islamophobic, about using sometimes, you know, some minority actions under the label of Islam, which is totally misleading and it’s totally mistaken. It’s against the Islamic principle, which, all of us, we know. It’s unfortunate that sometimes it’s used for political reason, for, you know, election purposes, for other reasons, which I believe is very important that, you know, people avoid using such an argument.

What we believe is important to bridge this gap and to make sure that there is a conversation and a place that the role of Islam has been always positive, has been always (enlightening ?), interfaith dialogue is important between the scholars but between the people and across the board. And also, I think that it’s very important to do something internationally—discriminate the hate speech, discriminate agitating people against different sector or different religion. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression is protected, yes, but not at the account of hurting people in their faith or in their religion.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you. And, Kayla, let’s take another question from the virtual world.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Jordan Reimer.

Q: Hi. Thank you. My name is Jordan Reimer. I work at the RAND Corporation.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Qatar’s relationship with Israel. People are talking about the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords. Qatar, famously, has not signed on, but Qatar does have this—has this reportedly good relationship with Israel enough to serve as—provide relief in Gaza. Now that there’s a new Israeli government, I was wondering if you could please speak to the relationship with Israel under the new government and the prospects of possibly joining the Abraham Accords—(inaudible)—normalization of—(inaudible). Thank you.

AL-THANI: Well, I hope I got the question clearly because the voice wasn’t quite clear, but I’ll try my best to cover the relation on Israel.

So regarding the Qatar relation with Israel, I think that we need to go back for the core of the—of the relationship between Qatar and Israel, which is the Palestinian issue. And we believe that this is the core of the problem in the entire region. Otherwise, all of the Arab region would, like, have a relation with Israel, and you know, they just—they just normalize.

And as far as all of us know, there is no progress—there are no progress at the peace front now for years, and we didn’t see any prospects for a way forward for that. Nevertheless, Qatar, when there was a hope for peace back in the ’90s, it was the first country that took the step and have—had a relation with Israel. And we opened the trade offices between the two countries, and we were aiming that this will help in bringing peace and accelerating, even, that peace process.

Unfortunately, this theory didn’t prove right. It didn’t help anything in progressing in the peace. Yet, we see that we can use this working relationship to help the Palestinian people and we are doing such a thing. We are utilizing this relationship in a way to help the Palestinians in the West Bank, in Gaza. Qatar has been one of the main stabilizing factors in Gaza now for almost four years; otherwise they will end up with no electricity, with no money for the poor families with no means to get their foods, medicine, or the basic life requirement.

And in that sense, we have this working relationship with Israel, but facilitate all these helps and aid that Qatar is providing for both—for the West Bank and for Gaza.

O’SULLIVAN: I’d like to take a question from the in-person audience now, if we could.

Q: Salaam alaikum. Dr. Qanta Ahmed, Independent Women’s Forum.

I’m really struggling, as an observing Muslim woman, with the obligation to not empower, but begin to legitimize the Taliban. I have met child soldiers that were radicalized by the Taliban and also by ISIS, and the jihadist narrative is that the jihadist defeats the West or the liberal Muslims like you and I.

What will be the impact of ongoing normalization with the Taliban—which may be inevitable; it may be pragmatic—on jihadist narratives and jihadist activities? I’ve been to your country many times. I’ve enjoyed it. We know our version of Islam to be authentic, but at the moment, the very brutal, misogynistic, intolerant, and punitive aspect of the Taliban is proving victorious twenty years after 9/11. That’s the struggle inside me as a Muslim woman, a Muslim doctor, and also as someone who is very committed to Islam.

Thank you. Thank Your Excellency.

AL-THANI: You’re welcome. Well, it’s a very good question. Just, you know, for us to understand that it is the nature in Afghanistan, not for the world post-September 11, but since even the Soviet’s war. I mean, the spirit of jihad and calling for jihadism was among all Afghans. So it’s something when they are saying or when they are trying to promote as a narrative, it is not strange thing for them. So like the Taliban consider themselves that they are jihadist in their holy war, even some of the republic forces, they consider that this war against those—what they call—(speaks in a foreign language)—who are, like, extreme in their religion, that is a jihad as well.

So it’s, I think—I believe, first of all, it’s a cultural thing. Yes, the extremist group are trying to use this in their advantage. Unfortunately, we have seen a lot from those extremists who are trying to promote that this is a victory for the jihadist movements, which is unfortunately a situation that we are living in, that they are using everything—I mean, not only what’s happening in Afghanistan, but even elsewhere—to promote their ideology and their narrative.

I believe that the ones who are like with Taliban and among the Taliban can change, and can be working on it. But this will need real efforts by—especially by the Muslim countries. And I insist here that it’s very important for Muslim countries to play a role in that; to show them what modern Muslim country can do and what kind of change it can be.

And Taliban or any other group—I mean, they are going through an evolution. I mean, it’s—and even looking at Taliban today, it’s not the same Taliban 20 years ago. Maybe the people who are fighting are different from the people who are negotiating. So I’m not saying that those are modernized and those are extreme, but there is a difference. Always—this is a natural evolution for any movement—armed movement or liberation movement as they call it.

O’SULLIVAN: Let’s go again to a question from our virtual audience.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Jane Harman.

Q: Thank you all very much. I was honored to lead a delegation of all women to the Doha Forum a couple of years ago, which included the brilliant moderator of this panel. And I applaud Doha for the steps it is taking to facilitate peace in the region, including among its neighbors.

But there is one place that you have mentioned a couple of times where I think the danger looms, and that is your neighbor Iran. The public reports say that Iran is months away—maybe one to two months away—from breakout. That means having enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb. That doesn’t mean it’s going to make the bomb, but it will have the equipment for a bomb. And should that happen, obviously, Iran’s neighbor, Israel, won’t sit quietly, and maybe others in the region won’t either.

And so my question is what steps is Qatar taking or could it take to reduce the threat of this breakout potential from Iran?

AL-THANI: Well, Jane, first of all, very, very glad to hear from you.

Regarding Iran, it’s—we don’t want, as Qatar—nor even the GCC countries—to see a nuclear race in our region. Definitely we don’t want to see a proliferation in Iran nor in any other country in the region. We don’t want to end up in a situation where the rules of the game has changed in a way that can lead this region to (chaos ?). And I think that the most important thing that we can do, at least is GCC countries, is to start engaging with Iran to ensure that there will not be anything that will affect or compromise our security as Gulf region.

But also, the U.S., the P5, the international community has a responsibility to engage, to ensure that there is compliance with the JCPOA, if it was the agreement that already has been agreed, then any improvement or any other concerns that are not covered by the agreement, I think the region have a role to play, and they should play this role in order to safeguard what’s beyond the JCPOA, and making sure that Iran is not threatened nor the GCC threatened. We want to have a peaceful region. That’s what we want. We are hearing, we are engaging with Iran. We are having a conversation. We have good relation with them. They are our neighbors, yes. We have our disagreements with them, but we keep the channels open all the time. It’s not in our interest nor in anyone interest to have any escalation or any conflict in the region.

So what we are hearing from the Iranians—and I think that also stated by the president—that Iran has committed not to develop nuclear weapon. We hope that these commitments are ensured and safeguarded by agreements also among the region.

O’SULLIVAN: I’d like now to turn to our in-person audience, please.

Q: Hi, there. Sarah Leah Whitson—good to see you—Democracy for the Arab World Now.

Two very brief questions: The elections that are being held—congratulations on those—have a restriction that only people whose families date back before 1930 can participate. Is that going to be a temporary restriction, or is that going to be in perpetuity forevermore to exclude Qatari citizens from voting even in a council that has actual little power? And are there plans to expand the power of the Shura Council so that it actually provides governance and accountability, which is admirable that you are seeking?

Second, has the United States urged Qatar to sign the Abraham Accords? And is Qatar still committed to resisting the nine demands that Saudi Arabia and the UAE imposed on it?

O’SULLIVAN: I think there’s probably four questions in there.

AL-THANI: (Laughs.)

O’SULLIVAN: See what you can cover in our final minutes, please.

AL-THANI: Well, first of all, regarding the election, it has been specified in the constitution, which all the people of Qatar has voted for, back in 2001—there is a legal—maybe—restriction right now, which is not allowing maybe a part of the population to participate in the election, but the rest, they are participating in the voting. But there is also a clear process for this law to be changed that the next Shura Council should address, and they would—they are going to be elected members, and it should cover—if they decide on, it should cover everyone.

What we know, what we understand, what is in our DNA, that this government is for everyone who is living in Qatar. We are committed to serve everyone living in Qatar with the same conditions, with the same level of service. And the Shura Council, whoever is elected over there, their role and their obligation is to serve all the Qataris and represent all the Qataris, despite their background.

Regarding—what was your second question?

Q: Abraham—

AL-THANI: Yeah, Abraham Accord actually—I mean, urging us? No. Actually they have reached out to us—the U.S. government, and explained for us the nature of Abraham Accord and if we want to join. And we stated our position very clearly. It’s the sovereign decision of the countries who subscribe in Abraham Accord. For us we see that the current state of working relationship is sufficient to help the Palestinians. If there is a prospect in the peace process, then Qatar and the rest of the Arab countries are committed to the Arab Peace Initiative.

O’SULLIVAN: I think we have time for one last question from our virtual world.

OPERATOR: Our final question comes from Helima Croft.

Q: Thank you so much.

I want to ask you about energy and the energy crisis that’s facing Europe right now. As you know, I mean, you know, import prices have risen by over 400 percent, you know, massive, you know, putting a lot of pressure on electricity grids and we’re having real shortages there.

I’m wondering what role Qatar can potentially play to help ameliorate this crisis, and as we go into COP26, there’s a lot of debate over how much support should be given for natural gas, or whether it should be a hundred percent renewables. How is Qatar framing its own argument, as you go into COP26, about its climate strategy?

AL-THANI: Well, first of all, our national climate strategy has been already finalized and adopted by the cabinet just a month ago. We are actually building our capacity in renewable right now for this year. It will be 5 percent renewable and by 2030 it will be 20 percent renewable. And also we are developing the technology—in fact, Qatar has been one of the leading countries in the carbon capturing with the advanced technology that we are using in our refineries.

Regarding the gas and the crisis that we have seen recently on the pressure on the electricity, of course Qatar is one of the leading exporter of energy. And we have a wide base, a wide market that we are dealing with and we are supplying. Europe is one of the most important markets that we are dealing with, and we are trying to support the countries, the friendly nations that—and allies that are in Europe during that crisis with the capacity that we have. But I don’t think that Qatar can fill the whole gap for the crisis over there. We are going to do our best to cover part of it.

O’SULLIVAN: Excellent. Well, I’m glad we got another energy question in there before we got to the witching hour, which is the time we have right now.

I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this conversation. I want to thank our members for the excellent questions that they raised. And most importantly, Your Excellency, I’d like to thank you for making the time to be with us today. It has been tremendous to see you, even though from afar over the virtual. I look forward to the time when I can meet you again in person, and hopefully in Doha sometime soon.

Thank you.

AL-THANI: I look forward, Meghan. Thank you for hosting. (Applause.)

O’SULLIVAN: Thanks, everyone.

(END)

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