Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani for a discussion on the foreign policy challenges facing Qatar, its vision for the Middle East, and the future of U.S.-Qatar relations.
ANDERSON: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with His Excellency Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs of Qatar, as you all know. You got a good crowd. This is a delight to be here.
I’m Lisa Anderson, senior lecturer and dean emerita of Columbia School of International Public Affairs and president emerita of the American University in Cairo, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.
I don’t think that our speaker needs any introduction. You have his bio with you. I just want to point out that he has been foreign minister for about two years and deputy prime minister for about a year. So he’s accustomed to the hot seat, and we look forward to hearing his remarks and then having a conversation.
Thank you very much for being here. (Applause.)
AL-THANI: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for having me today. It’s an honor to discuss my country and the region with foreign policy experts and leaders who take an unpartisan perspective.
The crisis in the Middle East has reached such intense levels. It truly takes thoughtful experts to unpack all the simultaneous conflicts to find realistic and lasting solutions for peace. But in Qatar, things have been on a different track for decades. In Qatar, you will find a safe prosperous nation. As I travel around the world, I am often asked how it has been possible for Qatar to achieve such a success, given all the conflicts in the neighborhood.
Over the past twenty years, Qatar has engaged with the world through foreign diplomacy, forged economic global partnership(s), developed human capital, invested in the region. Two decades ago, my country decided to begin a new chapter of openness. This decision shaped Qatar’s signature foreign policy of engagement, dialogue, and collaboration. This was new for the Middle East and the outreach paid off.
Outside the neighborhood, Qatar found friends, allies around the globe. Within the neighborhood, Qatar became a skilled mediator in the region largely closed off to negotiation. For example, in Lebanon we were able to help calm the sectarian fighting and fill the vacuum of power. In Sudan, we helped stop a genocide and sustain peace in Darfur. Today, we are facilitating talks between U.S., the Afghan government, and parliament.
This engagement-driven foreign policy meant that a political partnership ran parallel to economic ones. Reciprocal investments across the globe made in numerous industry sectors meant that Qatar could partner with the global specialists who supply the world with liquefied natural gas. This was no easy task because scientists had not developed an efficient way to liquefy natural gas and to ship it.
So Qatar and experts around the world collaborated and brought the energy industry into a new era of liquefied natural gas. Simultaneously, Qatar was able to diversify its economy to move away from fossil fuel dependency. Today, Qatar supplies almost 30 percent of the world’s natural gas.
Meanwhile, we invested in our human capital. We started with education, expression, and religious tolerance. The latest chapter of developments include health care and labor. The progressive policies gave women freedom and rights decades ago.
In 2007, Qatar started interfaith dialogue between Christians, Jews, and Muslims so that co-existence could be a reality. Qatar invited many U.S. universities to join our Education City to give the region access to excellent and unrestricted education. To bring about these reforms, we invited help from experts—financial, environmental, academic, and human rights specialists.
Qatar was not overly sensitive or threatened by critics, which allowed us to create best practices in these areas. In addition to our internal reforms, Qatar began external outreach in the region. We saw that the surrounding crisis in the Middle East left people without options. Some of these countries neglected the basic needs of their people. Other rulers oppressed their citizens for years. The results was and is feeling of desperation. No clean water, no food, no education, no jobs, and no dignity.
Qatar considers it a moral imperative to provide hope and opportunity to these neighbors. Qatar provides millions of people in our region with humanitarian programs, reconstruction funding, primary education, and employment opportunities. Just in 2017, Qatar donated $674 million to seventy-eight countries to support these hope initiatives. This humanitarian assistance is critical for day-to-day survival. But the world wondering how we can create a political solution to calm the chaos in the Middle East. Such a solution is critical, not just for regional peace but for peace around the world.
In Qatar, we believe that dialogue is the best way forward to settle conflicts and resolve regional and international crises. Dialogue is a diplomatic means to an end in the Middle East. That, and what we need is for all members of the region to fully participate in establishing governance principles that hold leaders accountable with binding dispute resolution mechanisms.
The starting point to achieving such an agreement is a dialogue, especially between countries that usually refuse to talk to each other. There is hope. Today, some of our neighbors in the Middle East are coming to terms with the importance of dialogue in catastrophic places like Afghanistan. This dialogue is also urgently needed in Palestine because without Middle East peace process lasting progress in the region will be difficult.
Qatar historically have been able to bring the regional and the global players together and Qatar plans on continuing its role as a mediator. The state of Qatar will continue as it has always been to be an active supportive player to all parties of good will who wish to resolve differences and confront challenges and dangers affecting the Middle East and the world.
Thank you. (Applause.)
ANDERSON: Thank you very much for that very rich introduction. You raise lots of questions or issues that we can enquire about. So let me just start. Close to the end, you mentioned Palestine and the challenges of Palestine. Can you tell us a little bit about what Qatar specifically is doing and particularly in Gaza?
AL-THANI: Well, the situation in Palestine is very complicated and has been for a long time now. But it’s still the core issue of the entire region. So we cannot aim for a lasting peace in the Middle East without resolving this issue. We see with all these crises around us people are expecting that other priorities are coming up and this is becoming less relevant. That’s not the case.
It is very much relevant at the heart of all the Arab people, and we cannot have a sustainable solution without having a proper lasting peace over there. The situation over there is division among the Palestinians, unwillingness of engagement between the Israelis—from the Israelis toward the Palestinians, and unwilling of engagement between the Palestinians among themselves.
So this complication—what Qatar is trying to do is to provide support, whether in the reconciliation among the Palestinians themselves or in providing humanitarian assistance, especially with people like the people who are living in Gaza. They are living under a blockade now for almost ten years. Since the war in 2008-2009 we have one round of support for Gaza. Another war (unwind ?) also in 2014. We did another program. And right now the situation over there is just catastrophic. And Qatar is trying to provide fuel to supply power for the hospitals, schools, houses in Gaza. People there are living with power of four hours only a day. What we have done right now with the temporary program is to provide them another four hours so they have eight hours on and eight hours off a day. So this is just one step, and it needs a lot more to do.
Other programs we are doing there in the reconstruction: building houses for the destructed houses and the families who have been displaced because of the war, providing supports for hospital and building some of them. We have a specific program for the education over there to put people back in school. In fact, the education is one of the main pillars of our humanitarian program anywhere in the world.
And we are trying our best to mediate if there is anything wrong happening over there. We have an open door policy. We talk to everybody. We engage. We believe in the engagement. This engagement, we believe, this is a starting point of a new crisis and the new conflict. So that’s why Qatar is trying to be always engaged and trying to contain the situation before anything wrong happened.
ANDERSON: No, thank you. And you have been on humanitarian grounds quite generous with Gaza particularly recently. Do you think—clearly, the Israelis are comfortable with that, comfortable with the role that Qatar is playing in Gaza. Do you think there’s any possibility that you could build on that kind of help that you’re providing to foster some of the political engagement among the parties within Palestine and with the Israelis?
AL-THANI: Well, it’s very important to end the division of the Palestinian first and to bring the Palestinian under a united front, and we see that their legitimacy is to have them all under one government under the Palestinian Authority. If we want to have a peace engagement—peace negotiation engagement—we need to have an effective peace. But effective peace cannot be delivered while the Palestinians are divided.
So Qatar is—what we are trying to do we are trying to stress on the importance of reconciliation, trying to facilitate this as much as we can. We keep our engagement open with the Palestinian Authority and with the other factions in Gaza and mainly Hamas, since they are—they’re dominant party over there. But we cannot see any opening in the peace without also a willingness from the Israeli side. We see that the Israelis are not also engaging in the peace process now for a few years. We need to see this engagement happening again but we wish to see it—to see the engagement among the Palestinians happening first.
ANDERSON: Well, I think you’re quite right that other conflicts in the region have diminished attention on this issue and so perhaps you can tell us a little bit about how your government sees some of these other conflicts, from Libya to Yemen to Syria and Iraq. I mean, where is the leverage point to lessen the conflict and begin reconciliation in any of those countries?
AL-THANI: Well, there is a difference between de-escalation of the conflicts and resolution for those conflicts. De-escalation is happening. It is happening somehow in Syria with different rules of the game, somehow happening in Libya as well, and Iraq is a more promising case we see right now. Yemen, of course, there’s still an ongoing war and still very brutal war. If we will look at it from a peace perspective and a resolution perspective, this is totally different game. We cannot—the de-escalation can last just for a temporary period and we will another crisis and this crisis might be worse than what we are seeing right now.
So if we want a lasting peace, we need to address the main causes of that problem and the main causes of the problem we have the people over there may feel that they’ve been disfranchised, they’ve been neglected, humiliated, and oppressed, and without having a proper state—a proper governance that taking care of those people—and including everyone, engaging in reconciliation among the people themselves, we will never have a lasting peace.
Those countries need to reestablish themselves as governments which taking care of their people, not just taking care of a small group of people. Now, we see as an example the situation in Syria. We see a new reality over there. But does that reality diminish the fact that Assad committed a crime against five hundred thousand of his own people, displaced more than twelve million of his own people? It doesn’t.
He might be—he might stay as a president. But does that legitimize for him to continue dealing with the international community? Then how the Syrian people are going to look at the international community? The hate will not be from them toward al-Assad and the crimes he has committed only but it will be more global and this will create another, also, sense toward radicalization, extremism.
So it’s a bit difficult. What Qatar believes in we need to have a lasting peace. We know that it’s not realistic to talk about it in one day. It needs to be phased out. De-escalation as a starting point is good but it’s not the perfect solution. We need a de-escalation, yes. We need a governance within the countries and the governance among the region because it’s also—if you will look at it, it’s all interconnected. The proxy players are everywhere.
ANDERSON: Exactly. Exactly.
AL-THANI: So you need to bring the real players to the table and set the new rules of the game, which is respecting each other’s sovereignty, noninterference, binding dispute resolution mechanisms. There are a lot of things need to be discussed on the table. We need to make sure that each country feel comfortable that their interests are protected, their security is protected, and they’re not jeopardizing the other countries’ security.
ANDERSON: It certainly is true that all of these conflicts are regional conflicts as well as national conflicts, if you will. You said in introducing your answer that you thought Iraq was among the most promising. Tell us a little bit about why. What’s happened there?
AL-THANI: Well, we have seen the sectarian division in Iraq, which is—started after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and then the polarization among them. Then we have the era of al-Qaida. Afterward, we had the era of Daesh, just because we didn’t provide the solution. After al-Qaida, we just provided the de-escalation and this temporary security. We had Daesh.
So right now, why I’m saying it’s promising because when we—I visited Iraq just three weeks ago. I saw a different Iraq. I was there two years ago and we were just going from the airport to the prime minister office, all in the Green Zone. We cannot move anywhere. This time, I went to a country that life is getting normal. People are more tolerant to each other. People are more optimistic about the future.
There are a few politicians maybe they feel pessimistic but it doesn’t matter. I measure the life of the normal people. I measure that I can go in and out from the Green Zone without feeling any difference in the security. It shows—it shows even on the faces of the people that they are more rested and our talks with the government over there has shown me that the government is very much promising toward ending the sectarian division among the country and, really, go toward a new Iraq that bring everybody together.
ANDERSON: Well, that would be promising. That’s certainly true. Do you—I’m about to open the questions to other people and I’m assuming that there will be questions on the hydrocarbon world of which your country is so important. So why don’t you tell me a little bit instead about the way you think about the approach to countering some of the extremism which is in all of these countries that we were just talking about?
I mean, this is, clearly—you’re right that there has to be de-escalation but that’s not enough. There has to be governments that are prepared to take kinds of policies that are difficult now. But there also has to be an approach to some of the people who have been radicalized. How do you—how does your government think about that?
AL-THANI: Well, a very important issue right now is the returnees—people who were fighting in Iraq or in Syria, and they went back to their countries—who fought with al-Qaida or who fought with Daesh. When they go back to their home countries what will happen? Are they going to keep their extreme ideology or they are going to change and reform?
So we believe that their treatment need to be a holistic treatment. First, we need to work on the ideology side of it and we have to make sure that those people are not radicalized or exposed to radicalization ideologies. Two is preparing an integration program for them to reintegrate them in the communities. They don’t need—the moment they feel that they are cornered or they are isolated they are going to be more brutal, and this is what we want to avoid. And the proper mechanism that hold the criminals who committed the real crimes accountable for the crimes they have committed because also without accountability it shows that there is no prevention for the future.
But also with the accountability there should be an associated program that they don’t spread their radical thoughts within the prisoners or within—wherever they will be. So it’s more if you will just think about the security approach, which is pitting the terrorists in their territories and going after them, you need to think about now the post approach, which is more strategic, more holistic that you think about their life after the fight—are they going to find a job, how they are going to be reintegrated—and there were plenty of countries who had the experience with this.
I mean, we’ve been through people who went for jihad in Afghanistan and came back. Some of them remained radicals. Some of them they radicalized more because the way their government behaved with them and some of them they reintegrated in the societies and they have no problem and they’re now—they are just normal people.
So I think it needs a really thoughtful process and the experts to come together and to think about it. Qatar hosted a conference last October about the returnees and we brought different people, especially national security specialists and academics, and they came up with a set of recommendations which are good and mainly around the same—the same approach of—the holistic approach, and we are going to continue our efforts in providing more thoughts about it.
ANDERSON: OK. Wonderful. I have one more question. Then I’m going to—this is going to turn toward the geopolitics. What are the prospects for the Gulf Cooperation Council?
AL-THANI: Well, it’s unfortunate what’s happening to the GCC because the GCC, if you will look at it seventeen months ago it was the most stable bloc in the region, and it’s a very turbulent region. And everybody—all the countries, the international community, our people, counting a lot on the GCC as a bloc.
When the GCC crisis started and they started—they enforced the blockade on Qatar, it changed everything. It changed the perspective on the eyes of the people. It changed their perspective in the eyes of the international community and it shows—it showed that how the GCC became an ineffective tool even to resolve its own problem because otherwise we wouldn’t reach to such a level of tension.
We wouldn’t reach to such a level of—I couldn’t name it. I mean, the measures—the extreme measures they took against the Qatari people—it’s not against the government really, it’s really against the Qatari people—was unprecedented and the GCC couldn’t do anything to help solving this. There is no dispute resolution mechanism, even if we have a dispute among the GCC countries, that shows that it’s binding for everybody and it shows that we are not even sharing the common security principles if I feel threatened from another GCC country.
So I don’t want to be—to sound pessimistic. But I’m not sure if the GCC can fulfill its role in the future. We hope that the GCC come back as a stronger organization, come back as a successful model of cooperation in the Arab region. But I’m not sure that with the current situation that we are going to go toward this direction.
ANDERSON: OK. Thank you very much. I think it’s time to open the floor to our members. Let me remind you that this is on the record and that you are going to have to wait for the microphone, and speak directly into it and then so when the microphone appears please stand and state your name and affiliation and ask one question.
Q: Thank you. Gordon Bell, Legacy Growth Partners.
So as you discussed eloquently your overall vision, can you drill down to specifically what might be the priorities as it turns into economics for the livelihood of the people and the country? Specifically, what role does green architecture, green energy—where does that fit in? And then the digital concerns—how do people connect to the globe and how do you create integration using the digital economy?
AL-THANI: Thank you for this complicated question. (Laughter.) First of all, how Qatar are looking at the green world now. Qatar is—one of the main pillars that Qatar has in its national vision is the environmental sustainability for our country.
So there is a lot of programs that are taking place within the country in order to transform our country to a more green country, more environmentally friendly, and we are experiencing this especially in the World Cup—in the World Cup Project, which will take place in 2022, and I hope all of you come there and enjoy it in Doha.
The stadiums—the way it’s built—the buildings over there, all of them they are maintaining the maximum standard of environmentally friendly. We have also—we take the same consideration on our industrials because Qatar is an industrial country as well where we have industries which are derivatives from the gas industry or from the oil industry. All of this the environment is taken into consideration.
But more than this, our supplies with the gas is a promotion for a greener Earth, is a promotion of replacing the coal generation and the—the coal generation with a new generation of LNG. So this is part of our international commitment.
How the digital world is contributing to the boom and to connect people to each other, we believe that it’s very much advancing. Every day we see new things. But Qatar, what we are trying to do, really, is to take advantage of—from these advanced technology and try to build platforms for—even for the region. Like, as an example, we are now in our free zone we are taking very much in consideration to provide a digital platform for regional trade as well. So it’s making the business easier. It’s making the countries who are depending on shipping and, you know, on corresponding, on everything, their life has become more difficult maybe because they need to seek for a new business model. But we are—our country is thinking about the modernization all the time.
So I hope this answers your question. But I’m really not a subject matter expert on this. I gave you as much information as I have (available ?). Thank you.
Q: Maryum Saifee. I am currently doing the International Affairs Fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations.
My question is about your thoughts on press freedom in the region, specifically with the recent killing of Raed Fares, a citizen journalist in Syria, as well as Jamal Khashoggi. Just sort of your thoughts.
AL-THANI: The freedom of press in the region actually is—you are talking about something which is nonexistent, unfortunately, in our region—just in a few countries, and there is a problem here that we have governments and leaders who are fearing from any opposition opinion. So that’s why the first thing they go and they tie down is the press, in order to make sure that doesn’t go outside the lines of their policy.
In Qatar, we have the different experience. We worked on modernization of our press and we—since we established Al-Jazeera, the abolishment of (the rules ?) that controlling the media and monitoring the media, closing down the Ministry of Information. All these efforts being taken in order to make sure that we provide an environment that’s friendly to the press, that’s giving more freedom than any country in the region. We didn’t reach the Western model, but we are in a different—on a different level than the other countries in the region.
But the solution to this is not keep the people—not offering them the platform to speak. All these things, and frightening the people, is just going to blow up the people one day. And this is we see in—we have seen in countries which—witness the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring wasn’t a conspiracy from outside. It was the people movement. It was the people’s desire for change. The people desired—after they sensed the oppression for years, for decades, from dictatorships, they came, they uprose against those leaders, and asking for all of these changes. We feel really hurt by what’s happening to the journalists—any journalists in the world. What’s happened to Jamal Khashoggi was a barbaric thing, and we need to see anyone who was responsible of any crimes against any innocent person held accountable despite the person who committed. There is a crime and the world needs and answer for this.
ANDERSON: Thank you. Sir. You. Yes. (Laughter.)
Q: Herbert Levin, Council member.
Thank you for your presentation. Could you please help us understand the mentality and thinking of your Saudi brothers?
AL-THANI: (Laughter.) Well, I think part of the presentation there was the best—a part of the description of their mentality. Look, Saudi will remain an important country in the region. It is the largest in the GCC. It is—it has the holy sites for all the Muslim people. But this doesn’t give—legitimize any reckless activity in the region.
So what our—what we are concerning about right now in Saudi that they are taking steps—shouldn’t be steps taken by a country the size of Saudi and the importance of Saudi like the blockade of Qatar and what happened against Lebanon, what’s happening in Yemen, what’s happened with the other countries in the West. One day we are criticized by Germany, by Canada—what’s happened with Jamal Khashoggi.
All these things happening are, really, you don’t expect it from a country that has such a weight like Saudi Arabia. We hope that they will be back and as a wise country and they act as a wise and a big country—a regional player in the region. For me to explain their behavior it will be very difficult because we witnessed this behavior now for eighteen months. Now it will be uncovered and the world is seeing this behavior. We cannot talk more about it. It talks about itself.
ANDERSON: In the back. Sir.
Q: Hatmil Ghamasi (ph) from the Egypt.TV.
Your Excellency, following the media in Qatar and the Arab (quartet ?) does not give me any indication of easing the tension anytime soon, despite we saw some positive signals coming from Saudi Arabia when the crown prince praised the Qatar—the Qatar economy and also a few days ago in Egypt the minister of manpower praised how the Egyptian workers are fairly treated in Qatar. He said they get the best of treatment. So, Your Excellency, do you see any way out soon from this crisis in—between Qatar and the Arab quarter?
AL-THANI: First, I just praised Saudi in the previous question. So it doesn’t mean that we see hope behind this praise unless there are actions taken. We didn’t see any actions taken by the quarter. The blockading states remain stubborn. They put their demands forward—their thirteen demands, which are—sounds very awkward for the entire world, and they put the six principles and then they say they cancelled their demands and then it comes back.
We do not understand what they want yet, and we didn’t see any response to the items by the emir of Kuwait, who was mediating from the beginning of the crisis. No response to the U.S. administration, which tried several times to mediate in this, and we didn’t see any breakthrough.
Looking at the relationship for—like, you mentioned the Egyptian people. We treat all the people from different countries—we have 186 nationalities presented in Doha. We treat all of them the same. The Egyptian people—they are our brothers and we don’t want them to be affected and we never reciprocate to the measures being taken against the Qatari people and the blockade in the states to the citizens of those states.
The minister of labor who complimented Qatar about the treatment of the labor, we thank him for his compliment. But also we are very much certain that we are doing our best to treat all the people who are living in Qatar at the highest standard, and if there is anything that goes wrong whatever is their nationality we are going to make sure that they are getting the fair treatment.
ANDERSON: Sir, right here. I’m moving around tables, as you can probably tell.
Q: Ricardo Tavares from California-based TechPolis.
Your Excellency, the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. The Afghan government is weak. American troops have been dramatically reduced, which made those more sensitive to casualties and they’re happening. Our commander walks around with a machine gun in his hands. Qatar hosts a(n) office of the Taliban. So how effective, in your view, this has been to promote dialogue and do you see a peace process for Afghanistan?
AL-THANI: Well, in fact, what we see in Afghanistan now for over the last few years since this office been established for the purpose of the peace talks between Taliban and the Afghan government and the U.S., there were not much progress in it. But in the recent—in the recent months, we have seen a lot of positive things.
Yes, maybe there are negative indications, as you just indicated, but we managed to get a ceasefire after Ramadan, after—and during Eid al-Fitr. We managed to get another ceasefire in—(inaudible)—with the release of some of the prisoners and these were just the steps toward an engagement, and this is—we view it in ourself after years of, you know, of stubbornness that we see some movement over there.
Now it’s becoming, you know, to the political dynamics there. There will be an election, I think, very soon. So people taking consideration on what will be the impact on the election. But we are—we will remain faithful that this time we can have a breakthrough in the talks and we can have at least an arrangement or a peaceful agreement between.
Q: Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch.
First, I want to thank the government of Qatar for passing the Arab world’s first refugee and asylum law. At a time when the world is turning its back on refugees and asylum seekers it’s an incredibly important move and I congratulate you.
What I’d like to understand is when and if you will ratify the Rome Statute and join the International Criminal Court, which is also very, very important for the region, as well as to join and ratify the Cluster Munitions Convention. We are very eagerly waiting to see Qatar be the first in the Gulf to sign both those treaties. And, finally, I’d like to know when we can expect the time table for the very important reforms with respect to the rights of migrant workers that Qatar has promised but not yet delivered.
AL-THANI: First of all, there is a whole review in the entire government for lots of reform and you have seen there are ratifications to some international conventions which took place in the past couple of years as the first in the Arab region and this legislation about the political asylum is one of these reforms. These reforms are going to continue and the studies and review are ongoing. We need to take into consideration other factors also which affect the country and the country’s security and the demography—everything around us, even the geopolitics. But Qatar is moving toward progress, on progress of direction, that will lead to change and to become—will become a role model in our region.
Regarding the labor reforms for the expat workers who are coming and, thankfully, coming to us and helping us in the development of our country, there are a lot of reforms initiatives that have taken place and there is a progress. I mean, I’m sorry about—we are—there is—it will be unfair for Qatar to say that there is no progress and there is no timetable being shown or whatever.
We are engaging with Human Rights Watch, with Amnesty, with everybody. We are welcoming everybody to come and to look at what we have and I don’t think that Human Rights Watch enjoy the same freedom in any other country in the Gulf that they enjoy in Doha. We welcome their criticism—their constructive criticism but also we are looking for the cooperation. What we have—what we are doing right now in the labors we believe that it’s changing a lot. We are not there yet.
We need a lot of other changes to improve their condition. But things need some time. We are changing culture. We are changing rules. We are changing regulations. Legislative process in any country in the world is taking a very long time. So in Qatar it take one year or a few months or two years. It’s just a matter of time. It’s the bureaucracy, which is everywhere.
Q: Jason Forrester, a Council member. I’m with a performing arts and film nonprofit based in New York State.
Back to the subject of dialogue, Your Excellency, I would like to know more about Qatar’s approach to using film, culture, art as a means of intercultural communication. Thanks.
AL-THANI: It is a very important investment for Qatar to invest in connecting people together, and arts and culture always connects people from the (friend ?) part of the world. Qatar has invested heavily in these sectors, in the filming industry as well. We are not a heavy investor, there still but we are trying to do our best to showcase Qatar, to showcase how we can connect with other cultures and bring people from different backgrounds, also from different cultures, and incubate them in Doha, and try to help connecting the people together.
Political relation is always subject to a turbulence. It will go sometimes positive, sometimes negative. Economic relation depends on different factors. But the human relation—people-to-people relation—is always sustaining and this is what Qatar is making, and we have the cooperation with a lot of countries.
We have the United States. We will have the Year of Culture between Qatar and United States in 2021, which is a showcase for this cultural exchange between the countries. We have it every year in a different country and it has been a successful model for promoting the Qatari culture and inviting the other cultures.
ANDERSON: Ambassador Indyk.
Q: Thank you, Lisa. Martin Indyk from the Council on Foreign Relations.
Sheikh Mohammed, welcome. It’s good to have you here. Since you handled the Saudi question so deftly, I thought I would ask you about your attitude towards President Trump’s policy in the region. In particular, if you could address the strategy of countering Iran and the related strategy of trying to build up this Arab NATO Middle East security arrangement.
AL-THANI: I was expecting easier questions from here. (Laughter.) Well, regarding the U.S. policy towards Iran and the current attitude toward Iran, it’s not really that, you know, we have to agree with them all the way or we have to disagree with them. But what we see, we look at it from a different (lens ?). Iran is a country right on our border. It’s part of our region.
The U.S. is far away from Iran. And the regional concerns that the U.S. have on Iran, we share it. We have it also—we share it with other countries in the region. We have differences. We have disagreements with Iran. But these differences or disagreements, how it can be resolved? In Qatar, our policy, we never see that the resolution can come with embargo or sanction or going and using—(inaudible). We always see that the solution should be—should happen with engagement and we have to engage with Iran, not even—I’m not talking about the U.S. We have to start—we have to start from us. We have to start from the GCC countries, that we are neighbors with Iran and which we have decided already in 2016 when in the GCC meeting a decision was taken that we have to proceed in an engagement with Iran and the emir of Kuwait at that time he was leading this effort.
These efforts were suspended at the end of 2016 by the Gulf leader just—by some of the Gulf leaders, sorry—just to watch how the American attitude will be toward Iran and this should not be the case. This should not be our measure toward any—of our policies. We see that Iran—we have disagreements with them in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq.
But those disagreements can be resolved by talking to each other. When is the last time you heard about peace talks between the Saudi and Iran as (players ?)? We didn’t hear this for a long time, while the Saudis and the Iranians are—they are also in the conflicts around the region. Even to resolve the conflicts of the region like Syria or Yemen there is no dialogues between them. So we see that the first steps that need to be taken are regional engagement with Iran. Take GCC with Iran together, put them around the table, and we have to put our concerns on the table and they have to put their concerns on the table.
From a Qatari perspective, we see any instability in the region will affect us. If you will look, as an example, the nuclear agreement, the nuclear agreement is designated for the nuclear program in Al Bushehr. Al Bushehr is closer to Doha than Tehran. I have a concern that the region will return to a nuclear risk. I’m sharing with my largest gas field, which is my main source of energy, together with Iran. If anything goes wrong in Iran, this might be affected. Iran offered for me their airspace when my neighbors and my allies eighteen months ago closed their airspace and prevented food from our people.
So all these factors are taken in consideration in Qatar and it put us in a situation where we are in a disagreement and tension between our strongest ally, who’s the United States, and our neighbors, which we are sharing with them a lot of common things, and this is a really uncomfortable situation none of the countries want to be in, especially if they are a small country. What is the second part?
AL-THANI: Yeah, Arab NATO. Arab NATO, as an idea, to put the Arab countries together to defend their common interest and to collectively capitalize on each other capability is a very good idea. It is an excellent idea. In fact, this is together to do—together with the United States is also something that Qatar is very supportive.
We are talking about the timing and the objective. The timing, while we have four of the members of this NATO are blockading and threatening, one of—the fifth member—it doesn’t make sense to form an alliance before I stop the hostility from those countries. It will put us on a credibility test for our people.
We will not appear as a credible government if we will go and tell our people that I’m going to form allies with the countries which prevented you from food and medicine, prevented you from your families, prevented you from travelling. So this is one factor taken in consideration and we made this very clearly with the U.S., and the U.S. understanding this very well and they are cooperating and helping in putting this—in resolving this issue.
The other issue that—the main objective of this coalition is it to defend the countries or is it to be hostile toward any other? Most of the countries who are among the alliance they don’t want to be a hostile alliance. They want to be a defensive alliance—that we capitalize on each other capabilities, that we cooperate on different issues, and we defend our common security threats. So if these two factors are addressed, we believe this alliance will be a brilliant idea formally.
ANDERSON: Right here. Nan.
Q: Nan Keohane, Princeton University.
One of the ways in which Qatar is a leader in your region is in education. You mentioned Education City, your own fine alma mater. But as you also pointed out, one of the ways in which the oppressed and destitute people in some of your neighboring countries are unfortunate is that they lack access to good education. Is there any way in which Qatar could use its influence to help raise standards or create opportunities for students in other countries, particularly in education for girls, in the primary and secondary schools?
AL-THANI: There are a lot of ongoing initiatives that Qatar is leading in the education sector and we decided three years ago to allocate 50 percent of our humanitarian aid programs to education. So some of the programs, they are specialized on specific countries like—conflict countries like people in Gaza, Palestine, the Fakhoora program we have over there.
We have another program which is—we call it Educate a Child—that we partner with other countries as well, but Qatar is the leading funder and partner. And it set the objective to teach—to put ten million children out of school back to school, and we have achieved this objective by—after 2017, this year. Now we renewed our commitment. And the emir, when he was here during the United Nation(s) we announced an additional one million girls out of the school, to put them back to school, especially in conflicted zones.
There are specific programs in the refugees camps. We have around six hundred thousand kids in the Syrian refugees camps. We are providing them with education, and we tailor for them a specific education program because they have a totally different environment than normal people in the normal country has.
So education is really at the heart of and the core of our development agenda. And then we care very much because we see it as a tool of change, as a provider of hope for the youngsters. If we want to deradicalize the future generation, we have to start on the education.
ANDERSON: Sir, thank you very much. We could go on all afternoon. You didn’t get any questions about gas and I promised you one. So if anyone has one last quick question about gas and then we’ll be finished.
Q: I do. Thank you. Thank you so much for a wonderful afternoon. I’m Lee Cullum. I’m a journalist from Dallas.
Naturally, I’m interested in gas—(laughter)—and also in oil. What do you see ahead for peak demand? Some say that demand for oil in the world will peak as soon as 2024. Some say it’s as late as 2070. What do you think?
AL-THANI: Well, I cannot talk much about oil because we are a very small producer of oil. So the process doesn’t matter much for us.
Q: And the price of natural gas and the price of oil—(off mic).
AL-THANI: OK. For the natural gas, we see that the demand is growing and it will continue to grow. We have important countries with huge economies, like China as an example, is growing its demand in the gas and has—it’s just identified the first requirement for a portion of their population, which is around four hundred million people, around a hundred and ten million cubic (feet ?). And there is an increasing demand in a lot of other countries. As long as there is a growth in the population there will be a growth in the demands of the gas because it is the future of the energy—of the clean energy, in addition to the sustainable—the other sustainable solutions like the solar, the hydro. But the gas will remain as an important component of energy and an important component to feed a lot of other industries. So we don’t see much instability or speculation in the future of the gas. The oil, I really don’t know what—how it’s going to look like.
But we see that the rules of the pricing won’t change much in the coming year. Despite what’s happening now with Iran we see that the prices remain the same level; in fact, it’s being also—it’s become a little bit lower. And also the prices when the oil was at the eighties wasn’t realistic. So and even the hundred wasn’t realistic. It was inflated. So there was an expectation for a correction for the oil price and we believe that this is the range which will be fair for a while.
ANDERSON: Wonderful. Thank you so much. Thank you all for joining us. (Applause.) There are—there are copies of His Excellency’s opening remarks available so feel free to take some as you leave.