PARIS — Qatar’s investments worldwide are estimated at around $60 billion, but France seems to hold a particular place in Qatar’s heart — and investment portfolio. Qatari investment funds and subsidiaries have participations in several French companies including Vinci, Veolia, the mammoth media conglomerate Lagardère and Paris’ flagship soccer team: the Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). The tiny emirate has bought several hotels and pieces of real estate on the French Riviera and in Paris as well as invested in luxury casinos.
More recently, Qatar set up a 300-million-euro fund in partnership with the French state to support small and medium enterprises in the country’s underdeveloped areas, including France’s infamous suburbs or “banlieues," home to a large population of second and third-generation French Muslim citizens of Arab descent. The fund raised eyebrows in France among politicians and civil-society activists alike, who slammed the move as an attempt to interfere in French politics and possibly propagate Qatar’s orthodox brand of Islam. Al-Monitor met with the Qatari ambassador in Paris, Mohamed Al Kuwari, to find out more about his country’s apparent love story with France. The ambassador, who previously served in Washington and Tehran, also talked about the rise of Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring, Syria’s rebellion and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Al-Monitor: Why does Qatar like investing in France so much?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: First of all, we enjoy an excellent and historical relation with France, since a long time. For example, with Total [energy company] since 1936. After the independence of Qatar [in 1971], that relation further developed into economic and political cooperation. The second reason: Qatar appreciates French culture and lifestyle and their way of [striving for] perfection. Our investments have to be in a country that has something special. France has become like a brand in the world. Investing in France gives you a good name, one of prestige. The third reason: The French companies [we invest in] are well-known and we are trying to build partnerships with them. You invest in France, you build partnerships and you go elsewhere, to Africa, to Asia. We are looking for strong partners like Total, Vinci, Veolia. The fourth reason is France’s geopolitical place: France has an independent policy, plays an important role in the world, diplomatically and politically.
Our investment policy in France and elsewhere is part and parcel of our global strategy to have investment revenues exceed that of gas and oil by 2030, as we might run out of oil soon and of gas in 100–150 years.
Al-Monitor: Qatar recently set up a fund to help France’s disenfranchised regions, among them France’s marginalized suburbs. What is the business logic behind that?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: There is a misunderstanding regarding this issue. We never announced that Qatar is going to invest in the suburbs. There was a delegation [The National Association of Local Elected Representatives with an immigrant background, ANELD] that came to Doha and we welcomed them. They said no Arab country is willing to receive us. They said Qatar was only investing in big companies but not in small and media enterprises. We said fine, but we have to deal with you in a professional way; it is not a charity, it is business. They came back to France telling the media that Qatar was going to invest in the suburbs, but we never said this. The media then said Qatar is investing in the suburbs because there are Muslims there, there are Arabs. We tried to explain we had nothing to do with this. We are going to invest in small and medium enterprises and we have discussed this with the French government for a long time.
Al-Monitor: And where’s the business logic?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: There is a logic, of course. In our economic cooperation with France, there are some areas we haven’t covered yet, which are small and medium enterprises. We need this type of businesses because you know that Qatar is buying everything. So it is important to create factories in Qatar, and especially small and medium enterprises, instead of importing goods. Down the line we hope to sell our goods in the Gulf.
Al-Monitor: So you are hoping the businesses you invest in will relocate to Qatar?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: Yes, this is our strategy, we want to create partnerships. It will be in the contracts we issue. We want some of these companies to work with us in Qatar.
Al-Monitor: How much money is there exactly in the fund — 50, 100 million euros, as announced last summer?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: We are probably talking about 200 to 300 million euros, half of it from Qatar and half of it from the French government and possibly from the [French] private sector.
Al-Monitor: The French government said the fund will target marginalized regions, why?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: We never said we would do that […] The French government will propose the projects and then we will choose. We won’t choose the areas. It can be anywhere: in the suburbs, cities, towns, villages or mountains …
Al-Monitor: Some French politicians, journalists and civil-society activists have denounced this fund as nothing short of an intrusion in French politics. Some even accused Qatar of trying to propagate its own brand of orthodox Islam or Wahhabism in the disenfranchised and largely Muslim suburbs. What do you have to say to them?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: The government of France knows perfectly if the ambassador has contacts with certain groups, if the ambassador was in the suburbs trying to recruit and talk to people. We have never been there! If there is any proof that Qatar is interfering in the suburbs of France, let them give us proof, we are ready to discuss. Qatar is dealing directly with the government of France and that is it. If there are other things [going on], I am the ambassador to France and I don’t know, and I’d really like to know.
Al-Monitor: Bernard-Henri Levy, the internationally renowned firebrand French philosopher who wholeheartedly supported France’s intervention in Libya openly denounces Qatar’s investment fund, saying your country is not democratic enough and should leave France alone, especially as it has a poor human rights record when it comes foreign workers.
Mohamed Al Kuwari: I don’t understand Mr. Levy. When Qatar helped the Libyan people, he thought Qatar was a great country. Now he is saying these things. He says we should teach secularism in our schools; he is welcome to come and teach secular culture in Qatar. Let him come if he has people who want to listen to him! We don’t care. Qatar is helping […] poor Indians, Pakistanis by giving them jobs. If France wants to help them, we will send them to France and have them work here! These people come to Qatar with contracts, not only with the Qatari government but also with French, British, American, European, Russian and Japanese companies. We will see if France takes Indians and Pakistanis in its own suburbs.
Al-Monitor: Maybe there is this perception among French observers that Qatar could interfere with Islam in France because you are supporting Islamists in the Arab world, especially after the Arab Spring?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: I tell you: We are not financing any groups in the Arab world. We are speaking and engaged in a dialogue, yes, because Qatar speaks with everybody in the region and in the world. We have to speak to these groups, to the new political groups. We have to direct them a bit. But we only finance business investments in the Arab Spring countries.
Al-Monitor: Does Qatar welcome the election of Islamist parties at the helm in both Tunisia and Egypt?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: We think [the Arab Spring] is very positive. People are free but it’s not the end of things. They have to struggle more, improve the political process, the economy. But it takes time. You have to ask the Tunisian people why they chose [the moderate Islamist party] Ennahda. They chose Ennahda, but if Tunisians are no longer satisfied with them, they can change in the next election. The most important thing [is that] you have a political process and a democratic process. In Egypt, too, if people are not satisfied with the Muslim Brotherhood then they can replace them in the next election.
Al-Monitor: Does the rise of radical Islam or Salafism worry you?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: Of course. Usually after big changes, there are good and bad things happening. The French people waited forty years to get positive results out of their revolution. The most important thing to fight against extremism in the Arab world is to have more freedom and democracy. Once you have more freedom and democracy, extremism will go down.
Al-Monitor: How about Qatar, a conservative sheikhdom — are you also trying to bring about more democracy?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: We will have a parliamentary election next year. We have a free press, freedom of speech, we have no political prisoners. […] For almost 10 years we have had municipal elections. The parliament will have full powers. It can even dissolve the government under certain circumstances.
Al-Monitor: Why did it take so long to have a parliamentary election?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: The decision came actually from the Emir; it was not a demand of the people […] because democracy will help socio-economic development. The Emir is correct to let things come gradually because of our conservative, tribal society. Thank God our economic situation is stable, and that will help us a lot to get the process going gradually.
Al-Monitor: Al-Jazeera openly supported the Arab revolutions. Is the channel the foreign-policy arm of the Qatari government, which, incidentally, funds the channel?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: I am not the ambassador of Al-Jazeera. When we created Al-Jazeera, we gave an independent status to the channel. They choose their editorial policy and have nothing to do with the official policy of Qatar. It is an independent channel whether in English, Arabic and hopefully in French soon.
Al-Monitor: How can you be independent when you get all your money from a government?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: People believe the BBC is independent but they don’t expect Al-Jazeera to be, why? At least, consider Al-Jazeera the same way you consider the BBC.
Al-Monitor: Why are you considering a French version of Al-Jazeera?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: We value French immensely. In fact, we are hoping to join the international association of francophone countries as an associated member, a language widely spoken in Africa among other countries.
Al-Monitor: You want to develop your investments in Africa?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: That too, yes.
Al-Monitor: Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani has a very close relationship with the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. And France’s intervention in Libya was strongly supported by Qatar. How is your relation with the new French president François Hollande? Do you see eye-to-eye with him when it comes to Syria?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: We have excellent relations with Mr. Hollande, whom we have known for a long time. We are convinced that once an Arab regime is trying to kill its people, it is a line that cannot be crossed. What happened in Libya was a massacre, and it is also the same thing in Syria. We tried our best to speak to the government of Syria; we sent a special envoy to talk to the president, but we couldn’t do more than this. We had to choose in the end, and we chose the people.
Al-Monitor: Are you helping the rebellion militarily in Syria?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: We are helping in a humanitarian way, yes.
Al-Monitor: Where do you stand on Iran’s nuclear ambitions?
Mohamed Al Kuwari: It is Iran's legitimate right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran has always said that is what it wanted. We don’t believe that resorting to military strikes [against Iran] will yield results. Our region has witnessed several wars with no results in the end. We must dialogue. Qatar supports sanctions against Iran, but only if there is a political dialogue as well.
Sophie Claudet is Europe and Middle East correspondent for Al-Monitor, based in Paris. She previously was Senior International Correspondent with France 24, and also worked for Agence France-Presse English service in the Palestinian Territories/Israel and Egypt.