The conflict between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — has become a “lose-lose situation” and threatens the security of the region, said Lolwah R. M. Al-Khater, spokesperson for Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor in Washington, DC.
“This is definitely not a healthy situation and has many other consequences, including political consequences, for the entire region,” Al-Khater said, referring to the crisis that erupted in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and its allies, including Egypt, severed diplomatic relations with Qatar. She further stated, “It is going to compromise the security of the region in general.”
Al-Khater, appointed spokesperson in 2017 by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, said that despite multiple mediation efforts — including calls by US President Donald Trump for meetings between the opposing sides — little progress is being made to resolve the nearly two-year-old conflict. “It has become the new norm in a way, … [and] there are thousands of families that are paying the price for this.”
Al-Khater, who previously served as minister plenipotentiary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as director of planning and quality at the Qatar Tourism Authority, also spoke about Qatar’s vision for Syria, Afghanistan and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, among other topics. Following the May 23 announcement that the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) had lost its last territorial stronghold in Syria, questions surrounding reconstruction efforts have become even more pressing.
“Qatar has said that it will be part of the reconstruction efforts in Syria,” said Al-Khater, adding that Syria risks a resurgence of the terror group if the root causes of its rise are not properly addressed. “Once again, ISIS lost the territories, but the sentiments are there. The roots of the problem are there. … We have been saying that unless we have transitional justice in Syria, it will be very difficult to prevent the resurrection of ISIS.”
Meanwhile, Al-Khater was cautiously optimistic when it came to the future of talks being hosted in Doha between Taliban and American negotiators. She remarked, “The most recent round of negotiations has been the longest ever in the history of this conflict — 16 days nonstop. … Because we don’t have other selfish interests in this, that’s why I think the different stakeholders trust Qatar.”
Al-Khater stressed Qatar’s hope that Doha can “facilitate a lasting peace process” in Afghanistan that “will include everyone, and will not exclude anyone, and will ensure that no violent acts will be exercised against any innocent civilians.”
Regarding the Trump administration’s much-anticipated Middle East peace plan, expected to be released after April 9 elections in Israel, Al-Khater said that it is her hope the proposal will take into account all the factors on the ground. She warned against a plan that ignores the reality of the situation. “Imposing a plan might work for the politicians, but it will not work for the people,” she said.
“The many UN resolutions that were issued throughout the years need to be respected,” Al-Khater asserted. “This is our expectation. This is our hope. Qatar will work relentlessly to achieve that — a just peace, a lasting peace. And this term ‘lasting’ is important. We will not spare any effort with that.”
A full transcript of the interview, conducted by Al-Monitor managing editor Tyler Huffman, follows.
Al-Monitor: Tell us about your visit to Washington. What are the main items on your agenda?
Al-Khater: I have a number of meetings and engagements in Washington, DC, including a couple of public talks. It’s very important for us in Qatar to engage with the United States at multiple levels. In my capacity I’m at the intersection of politics and media, so this requires some engagement with journalists and not only officials. This includes think tanks. Think tanks are playing a vital role in shaping policy in [Washington] DC and elsewhere as well. So it’s very important for us to engage and answer questions. We’re very open about that — we know that people have many questions and we’re happy to answer all of these.
Al-Monitor: I assume you have been discussing the blockade as well as other issues. What is the status of US mediation efforts to reconcile Qatar with Saudi Arabia and the UAE?
Al-Khater: From the very beginning the United States tried as much as possible to engage in mediating the current conflict, mainly through the Kuwaiti mediator. Unfortunately, it’s been our neighbors who have not responded to any of the calls that were made by the Kuwaitis and by the Americans. The president [Trump] called for a meeting several times. No answer, again, from the neighbors. Unfortunately, we [are where we] were almost a year and a half ago. Things are stabilizing — not in a good sense in terms of resolving the crisis. It has become the new norm in a way, with the exception that there are thousands of families that are paying the price for this, families that are separated. They need to go to a third country to meet up. This is definitely not a healthy situation, and has many other consequences, including political consequences, for the entire region. Let’s remember that these same actors that have imposed these measures on us — on Qatar — are creating problems elsewhere in the region.
Al-Monitor: As you mentioned, the emir of Kuwait and the sultan of Oman have been working to mitigate the strained relations in the Gulf Cooperation Council. What is your assessment of the future of Gulf security? Qatar participated with other Gulf and regional leaders at Centcom earlier this month.
Al-Khater: We’ve been saying that this current situation is not a healthy situation. It’s a lose-lose situation in a way. It is going to compromise the security of the region in general. Yes, most of the efforts that the United States is leading security-wise and military-wise in the region have not been interrupted in a major way. Yet if this situation continues it will be very difficult to envision enhancing this and taking it to a different dimension.
Al-Monitor: The Syrian Democratic Forces a few days ago said that IS no longer controls territory in Syria. Al-Monitor has been reporting that the Syrian Kurdish leadership envisions an eventual reconciliation with the Syrian government. What do you think happens next in Syria, in those areas liberated from IS, and will Qatar be part of the reconstruction process in Syria?
Al-Khater: Qatar has said that it will be part of the reconstruction efforts in Syria, however this requires certain checks and balances to be in place to make sure that the beneficiaries really benefit from these efforts. And this will be a process, a collective process, not only from Qatar’s side, but from the UN and other international stakeholders as well. In terms of the future of Syria — through the lens of ISIS, violent extremism, etc. — it’s not very promising. Once again, ISIS lost the territories, but the sentiments are there. The roots of the problem are there, not only the ideology, but also the socioeconomic incentives are still there. We have been saying that unless we have transitional justice in Syria, it will be very difficult to prevent the resurrection of ISIS.
Al-Monitor: Qatar has been instrumental in US talks with the Taliban. Tell us about how Qatar sees its role in the mediation, and what you hope to see as the outcome in Afghanistan.
Al-Khater: Qatar has so far been the only country that was able to bring both parties together. The most recent round of negotiations has been the longest ever in the history of this conflict — 16 days nonstop. This is considered an accomplishment. Because we don’t have other selfish interests in this, that’s why I think the different stakeholders trust Qatar. We really hope that we can facilitate a lasting peace process in Afghanistan that will include everyone, and will not exclude anyone, and will ensure that no violent acts will be exercised against any innocent civilians.
Al-Monitor: The Trump administration is expected to launch its Middle East peace plan after the Israeli elections on April 9? What are your expectations, and what are you most concerned about? What role do you see Qatar playing in the next phase of the Mideast peace process?
Al-Khater: We really hope that this plan will be a plan that respects international law, a plan that will take into consideration all the factors on the ground. Imposing a plan might work for the politicians, but it will not work for the people. So the elements for us are very clear. The many UN resolutions that were issued throughout the years need to be respected. This is our expectation. This is our hope. Qatar will work relentlessly to achieve that — a just peace, a lasting peace. And this term ‘lasting’ is important. We will not spare any effort with that.
Al-Monitor: Based on the reporting on the deal so far, is there something that Qatar is most concerned about in the peace plan?
Al-Khater: The most recent development about the Golan Heights — although this is not directly linked to the Palestinians, but it’s connected to the overall picture — this is a development that is not necessarily helpful. There are many questions that are not answered yet: the refugees; the right to return; the settlements, whether this [enterprise] will stop or not. How are you going to create a viable state when the territories of this state — namely Gaza and the West Bank — are not connected geographically. This is unheard of. So once again, all these factors need to be resolved, and resolved in a manner that will be just and sustainable. The element of sustainability is very important. You can impose a certain “reality” — but then if this reality is going to cause or ignite certain sentiments that are not favorable, then you can just imagine the consequences of that in the future.
Al-Monitor: You mentioned the recent Golan Heights decision. What is Qatar’s reaction to that?
Al-Khater: We have issued a public statement joining our voice to the voice of the European Union, Germany, France, the UK, you name it. All international community members have expressed a deep concern about that step, calling upon the US not to take it any further. But it seems like a decision has been made and signed.
Al-Monitor: Qatar’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated groups, such as Hamas, is often brought up. What is the status of your ties with the Brotherhood, Hamas and related groups? How do you see the future of Islamic political parties in the region?
Al-Khater: Prior to the American request during George W. Bush’s time — when there was a request for Qatar to mediate between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority — prior to that, there was virtually no relationship between Qatar and Hamas. It was mainly Qatar and the Palestinian Authority. It was only upon the request of the US that Qatar started this relationship. We’ve asked our American colleagues whether this is something that they currently think should change, and no sign was given from their side. They think that this relationship is actually facilitating talks and facilitating the pledging of aid to Gaza. So that’s with respect to Hamas.
In terms of the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States does not consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, [and] neither does the European Union. And that’s the stance of Qatar, just like all Arab countries with the exception of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The rest of the Arab countries do not consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. That said, there is a huge spectrum between not considering it a terrorist organization and supporting it.
We definitely don’t support the Muslim Brotherhood. As a matter of fact, we were just in a discussion this morning, and I took my colleagues through the narrative of the relationship between Qatar and say Egypt and Tunisia. The aid from Qatar to Tunisia and Egypt never stopped. It was [ongoing] before the Brotherhood, during [President Mohammed] Morsi’s time, and Ennahda’s time in Tunis and even beyond that. As a matter of fact, the biggest investment Qatar made in Tunisia is under the current government, which is quote-unquote secular. Nidaa Tounes, the ruling party, is considered a secular party, yet Qatar made the biggest investment in Tunisia under its rule. So once again, all of these are indicators that Qatar has been supporting these countries regardless of who is ruling these countries. We don’t antagonize them, but we don’t support them.
Al-Monitor: How do you see the future of these parties more generally in the region?
Al-Khater: That’s a very interesting question. So there was a moment during the Arab Spring, in the beginning of the Arab Spring, that was in a way considered an Islamist moment. They were winning all the elections. My personal sense is that had that democratic process taken its course, they would have definitely lost their popularity. And that would have been a very organic, natural way to kind of, one, have democracy take it’s course, and two, have the best when it comes to governance — whether it’s liberal or Islamist or whatever — to let the people have their say. So I think that’s the future. As long as you corner them and make them go underground, they’re going to resurge. If you let them go through the normal process of democracy, I think they will lose a lot of their popularity.
Al-Monitor: How do you see the role of China in the Gulf and the Middle East? Should the US be concerned about Chinese influence?
Al-Khater: Once again, the Chinese have economic interests in the region, and they don’t delve into internal politics. This has been their “advantage” for many governments or regimes in the region and beyond. Is this going to change? It could. The more they get involved in the region, maybe they need to become more and more politicized. Regarding if the US should be concerned, I cannot answer on behalf of US officials, but it really depends on how we look at it. It’s definitely a strong economic power.
Al-Monitor: As a leader in Qatar’s Foreign Ministry and a woman, can you say something about the role of women in diplomacy in Qatar, the Gulf, and the region?
Al-Khater: In Qatar in the Foreign Ministry, around 30% of our diplomats are females. And collectively, between diplomats and people on the administrative side, it’s almost 40% women in the Foreign Ministry, so it’s a really good percentage. And I think we’re getting more and more [women]. Higher education graduates in Qatar are almost 67% female; 52% of the labor workforce in Qatar is female. So the status of women in Qatar is good.
There are many social constructs, of course, to sometimes challenge and change, but policy-wise I think it’s leaning toward empowering women generally speaking. In the Gulf, this was the case up until the most recent crackdown on many female activists, unfortunately, in some of the neighboring countries. This is very unfortunate. But, other than this, other indicators are good as well — a higher percentage of higher education graduates, involvement in the workforce, and so-on and so-forth. So overall it’s good, with the exception that I just mentioned.
In the region generally, the problem is that when you talk about women in the Arab region, it’s a question that is really intertwined with many other questions: poverty, illiteracy, many, many other things. And women are subjected to them just like men are subjected to them. But in the case of women, sometimes it becomes double because of all of the other factors, including the social constructs, etc. But I’m hoping that this is going to change — going to change through good governance that will create more job opportunities, better educational opportunities, and so on and so forth. And this will kind of uplift not only women, but men and women together.
Al-Monitor: How do you assess US policy and sanctions on Iran? Are the sanctions effective? What would you advise the US on how to address Iranian behavior in the region?
Al-Khater: Our stance when it comes to Iran and the region [is that] Iran is a geographical reality that no one can change. The way we look at it, because we’re closer — much, much closer — to Iran, could be much, much different [from how the US looks at it]. We still disagree with Iranian foreign policy when it comes to Syria and Yemen, for example, yet we think that there needs to be a dialogue at one point. We’re not going to wipe Iran off the map, and likewise they cannot do this to us. That’s why we need this formula to work together. Qatar is actually offering to facilitate such a conversation should the different parties be willing to engage.
Once again, there was a nuclear deal in place — a nuclear deal that we were not involved in when it was forged — and when it was canceled, we were not involved in that as well, although we are supposed to be — when I say “we” I mean the GCC in general — we are supposed to be the main stakeholders. And that’s why we think that we need to have our own independent policy when it comes to that. We share the same concerns. I mean if anyone should be concerned about Iran’s nuclear projects, it should be us, no one else, because we will be the most affected by that. But we do realize that a region with a deal is better than a region without a deal. A region without a deal might push Iran actually to just go forward with its own plans. But when we put the right measures and checks and balances in place, this will be beneficial for all parties.