The Takeaway: Qatar ambassador says dialogue, respect for sovereignty key to heal GCC rift
In new podcast, Meshal Al-Thani, Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, also discusses World Cup, COVID-19, regional issues; Iran’s chief rabbi speaks with Israeli writer; Tunisia victim of Libya war spillover; Oman gets handle on debt.
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House, on April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC - Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The Lead: Qatar ambassador says ‘early and proactive’ action have been key to managing COVID-19 outbreak
In an exclusive podcast interview with Al-Monitor, Meshal Al-Thani, Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, said that divisions within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and with Egypt should be resolved by dialogue based on principle and respect for Qatar’s sovereignty.
It’s about time. “The blockading countries continue to push back on any efforts, whether it is by the Americans or the Kuwaitis,” to resolve the dispute, said Thani. “It is about time that those countries come back to their own senses and acknowledge that the only way forward to find a solution is through dialogue.”
“All these attempts the past three years are not working and its time to come to the table,” he added.
Five more quick takes from my interview with Ambassador Thani:
On the Muslim Brotherhood: “The blockading countries are using this as a pretext in order to sell their grievances to the West...we do not consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization...in the same line of thought as the US, UK and “our European allies” (which have also not designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group)”
On Iran: Qatar’s relationship with Iran is a “relationship of necessity” based on shared ownership of the largest offshore LNG field in the world, Thani said. “I would have preferred from the beginning...that we (regional countries) would have been consulted and we would have advised there are many issues that should be included in the [Iran nuclear] agreement...we really hope that at some point the US and Iran will be able to talk and find a solution to this.”
On COVID-19: Regarding Qatar’s unusually low fatality rate (0.1%; 104 deaths out of 90,778 confirmed cases), Thani credited the “early and proactive actions of the government,” including mandatory masks, testing, contact tracing, etc. Thani also described Qatar’s assistance of medical supplies to US cities and countries around the world.
On migrant workers: “There is a strong will by the government” to address any further issues relating to the conditions of workers, Thani said. He added, “We have come a long way...We will continue to work on it, [and ] if there is any violation we will address it.”
On the World Cup: Despite the setbacks and complications as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, planning for the Cup is on schedule for 2022, Thani said, adding, “I can assure you Qatar is going to host a wonderful World Cup.”
Listen to the full podcast interview here, and sign up for Al-Monitor podcasts on your favorite podcast platform.
Three quick takes:
Yehuda Garami, the chief Rabbi of Tehran, appears in this screenshot from an undated interview on Iranian TV (photo via YouTube/NetureiKarta)
1. Iran: Chief Rabbi says ‘big difference between Zionism and Judaism’
Rabbi Yehuda Garami, chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Iran, said that “as a country, the State of Israel has nothing to do with religion in general and Judaism in particular. This is not a war between religions. All the Jews here emphasize that.”
While Garami’s comments on Israel, Iran and Judaism may not be surprising, the scoop is that he gave them in an exclusive interview with Mordechai Goldman, Israeli-based contributor to Al-Monitor and a leading expert and analyst on Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.
“I wasn’t the only one going.” Garami had been in the news back in January when he attended a memorial service for Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in Iraq.
Garami told Goldman, “I wasn’t the only one going. Representatives of all the religions in Iran participated in the visit, including representatives of the Christian faith. They wanted to stress that this is not a war of religion, and that no one should think that this is a war between the different religions.”
2. Tunisia: Libya war spillover unsettles ruling government
“Libya is the latest staging ground for the bitter rivalry between Turkey and the UAE-led blocs that is causing toxic spillover in Tunisia, hailed as the sole democracy to have emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings,” writes Amberin Zaman.
As goes Libya, so goes Tunisia’s economy. “Libya is Tunisia’s top trading partner and its largest market. According to the World Bank, 24% of Tunisia’s overall drop in gross domestic product growth between 2011 and 2015 was directly linked to the Libyan conflict,” writes Zaman. Tunisia’s economy is expected to shrink by 7% this year, because of the war and the impact of COVOD-19, and unemployment is projected to rise to 21%, mostly among youth.
The Brothers take sides. Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Ennahda leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, and the ruling Dignity Coalition are on the side of the Libyan Government of National Accord, which is backed by Turkey. The warlord Khalifa Hifter, whose forces have been battered in recent weeks, is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, as well as France. If the Tunisian economy continues to struggle, the ruling coalition could be challenged by the opposition Free Destourian Party (PDL), which was founded by figures sympathetic to Tunisia’s ousted dictator, the late Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and which supports Hifter.
The Oman Investment Authority (OIA) announced on June 4 that it will consolidate and assume control of $17.7 billion worth of assets currently held by the sultanate’s sovereign wealth funds.
Debt rising: Even prior to the oil price drop and the COVID-19 pandemic, Oman has seen a dramatic increase in public debt, expected to average 85% of the gross domestic product (GDP) over through 22, according to World Bank projections.
Taking charge: The consolidation at OIA is the initiative of Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, who assumed office in January, and is illustrative of his concern about his country’s financial situation. The sultan has appointed Abdulsalam al-Murshidi, executive president of the State General Reserve Fund, as head of the OIA and will soon announce a new board of directors.
World Bank’s grim economic outlook for Mashreq region
The World Bank has released a report, The Fallout of the War: The Regional Consequences of the Conflict in Syria, which estimates that the Syria conflict, in addition to the incalculable toll it has taken on the Syrian people, has cost Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon a combined 11.3% in GDP. The best-case scenario for the Mashreq is not a rosy one, according to the Bank. Trade and demographic shocks, including refugees, will continue to inhibit growth and development in the region, and poverty rates could continue to rise. Read the full report here.
The Middle East in your inboxInsights in your inbox.