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The Takeaway: Qatari official sees encouraging signs in diplomacy to end GCC divisions

Meshal Al-Thani, Qatar’s Ambassador to the United States, describes three steps for ‘quick win’ to help heal Gulf rift.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo(R) welcomes Qatars Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to launch the third annual US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue at the State Department in Washington, DC on September 14, 2020. (Photo by ERIN SCOTT / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ERIN SCOTT/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Exclusive: Al-Thani says Qatar key to helping US build bridge between Israel and Palestinians

Meshal Al-Thani, Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, said today he is “optimistic” that a recent flurry of diplomacy in the final days of the Trump administration could signal progress toward healing the rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a trade and travel embargo on Qatar, which those countries claimed had been engaged in destabilizing activities in the region.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just returned from travel to the Gulf, including meetings in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where solving the Gulf rift was on the agenda.  US national security adviser Robert O’Brien said last week he would like the dispute resolved before the end of US President Donald Trump’s term in January 2021. 

Al-Thani, in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, praised the remarks today by Pompeo and Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Al-Sabah in support of Kuwait’s mediation to reconcile the parties.

Al-Thani added, “We have seen some encouraging signals from the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia.” 

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said Nov. 21, “We continue to be willing to engage with our Qatari brothers and we hope that they are as committed to that engagement.”

Commenting on specific examples of steps that could help heal the GCC rift, Al-Thani mentioned “humanitarian” issues, including opening the airspace for travel and the safety of aviation, allowing visits between families and permitting Qataris to travel for pilgrimage.

“These three issues could be a very quick win for the Biden administration when it comes to the Gulf rift,” Al-Thani said. 

“No doubt” that GCC unity is also essential for regional security and dealing with Iran, said Al-Thani. “The fact that today we don’t have a functioning Gulf Cooperation Council is not going to be helpful to the United States.”

Asked if Qatar was considering normalizing ties with Israel, Al-Thani replied, “Qatar is part of the Arab Peace Initiative,” adding, “Any normalization has to first start with the Palestinians, conducting negotiations, and ending in a two-state solution.”

“The only country really able today to build this bridge and help the US government, Israel and the Palestinians to reinitiate discussions and start talking together is Qatar,” Al-Thani said.

Commenting on the incoming Biden administration, Al-Thani said, “I think we can achieve a lot together,” adding, “They can find in us a reliable partner with a proven track record."

Al-Thani became Qatar’s ambassador to the United States in 2017.  He previously served as ambassador to France and as permanent representative to the United Nations.

Al-Thani also discussed planning for the 2022 World Cup, reforms ahead of next year’s Consultative Assembly elections and the role of culture in US-Qatar relations.

A lightly edited transcript of the interview follows.

Al-Monitor:  Ambassador, there seems to be some buzz around diplomacy to heal the rift within the GCC. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been traveling in the Gulf, including meetings in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where he’s raised the issue. US national security adviser Robert O’Brien said he’d like to see this resolved before the end of Trump’s term. And Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said Saturday, “We continue to be willing engage with our Qatari brothers, and we hope that they’re committed to that engagement.” Is there indeed some progress in recent days in healing the Gulf rift? And do you expect some concrete outcome from this round of diplomacy?

Al-Thani:  Well, first of all, I would like to thank you first of all for having me on Al-Monitor, and getting the opportunity to discuss with you some regional issues, among them the rift. Allow me before I answer this, I always like to start by reminding the readers and listeners, when it comes to the Gulf rift, how this started. As many who follow this crisis would know, it’s a manufactured crisis; that is a crisis initiated by the blockading countries through a cyberattack and staging the fake news story that claimed certain positions of Qatar’s foreign policy, which were false.

Again, in terms of finding a resolution, I believe that Qatar has been always transparent, Qatar has been always open, Qatar has always been forthcoming to resolve this rift. Indeed, despite what you hear from certain individuals in Washington that this crisis is not a priority, despite that you hear that this is a small issue and it’s not on anyone’s agenda — I think this is coming out of their own ignorance of the complications of this situation. The crisis is an important [issue] to be resolved; it is in the national interest of the United States. I think it has been proven that without having the GCC work together and [work] with the United States, not much could be achieved. Again, in terms of if Qatar is ready, Qatar has been always reiterating that it’s ready to resolve this matter. We have some encouraging signals from the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, and we been seeing Secretary Pompeo’s last visit to push forward, and we have seen also today some statements from the minister of foreign affairs of Kuwait, and Secretary Pompeo, mentioning that they are supporting the Kuwaiti mediation. So we are optimistic. 

Al-Monitor:  What is Qatar willing to do, and what do you expect from other parties to do, to move the process ahead in the short term? What do you anticipate are the next steps in healing the rift given these discussions?

Al-Thani:  I think first of all we need to have all the parties come to the table without preconditions. We need to have all the parties come with concrete issues and not issues that have no merit to them. You remember for the past four years, at the beginning of the crisis, there were some claims and some conditions and demands which were unrealistic. So I think if we can put these on the side and come to the table with no conditions, respecting each other, respecting the sovereignty of each other, and talk about the real big grievances, if there are any, put them forward. Qatar is willing to look into them and work with our neighbors to resolve this matter. At the same time, we also in Qatar have some concerns about the behavior of certain Gulf countries, so this also has to be raised during the meeting.

Al-Monitor:  The transition to the Biden administration is now officially underway. Qatari leaders of course know well those so far appointed to senior national security positions in the next administration. What is your expectation for US-Qatar relations during a Biden administration?

Al-Thani: I think we can achieve a lot together with a Biden administration, especially in stabilizing our region. I think Qatar could be helpful to the Biden administration in different situations, in different areas, where it could work with the United States to defuse tension and stabilize certain countries in our region. And they can find in us a reliable partner with a proven track record. We will continue to work with the United States to advance the stability of our region, which is in the national interest of our countries and the United States.

Al-Monitor:  One of the most challenging issues facing the Biden administration and the region is Iran. Do you support a return to the Iran nuclear deal, and what would you advise the incoming administration in how to deal with Iran? And what role can Qatar play in helping deal with Iran?

Al-Thani:  I believe many in the Biden administration know the region very well. They know the issues and they are well informed. The only thing i would say is that Qatar can help the Biden administration to bridge any communication or any issues if it was asked of us. And our advice would be to enter into a dialogue. I think the best way to move forward is through diplomatic means and a dialogue.

Al-Monitor:  Do you see the resolution of the GCC rift as essential in crafting a more effective policy for the US and its partners in the region, especially those in the Gulf?

Al-Thani:  No doubt. Resolving the Gulf crisis — again I need to highlight that despite the individuals who are mentioning that this is a small issue and this is not on anyone’s agenda, and undermining the importance of it, which I think they are ignorant to do so, and it shows how they are not aware of the severity of the matter.  I think it is very important that the US and the Gulf Cooperation Council always work together and align policies. So the fact that today we don’t have a functioning Gulf Cooperation Council is not going to be helpful to the United States.

Al-Monitor:  Asked about the normalization agreements between Israeli and the UAE and Bahrain, your foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed Al Thani, said that those were “sovereign decisions” and Qatar does not interfere. Is Qatar considering normalization with Israel?

Al-Thani:  You know Qatar is part of the Arab Peace Initiative, and we really look into this matter very carefully. We truly believe that without the Palestinians’ involvement the main issue will not be resolved. Therefore any normalization has to first start with the Palestinians conducting negotiations and ending in a two-state solution in order to resolve the core issue. We truly believe that without the Palestinians this matter is not going to be resolved — without the Palestinians being involved I mean. 

Al-Monitor:  We have a report today from Al-Monitor, from one of our correspondents in Gaza, that Hamas is hoping for an increase in financial assistance from Qatar during a time — as you know — that Hamas-Israel border confrontations have escalated. Help us understand a little more about Qatar’s role in Gaza and the financial support your government provides to the government and people there.

Al-Thani:  Well, basically what Qatar is trying to do is stabilize the situation in Gaza through humanitarian assistance. This humanitarian assistance is coordinated and worked through the Gaza Reconstruction mechanism, which is part of the United Nations, which also coordinated with the United States and Israel. So we are trying to ease the humanitarian suffering of the people who live in Gaza, and at the same time defuse tension and help the Israelis secure their borders. So of course everything is coordinated with the Israelis and the United States’ government. Qatar’s intention there is to help the parties go back to the table to start talking again. And this is one more issue, when you mentioned earlier, how can Qatar and the US work together, I think the only country really today able to build this bridge and help the US government and Israel and the Palestinians to reinitiate discussion and start talking together is Qatar, due to its proven track record, again, and the ability to talk to everyone there, and that’s because of course our intention to stabilize the region without any hidden agenda.

Also, one thing that we can work with the United States [on] when it comes to the GCC rift is really look at the humanitarian situation of the families, try to work a solution to have the families go back to visit each other, the ability for Qataris and residents of Qatar to go to Mecca for pilgrimage and umrah, open the airspace. I think these three issues could be a very quick win for the Biden administration when it comes to the Gulf rift. And those are humanitarian issues, and of course the safety of aviation. I think these are issues that no one can dispute the importance of them.

Al-Monitor:  Let me ask you about some developments in Qatar. The World Cup is in 2022, that is getting closer, and Qatar has revised its labor laws as it continues planning — during the pandemic — and this is a big event for Qatar. Any updates you would like to share on the planning for cup, and your expectations for it?

Al-Thani:  I’m glad to say that despite the challenges of the pandemic, we’ve been trying to continue working towards finalizing the infrastructure to host the World Cup, at the same time to be safe and ensure the safety of everyone there working, involved in this development. We are excited, it’s two years from now. I believe that it’s going to be a wonderful World Cup and we’re planning to have the best time that the fans could have in any other World Cup. So hopefully we’ll be able to deliver a fantastic experience to the fans.

Al-Monitor: There are some significant reforms I read about regarding Qatar’s consultative assembly ahead of elections next year, in October 2021. If you could tell us a little about that?

Al-Thani:  Yes, this is very exciting news for us as Qataris. Maybe this didn’t take much traction in Washington, as much as we would like to, but we are really excited and happy about the council that His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir, made during the negotiations for Shura Council at next year, 2021, the month of October, will witness the Shura Council election. This is part of the long reform efforts that we’ve been doing for the past two decades. It is part of our national agenda; it is part of our vision. And it is the vision of His Highness to take Qatar forward with the countries who embrace the same values of democracy and rule of law.

Al-Monitor: Final question. I noticed in the press release I was reading about during Secretary Pompeo’s visit, there was discussion of 2021 as the year of culture. Tell us a little about that.

Al-Thani:  Yes, well during the strategic dialogue in September, the announcement was made that the year of 2021 will mark the US-Qatar year of culture. This is another milestone of the cooperation that we have together. This year, both Qatar and the US will embrace [each other’s] cultures. We’ll be working [with the] State Department, the public diplomacy department int he US, and different stakeholders in Doha, among the Qatar Museums Authority, to promote culture in both Doha and different cities in the United States, and this is a way also to reflect and show another aspect of the relationship that we have — the cultural aspect — that both Qatar and the US embraced. We’re looking forward to it, we’re really excited. So hopefully we’ll try to deliver something that the audience in the US will learn more about our culture in Qatar.