Foreign Minister of Qatar Discusses Broad Range of Regional Issues at LISD-Sponsored Lecture

His Excellency Dr. Khalid Bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, Foreign Minister of the State of Qatar, visited Princeton University’s Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs for both a private discussions and a public lecture, “Qatari Foreign Policy Today: Challenges and Opportunities,” on Monday, September 29, 2014Accompanied by H.E. Ambassador Sheikha Alya Bint Ahmed Bin Saif Al Thani, Permanent Representative of the State of Qatar to the UN,  Foreign Minister al-Attiyah spoke candidly on a number of topics ranging from labor rights in Qatar and Qatar-based financing of Syrian opposition group to Qatar’s relationships with Washington and Riyadh.

Following welcoming and introductory remarks from LISD Director Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, the Foreign Minister spoke at length about Qatar, its role in the region and world, and the Qatari-US relationship. Qatar’s diplomatic role in a number of regional conflicts, from the Syrian civil war and allied strikes against ISIL, to the situation in Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict featured prominently in the minister’s remarks. He emphasized the close relationship between Qatar and the United States and the shared commitment of both countries to humanitarian aid. He mentioned the extensive economic and military ties between Qatar and the United States, especially the United States’ military base at al-Udeid. Al-Attiyah noted that he worked closely with US Secretary of State John Kerry during the Gaza crisis.

In describing Qatar’s regional position and alliances, the Foreign Minister remarked that Qatar does not adhere to the bloc mentality although countries in the Middle East tend to align with one group or the other. Qatar does not take sides, he noted, but rather is concerned with providing a venue for dialog, and tries to use its good offices to facilitate negotiations and resolve differences. When asked about Qatar’s position on the Iranian nuclear program and the Qatari-Iranian relationship more broadly, he referenced these remarks about not aligning with regional blocks. Iran, he said, is Qatar’s neighbor and nothing can change geography while also highlighting the fact that the two countries share a major gas field. Qatar supports a peaceful, negotiated solution to the nuclear issue, he said while noting that there exist serious differences between Qatar and Iran over the situation in Syria.

Qatar’s position on Syria is straightforward, he said, noting that the root of the problem is the Asad government. Only by addressing the problem of the regime, he asserted, can situation in Syria and Iraq improve.

In response to a question about Qatar’s participation in the air campaign against ISIL, he elaborated that fighting from air will not solve the problems in Iraq and Syria. A political situation on the ground needs to be first. This is also the only solution to the plight of Christians in Syria he observed, who he said are an integral part of the regional mosaic. Again, he placed blame for the situation in Syria squarely with the Assad government. None of these terrorist groups, he said, existed prior to the war and they serve the interests of the regime. Syria needs a political solution with everyone at the table, even if they have to be forced to come to the table. This, the Foreign Minister stated, is in the interests of Assad’s international supporters such as Russia. Russian interests, he interpreted, are with Syria and not with Assad.

Turning his attention to the Arab Spring, Al-Attiyah suggested that Qatar played a positive role, helping to build more inclusive post-revolutionary social and political outcomes and sharing the principle of self-determination with the United States. Supporting the Arab Spring he argued was a moral duty, and without exception, Qatar supported every new regime coming out of the Arab Spring. Some in the region he said did not support these democratic processes and used Qatar as a scapegoat. He found that the international community has given up on the Arab Spring prematurely, noting it is unrealistic to think that transitions would occur so quickly and that these processes take time.

Replying to a question about the implications of the recent departure of some Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood officials from Qatar, the Foreign Minsiter claimed that this was their choice. They were not expelled by the Qatari government or asked to leave, but rather claimed that the Brotherhood leaders left because they wanted to get more directly involved in politics and did not want to embarrass Qatar. Clarifying his government’s position regarding Egypt, he said that Qatar’s support for Egypt has not changed. Qatar supports the Egyptian state, not any particular political party.

Addressing the matter of Palestine, the Foreign Minister stated that Palestine is the last remaining item on UN’s decolonization agenda and that Qatar is unwavering in its support for the Palestinians. Yet he also noted that Qatar is not blind to the need for dialog, reiterating Qatari support for the Arab Peace Initiative and the Qatari track record as an effective mediator in a number of conflicts. He highlighted the fact that Israel has had an official representation in Qatar, something he says is often overlooked. Answering a question about various terrorist groups the Foreign Minister was careful to differentiate between ISIL and Al-Qaeda on the one hand and Hamas on the other. He stated that Qatar considers Hamas to be a liberation group, not terrorists.

The lecture also touched on preparations for the upcoming 2022 World Cup and related controversies, with the Foreign Minister stating that Qatar can and will host the event, dismissing criticism over Qatar’s hosting the World Cup and cited the criticism as originating from those who cannot accept that an Arab-Muslim state will host such an event.

This event was co-sponsored by the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Near Eastern Studies, the Transregional Institute, the Workshop on Arab Political Development, and the Muslim Life Program.

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