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from issue no. 01 - 2007

A meeting with Ambassador Soltan Saad al-Moraikhi

Peace is an investment

Qatar has come to notice for the role played in the Lebanese crisis. But its diplomacy works at global level. Relations with the Christian community that within the year will have its first big church

by Giovanni Cubeddu

The emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa  al-Thani, with the Lebanese prime minister Fuad Siniora, 
visiting an area of Beirut destroyed by Israeli bombing, 21 August 2006

The emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, with the Lebanese prime minister Fuad Siniora, visiting an area of Beirut destroyed by Israeli bombing, 21 August 2006

At UN headquarters in New York, in the frantic days of the recent war in Lebanon, the tenacious efforts of the Qatar diplomats in seeking an alternative to the rockets and the bombs did not go unnoticed. And not only because on Aljazeera – the well-known TV station with its main studios in Doha, capital of the emirate – the conflict, so felt by Arab world opinion, was monitored minute by minute, but also because various factors, then as today, came together: the presence of Qatar on the Security Council doing its turn as non-permanent member, a wide ranging foreign policy, that accredits the small emirate at the chancelleries of western and eastern countries, and finally the farsightedness of the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who understood early enough that the oil and gas wealth of which he disposes make it easier for him to encourage solid democracy within his small peninsula and reach a better understanding of the dynamics of world politics. For Qatar, peace is an investment. Of course, not everything always keeps to the right track, not least because with the Council of Cooperation of the Gulf – the privileged arena in which the countries of the region come together and whose general secretary is from Qatar – quarrels are not lacking, in particular with Saudi Arabia. As there is no lack within the League of Arab Countries. But that’s business as usual.
Soltan Saad al-Moraikhi is back from a fruitful task: the visit to the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) of the Italian foreign minister D’Alema, in January, was a further step ahead in the traditional concern of Italian diplomacy for the Middle East. Al-Moraikhi is ambassador of Qatar in Italy, and before coming to Rome worked at the royal palace in the office of Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, son of the emir and crown prince, and previously in Washington and Houston. He can well explain to us, therefore, the pillars underpinning modern Qatar diplomacy.
«They are very firm national “basic principles” that take into account the needs and problems of the two communities to which we belong, the Arab and the Muslim», begins al-Moraikhi. «We always start from strengthening the direction taken by the Council of Cooperation of the countries of the Arabian Gulf and from the unity of the stance taken by the League of Arab Countries». And it is above all the stress placed on Arab and Muslim cooperation that, according to al-Moraikhi, entails for Qatar, «the need to make every possible effort to consolidate stability and security, particularly in our region, that is undergoing so many chronic problems: for example the crises in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Darfur. Stability and security are the makers of peace, but so also is working for the sustainable development of society and the economy».
It made news that Qatar was the first Arab State to send a contingent of three hundred soldiers for UNIFIL mission 2 (United Nations interim Force in Lebanon), following constant diplomatic commitment with action. That move also, according to al-Moraikhi, expresses a clear principle: «Qatar’s diplomacy has always worked to strengthen our ties with all the “brother” countries of the region as with those of the rest of the world, in the attempt to achieve peace and fulfil the aspirations of mankind in justice and stability. That naturally demands the need to respect international law and to seek a solution by pacific means to all the controversies and contentions wherever they break out. We follow this method, both within the UN – now at the Security Council – and in our daily individual diplomatic actions with the rest of the countries of the world».
Our interviewee believes that international law must be safeguarded especially on one question: that of Palestine. For Qatar diplomacy the latter is the architrave, a trump to play at every negotiations table. So both the al-Fatah of Abu Mazen and the Hamas of Khaled Meshal and Ismail Hanyeh get a hearing in Doha. But in al-Moraikhi’s answer the rending internal divisions among Palestinian factions are no reason for distraction from the single historical truth, and that is that «this problem has persisted for more than sixty years, and still nobody has been able to resolve it with a magic wand. The continual suffering of the Palestinian people, the insistence on the military option certainly won’t help find the right path for solving the question. The absence of an equitable solution has caused all the suffering that the Palestinian people are still going through and it is, we may say, unimaginable suffering. Many international resolutions exist, projects and peace plans, both before and after the Oslo Agreement. A range of positions exists… but we must not forget the continual suffering of the Palestinian people, that has of course led to the worsening and the multiplying of the conflicts in the Middle East». Then, since 2001 in particular, time has become tragically brief, the Middle East area is already strangling for breath and for al-Moraikhi «it is no longer acceptable, in any circumstances, to believe in provisional solutions or partial compromises, because they are not sufficient. The duty of the international community is to give priority to a just solution of the Palestinian problem according to international law».
The foreign minister of Qatar, Hamad bin Jassin bin Jabr al-Thani, with the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Ismail Haniyeh, in Gaza, 9 October  2006

The foreign minister of Qatar, Hamad bin Jassin bin Jabr al-Thani, with the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Ismail Haniyeh, in Gaza, 9 October 2006

Of the suggestions of the bipartisan American Iraq Study Group led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton – avoiding a policy focussed only on military force and in favor of opening negotiations with Iran and Syria – President Bush chose to go for the one which spoke of temporary military reinforcement in Iraq. We asked al-Moraikhi what distance now separates Doha from Baghdad, and what help Qatar wants and can give to a country that some people claim now has to be split in three to satisfy the various ethnic and religious factions at war. «We have never stopped our efforts to help our Iraqi “brothers”, either before or since the war», al-Moraikhi stresses. «That country is in a tragic condition in the full sense of the word: debating is going on among acts of violence that are daily taking the lives of dozens of its children. We are sparing no effort to back every sincere attempt so that Iraq may emerge from the tragedy it is living, and at the same time safeguarding security, unity and territorial integrity». In the ’eighties Qatar supported Iraq in the war against Iran, but in 1991 opposed the invasion of Kuwait. And in the latest Iraqi conflict, while holding to the decision of the Gulf countries to abstain from armed conflict, Qatar decided to cooperate with Washington, allowing the transfer to its own territory from Saudi Arabia of the American general command for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now in Qatar there are two American bases with a total of as many as 40,000 soldiers.
In Doha, therefore, they are well aware of the risks Teheran is willing to run for its active presence in Iraq, and the way it adds danger to the quarrel over Iran’s right to develop nuclear power. Apart from the UN sanctions, direct American retaliation and pressure on Europe from Washington to get it to adopt a hard line, there have also been threats made to Iran by Israel of possible heavy military action against the nuclear plants. And because Qatar has relations with Israel also (officially only of a commercial kind though that did not prevent Shimon Peres from visiting Doha in January), al-Moraikhi tries to describe how his country’s diplomats think they can handle such a literally explosive dossier. «Like the other countries of the Gulf, we are very geographically near Iran, therefore, for us, the problem is of maximum interest. The question of nuclear production is bound up with overall regional security and with that of all the countries singularly. In the Council of Cooperation of the Countries of the Gulf we have discussed Iran’s nuclear concerns and we have taken an absolutely clear political position on the subject. And that is, I repeat, we in Qatar are in excellent relations with all countries, above all with “brother” countries and with neighboring ones. In my view, the Iranian nuclear problem should be resolved by peaceful means and international dialogue with Teheran should be engaged in. The principal lines of our policy converge on the role of the United Nations in solving problems and divergences on a global scale, including nuclear problems: in fact an ad hoc UN international agency exists whose main task is regulating nuclear problems at planetary level».
It was no accident that at the Davos forum in late January, the general director of the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAAE), and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohammed el-Baradei, stated to the powerful of the world that «a pre-emptive attack on Iran would be catastrophic. It would serve only to strengthen the position of those who intend to manufacture a nuclear weapon».
Anyone walking round Doha might get lost among the numerous building sites and skyscrapers. Below the streets teem with the busy life of a population of less than nine hundred thousand, mostly composed of immigrants who hope to have found a lasting landfall in Qatar. The country’s rate of economic growth is dizzying, thanks to oil, natural gas (of which by 2010 Qatar may be the leading producer in the world) and foreign investment, drawn also by matchless financial services.
A Sunni country that has the sharia [The Islamic law ed.] as one of the principal bases of law – but a civil law under which all are equal – Qatar has municipal elections with universal suffrage, a national advisory council that one day might become a true parliament and a constitution that has been in force since 2005. All due to the present emir, from whom many hope for further concessions in terms of civic and religious freedom; though there is already total freedom of worship and, for example, the emir has given the Christians land on which to build new churches.
The emir of  Qatar with the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Doha, 27 September 2006

The emir of Qatar with the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Doha, 27 September 2006

How far will the emir go in this pursuit of liberty, Ambassador al-Moraikhi? «We have taken many steps on the road to democracy. We began with the vote on the new constitution, we have since gone on with the continual work of the Shura, that is the advisory council that meets regularly. Soon we shall make a qualitative leap in terms of popular participation in public activity, in the light of what has already been planned by his highness the emir, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani. Last year he himself gave a precise description of democracy in Qatar before the European Parliament… So, over the last ten years we have backed his highness in consolidating a basic principle of our country: respect for people, for their wishes, aspirations, role and identity. We are an Arab-Islamic country, founded on a tolerant culture and on an ancient civilization, a country that guarantees the fundamental freedoms to all. The proof is the presence of hundreds of thousands of citizens who belong to 130 different nationalities, who are received into a demographically minuscule state and who live tranquilly, though belonging to very different ethnic groups and religions... We have never had problems with them, either in the past or in recent times, thanks precisely to our traditional values, which we honor and maintain: such as respect and acceptance of the other, because we all, together, are members of the great human family».
The old Arabic poets sang of the horses, camels and robes that came from the small peninsula of Qatar, whose fabrics adorned the prophet Muhammad, his wife Aisha and his friend Omar ben al-Khattab as well. Pearl fishers and navigators, the people of Qatar, were also among the builders of the first Islamic navy in the time of the Prophet. But in Doha, a Muslim country, the Christians today have more than thirty places of worship and, before next Christmas, if the work goes as it should, the first large Catholic church will open. Thanks to the emir.

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