Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jabr Al-Thani has been foreign minister of Qatar since September 1992, during which time he has overseen both a dramatic expansion of Qatar's foreign relations and an equally remarkable heightening of its profile. Sheikh Al-Thani was born in 1959 and began his government career in 1982. Since then, he has filled a wide range of positions in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture, the Ministry of Electricity and Water, and the Emir's Special Projects Office. Daniel Pipes interviewed him in New York on September 26, 1996.
"FRIENDLY RELATIONS WITH ALL"
Middle East Quarterly: Qatar is one of the smallest countries in the world and yet, in recent years, it has had an active, even daring foreign policy based on the notion of "good relations with everybody."1 How did this come to be?
Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jabr Al-Thani: Qatar is indeed one of the smallest countries in the region. As such, our goal is to have friendly relations with all and run our country without interference. Being a friend to everybody, I might note, is a very difficult mission, but we are on our way. We have military cooperation and friendship with the United States and the European states. We have good relations with Iran. We have normal relation with Iraq. When people ask us "Why do you help Iran and Iraq?," we reply, "They are our neighbors." We have to have an understanding with our neighbors that there will be no interference in our internal affairs. We cannot afford to have enemies.
MEQ: But you cannot afford to be on your own either.
Thani: Of course. By being friends with all, we are not alone.
MEQ: But, in a crisis, don't you worry about being stranded?
Thani: No. We know our limitations, what we can and cannot do. If we have good relations with all the big countries in our area, we are safer.
I cannot tell you all the relations are alike; no, there are different levels. We cooperate militarily with the United States but not with Iraq or Iran. Still, we have good relations with the latter. I know where I should have better relations and where just normal relations. But even normal relations will spare me in a crisis.
If Americans ask me to join in their policy of dual containment, I will refuse. We cannot do this because it is not in our favor, nor in that of the region. We have a water border with Iran and must have good relations with it. I cannot afford any clashes.
MEQ: That's better for you than being solidly aligned with one side?
Thani: What does solidly mean? History shows that no enemy remains hostile forever, nor do friends remain friendly forever. For that reason, we intend to have normal relations with all. Of course we will have a solid tie to the United States. That means that as a friend, we should tell Americans, "This is right, this is not." It is not even in America's favor that I follow it blindly for, as the Arabic proverb goes, "It is better to have a clever enemy than a stupid friend." The Americans need somebody who can give advice as a friend, someone who knows the region better because it is there.
MEQ: Your foreign policy concentrates on diplomacy; you seem not terribly worried about the kind of regime in Iran or Iraq, the possible aggressiveness of the regime, or its ideological goals.
Thani: No, we're not. The type of regime is not our business. We don't want them to interfere in our affairs and we stay out of theirs. Let the people there decide whom they want.
MEQ: But they can't.
Thani: I know. But if they cannot decide, we cannot decide for them. As long as they don't interfere in our affairs, they can have any kind of regime.
MEQ: Is invading Kuwait an interference in your affairs?
Thani: Of course. That's why we fought in the war against Iraq.
MEQ: Isn't it likely that Saddam Husayn will try to take Kuwait again?
Thani: He might. If he does, we will do what we did the first time.
MEQ: In the meantime, shouldn't you do your best to make it difficult for him to invade Kuwait -- or some other state -- again?
Thani: We don't agree with Saddam on all points. Our dialogue with him does not mean we have
excellent relations. We believe he has to implement the United Nations resolution. Other issues are not our business. I prefer always, even with an enemy, to maintain a dialogue.
MEQ: Aren't you in fact supporting Saddam Husayn?
Thani: No, we are not.
MEQ: You have diplomatic relations and send economic aid ...
Thani: We have diplomatic relations but we don't support him.
MEQ: But at this point isn't that a form of support?
Thani: No. We also have relations with Israel, even though we have problems with Israel.
MEQ: When you said recently that "leadership in the Gulf region is for Saudi Arabia,"2 are you calling on Saudi Arabia to become stronger than Iraq and Iran?
Thani: Saudi Arabia is leader of the GCC countries. It's good to have a leader, otherwise we argue too much. I'm looking to see Saudi Arabia as the region's strongest power because we historically have the best relations with it; and they treat us as equals.
MEQ: The United States and Qatar have been negotiating an agreement to pre-position American equipment sufficient for an armored brigade on Qatari territory. The sharing of costs has been a problem, however, as Washington wants you to pay essentially all the cost. Isn't that reasonable, given that the troops protect you?
Thani: Qatar and the GCC do engage in "burden-sharing" to defend the Gulf; American troops are not just protecting us. In any case, Protecting Qatar is in the interests of the United States, Europe, Japan, and others. We provide the land, we accept pre-positioned equipment. Furthermore, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries,3 unlike some oil-producing countries that seek to cut the production of oil to raise the price to $60 or even $70 per barrel, we chose to be on the moderate side and make oil available in abundance at a very reasonable price. The difference in price between $20 per barrel (current prices) and $70 per barrel (what other oil-producing states would like) is another form of our contribution.
MEQ: Do American forces in Qatar, and in the Gulf more generally, stabilize the region by acting as a deterrent to Iraq and Iran; or are they destabilizing because as in Saudi Arabia ...
Thani: They are a stabilizing factor in the area. The American presence is a necessity and is appreciated by the GCC countries.
MEQ: What would happen were U.S. forces reduced as a result of incidents such as the two explosions in Saudi Arabia?
Thani: That's dangerous for both sides. The United States leads the world and that means having to pay a price. But the burden should not be America's alone. All the European and Asian countries that gain from the oil should share the burden.
MEQ: You would welcome their soldiers?
Thani: As in the liberation of Kuwait, the world has demonstrated that they stood by the international legitmacy. But by virtue of its position as the sole superpower, the U.S. has a vital role. Not their soldiers -- just their money. The United States should handle that side, the others should help support its effort.
A "FAIR" PRICE FOR OIL
MEQ: You mentioned that the GCC states are keeping the price of oil at $20 rather than at $60 as a favor for the West. But it is also in your long-term interests to keep the price down; otherwise you lose market share. As we learned in the 1970s, if the price goes up precipitously, consumers abandon petroleum, new wells are dug, and you get hurt.
Thani: Of course. We have to give the industrial world oil at a reasonable price, and we have been doing that. For twenty years we have paid a price for not increasing the cost of oil. The invasion of Kuwait was part of that price; you remember that Saddam at the beginning complained about Kuwaiti efforts at keeping the price of oil down, and how this hurt Iraq.
At the same time, we need a fair price for oil. A few years ago it was down to $10-$11 a barrel, which is not fair for us.
MEQ: Not fair?
Thani: Not fair because it's too low. Calculate today's reasonable price in real terms and you'll see that it's less than the price during World War II.
MEQ: What's that have to do with any thing?
Thani: Because there's inflation in Europe and in our country; we gain less income than before.
Further, the industrial states are taxing oil, which makes the consumer's price go up. They talk about saving the environment but that is just an excuse, as proven by the fact that Germany and other European countries subsidize coal, which does more damage to the environment, than oil.
MEQ: True enough, but we don't understand the notion of a fair price. Oil -- like flowers or rugs -- is sold at a price negotiated between seller and buyer; there is no such thing as a "fair" price.
Thani: If the price went up to $60 or $100 a barrel, we could put together great reserves of money. We have foregone that surplus. If the price of oil goes up, it will hurt the West more than us.
MEQ: But it will hurt you as well.
Thani: Of course but not much. I have to sell oil anyway.
By the way, it is also in the West's interest to establish a fair price. If the price is too low, it pays the price two ways. First, there is no new exploration, creating the likelihood of a shortage and price increases in the future. If the price is $10 a barrel, there will be no exploration for five to ten years and before you know it the price will be $100 per barrel. Second, we lose our buying power as consumers, creating economic problems for the United States and Europe.
In contrast, a fair price, not too high or low, means that the West and we are both fine. That fair price is around $22 a barrel. Note that I am not saying $40.
MEQ: You have said that "the blockade against Iraq harms us as an Arab nation"4 and it sounds like you are calling for an end to the embargo.
Thani: The embargo harms the twenty million Arab people of Iraq. We shouldn't squeeze them so hard or the children will grow up to be our enemies. The problem is not with the population but with the leadership. We have to save the Iraqi people as Arabs and as human beings.
MEQ: So, end the embargo?
Thani: End the embargo. It served no one well, neither us nor the United States. It hardly touched the leadership.
MEQ: True, the leaders live well. But they lack the means to build an arsenal and an armed force as they used to.
Thani: They do not need to build an army. They still have plenty left over from before.
MEQ: But the Iraqi state is undoubtedly weaker than it would be without the embargo.
Thani: Of course, but it's not in our favor, or the American, to make Iraq weaker than it presently is. It's critical to maintain a balance between all the big countries. If this balance collapses, the United States might have trouble with another country -- though I don't want to mention names.
MEQ: Did the U.S. forces stop too soon in the Kuwait war?
Thani: No. Our first priority was to liberate Kuwait; we have Kuwait back and that's it.
MEQ: But what about the possibility of another invasion? If that's a possibility, then the war did not fully succeed.
Thani: I agree, but there would have been no alliance left if U.S. troops had invaded Iraq.
MEQ: According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal,5 ships trying to smuggle contraband to and from Iraq sneak into Qatari waters. Is this something you are aware of? What steps are you taking to prevent them from doing so?
Thani: That's not right. We comply with all United Nations resolutions. We send human-being aid to Iraq but always with U.N. permission. We never, ever, accept anything outside the United Nations resolution.
MEQ: You have said that Qatar believes "in maintaining good relations with Iran."6 Does this mean you are willing to invest in Iran and thereby go against the Gilman-D'Amato Bill?
Thani: We have one of the largest single gas fields in the world and plan to invest in our own country for the moment.
MEQ: Iran offered to send thirty thousand troops to Qatar after last year's coup attempt, then urged Qatar to import much of its fresh water from Iran in a pipeline under the Gulf. Is this an Iranian attempt to gain influence over Qatar?
Thani: We don't see it that way. If somebody gives me his hand, I will not look at him with suspicion. The idea of a water pipeline is still being studied.
MEQ: Qatar's territorial waters include the North Field, which, with some 380 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas, is the world's largest gas reserve that is not part of an oil field. This field lies partly in Iran, which is developing what it calls the South Pars field. Do you and the Iranians coordinate your activities there?
Thani: No, we handle our side of the border and they do so on theirs.
MEQ: Iran has insisted on developing its part of the gas field first and faster, which we understand as an Iranian effort to pressure Qatar to cede more income from the field to Iran; is this correct?
Thani: I don't think so.
MEQ: Do you worry about an Iranian seizure of your part of the gas fields?
Thani: I don't worry about that.
MEQ: There's much oil and gas activity these days in Qatar. The new Al-Rayyan offshore oil field begins producing in a few days. The first liquified natural gas will be loaded on ships in December 1996. The Al-Khaleej field should begin producing in early 1997. The North Field can be developed before long. Is it correct to say that Qatar has the brightest financial picture in the Gulf?
Thani: Yes, we have a bright future. By the year 2000, Qatar will be one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
MEQ: Have you learned lessons from the 1970s? Will you use this money differently from that of the last economic boom?
Thani: Yes, we learned a lot. The budget is now 50 percent less than it was then, even though projects are bigger, the population larger, their needs greater, and inflation higher. Our people learned about discipline; they also know that there will be good days and bad days and that we must prepare for the bad days.
MEQ: Does this advantageous position create security problems for a small and vulnerable state such as Qatar in the middle of powerful states with economic difficulties?
Thani: No. If you like your brother and he's prospering, you'll be pleased for him.
MEQ: Qatar's OPEC quota is 378,000 barrels per day, you now produce 480,000 barrels per day, and outside observers foresee a daily output of 700,000 barrels per day in four years.7 Do you worry about the impact of your production on the price of oil?
Thani: Our 200,000 barrels, if it's that much, will not cause OPEC or the price of oil to collapse.
MEQ: Have you paid a price for your opening to Israel, either in domestic or international terms?
Thani: Yes, we have paid a price. The Netanyahu government put us in a difficult position; we've been blamed for its policies that every day for no reason create problems. We Qataris always have problems because of our relations with Israel. If we lose the peace process, we might see a war different from prior wars -- not a war of governments but of peoples. We cannot hold our position much longer if Israel does not give us something in our hand. We are still willing and we are hoping that the Israelis will think again and realize that there is no solution other than going forward with the peace process.
MEQ: Qatar has signed an agreement to sell billions of dollars worth of gas to the Enron Corporation, which will market it to Israel. When do you expect the first gas actually to reach Israel?
Thani: By the end of 1996, when all the studies are finished.
MEQ: Does your government support what is the largest joint Israeli-Arab economic project under discussion at present, a facility for liquefied natural gas probably located at Aqaba?
Thani: We do support this as part of the peace process.
MEQ: On June 26, 1995, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani took power from his father, Sheikh Khalifa. His father has not accepted this situation and still hopes to return to office. Please assess this situation.
Thani: Of course his father has his own views; that's normal. But the key is what the people of Qatar want.
MEQ: What is that?
Thani: The people want Sheikh Hamad. Also, the family accepted Sheikh Hamad. It was a consultation, a shura, and it's been announced and all the world agreed with the change.
MEQ: We have heard via D Nassif from a "Lebanese dignitary" who heard it from the emir of Qatar that the Syrian government in late 1995 enlisted Lebanese Druze mercenaries to invade Qatar from across the border to topple the emir and restore his father. Is this report accurate?
Thani: There is a story but this one is not accurate. We officially acknowledged interference from other countries without naming them. We would like to go beyond those past problems. Everyone should understand that Qatar is not the Comoros Island where you can send a few mercenaries to do the job of changing governments.
MEQ: What about the fact that several GCC states permit the ex-emir to visit and make public statements about his plans to return to power?
Thani: Some of the GCC countries overreacted. By now, most -- but not all -- of the GCC countries understand that this is a Qatari affair and have withdrawn from this matter.8
MEQ: Terrorism and violence are an increased problem in your region -- two major bombings in Saudi Arabia, extremist violence in Bahrain, an Islamist group in Oman, including some army officers, planning a coup. Are you in Qatar worried?
Thani: No. The situation in Qatar is completely secure. The government has very close relations with everybody in Qatar. The families are very close.
Fundamentalists, whether Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, present unacceptable ideas. We live in a modern world in which we need to respect each other.
MEQ: What's the best way of dealing with religious fundamentalism?
Thani: Through negotiations. We shouldn't make war on these people unless they resort to violence. If they talk, fine, we will talk with them and if they have a good idea, we will accept it. But if they kill, they will be severely punished.
MEQ: The Egyptian Islamist Yusuf al-Qardawi serves as director of the Center for Sura and Sunna Studies at Qatar University ADL 186 and is undoubtedly the best known Qatari-based intellectual outside your country. He is also a leading exponent of violent jihad against Israel and an outspoken anti-Semite, making such statements as: "The hour of judgment will not come until the Muslim fight the Jews and kill them." He calls for an Islamist revolution in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen.9 His writings are deemed so offensive in the West that one book was banned by the French authorities. Why does your government permit him to remain in Qatar?
Thani: Qardawi has been in Qatar for many, many years and we respect him. A few weeks ago, I saw Qardawi on Orbit, an Arabic satellite channel, where he was on for three hours. It was an excellent interview. He said positive things about Jews and Christians; I agreed with what he had to say. He also speaks very well. I'm surprised about some of the things you said about Qardawi; they're not all true.
MEQ: The quote about killing Jews, for example, is from the videotape of a conference in Detroit in December 1993.
Thani: I didn't know what he said in Detroit but I can tell you that from what I know he doesn't believe in killing.
MEQ: He's a moderate?
Thani: Yes. He knows that in Qatar if a crime is associated to a religious leader, we will go after the religious leader.
MEQ: If you find him connected to violence, he would be out of Qatar?
Thani: I cannot say that, but only give you my judgment. But I don't believe that Qardawi would be implicated in something like this.
MEQ: But if he were?
Thani: I believe in dialogue when he does the same. You cannot just expel a man of religion but you must negotiation with him. It's not a mercenary or a servant whom I can send out of the country if I don't like him. We respect our religious people and would look for a way to manage the problem and make it possible for him to stay.
1 Al-Watan al-'Arabi, July 26, 1996.
2 PETRA-Jordan News Agency, July 8, 1996.
3 Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman.
4 PETRA-Jordan News Agency, July 8, 1996.
5 Mark Yost, "While Saddam Plots, His People Suffer," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 11, 1996.
6 Al-Watan al-'Arabi, July 26, 1996.
7 Reuters, Sept. 11, 1996.
8 According to subsequent reports, Sheikh Hamad managed to freeze the bank accounts of his father, leading to a "cease-fire" between the two sides and his father's return to Qatar in October 1996, where he became the country's "elder statesman" (Time Magazine, Nov. 4, 1996).
9 Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA) conference, Detroit, Mich., Dec. 1993.