US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) speaks next to Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Muhammad al-Attiyah at the opening session of the inaugural US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue at the State Department in Washington, US, January 30, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)
Qatar is facing challenges that require resolution before Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani opens the World Cup competition there on November 21, 2022. Vexing issues include the emirate’s involvement with Hamas in Gaza; how to end the Saudi-led Arab boycott of Qatar; and maltreatment of some two million migrant workers in the country who are needed for constructing the stadiums and other World Cup facilities.
When FIFA chose Qatar to host the soccer tournament, probing questions were raised both about its dismal human rights record – particularly the difficulties facing migrant workers, mostly from India and Nepal – and support for terrorism. On those two issues alone, I wrote four years ago, Qatar should have received a red card.
Qatar has been working hard to burnish its image, to ensure that World Cup 2022 will take place without controversy that could distract from the game. In November, the International Labor Organization (ILO) announced it was satisfied with Qatar’s actions. The emir’s pledge to eliminate the Khalifa system, a well-established practice that prevents migrant workers from leaving the country without their employers’ permission, and other promised reforms convinced the ILO not to establish a commission of inquiry to probe allegations of humanrights abuses.
But the president of the ILO Workers Group expressed skepticism. “Nice words and good intentions are not sufficient. Implementation of these intentions in law and practice is critical,” Catelene Passchier told Reuters. Indeed, abuses do not disappear overnight, and those NGOs and governments that have been monitoring labor conditions in Qatar will need to continue their efforts to press for real changes.
Last July, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE initiated an economic and political boycott of Qatar to get it to end its support for a certain type of radical Islam – the Muslim Brotherhood and its Gaza-based offspring, Hamas, and to disconnect from Iran and Turkey, which is part of the Muslim Brotherhood axis. They also called for reform of Doha-based Al Jazeera. Rejecting those, Qatar has found ways to import needed materials and supplies without using its only land link, which is blocked by Saudi Arabia.
Qatar, more than the other wealthy Arab states, has maintained close relations with Hamas. To date, Emir Al Thani is the only Arab head of state to have visited Gaza. He went in 2012. At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood that then ran Egypt facilitated his travels and made sure he was welcomed by Hamas leaders in Gaza. Two years later, Qatar pledged more than $1 billion for reconstruction of homes destroyed in the 2014 conflict between Hamas and Israel.
Since Egypt under President Abdel Fattah Sisi effectively closed the Rafah crossing and the Egypt-Qatar relationship is weak to begin with, Mohammed Al-Emadi, the head of Qatar’s reconstruction committee, has had to enter through the territory’s northern border, and that required cooperation with Israel. As also demonstrated by the visit of Oman’s foreign minister to the Temple Mount from Ramallah, incidents of cooperation between Israel and officials from Arab countries not yet at peace with Israel are not uncommon.
What was exceptional was the openness of the Qatari official.
“When you want to do work in Gaza, you have to go through the Israelis. Without the help of Israel, nothing happens,” Al-Emadi told the Associated Press.
Interestingly, Qatar has not been as generous in supporting Palestinian “refugees.” The Gulf emirate appears near the bottom of the list of donors to UNRWA, annually contributing only $1 million.
This is the kind of miserly contribution from a nation with significant financial capacity that led US President Donald Trump to warn recently that the US, traditionally accounting for one-third of the UNRWA budget of more than $1 billion, would reduce its contributions. And to prove his point, the last quarterly payment was sliced in half. It’s the kind of deed following rhetoric that gets people talking, and worried.
With UNRWA officials demanding urgent assistance to close the gap, several European countries have advanced their payments. Not so Qatar or any other Arab country. Apparently, brotherly love goes only so far.
Perhaps Qatar recognizes the sham that is UNRWA, which supports in perpetuity “refugees” who inherit that status and the accruing benefits generation by generation. Whatever the motivation, on his most recent visit in February, Al-Emadi came up against Palestinian protesters who threw shoes at his vehicle, ripped Qatari flags and damaged signs thanking Qatar for its financial aid.
The US has serious national security interests in the region and specifically in Qatar, where one of the largest American air bases is situated. Engaging this tiny country, barely double the size of Delaware, will require helping it address these issues.
Every effort should be made to resolve the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding Qatar’s duplicitous approach to Iran and its Arab neighbors, a unified Gulf Cooperation Council is essential to face the constant threat of Iran, which has designs on the smaller Gulf Arab states, has directed terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia both in the kingdom and in Washington, and is a prime regional menace.
Also, the US should press Qatar to leverage its relations with Hamas to press for an end to its conflict with the Palestinian Authority. Today, that seems impossible as the latest Fatah-Hamas reconciliation accord, like previous efforts, has not been implemented. But the peace plan being developed by the Trump administration will need to include Gaza.
The final day of World Cup 2022 was purposely chosen by Qatar to coincide with its main national holiday on December 18. Before any celebrations are planned Qatar will need to overcome significant hurdles.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.