Doha Forum gives Tehran platform to navigate post-ISIS world

With 800 participants from 70 countries and 100 speakers, the forum was important and a symbolic gathering.

Amir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani speaks during Doha Forum in Doha, Qatar, December 15, 2018.  (photo credit: QATAR NEWS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Amir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani speaks during Doha Forum in Doha, Qatar, December 15, 2018.
Qatar’s Doha Forum has been criticized for providing Iran’s regime with a platform to push its agenda, including excoriating US policy. In gathering together Iran’s and Turkey’s foreign ministers, Qatari leaders, US Congressional Democrats and a plethora of other voices, the forum provided a place for discussions about the Middle East, as the region shifts from the ISIS threat to an Iran-US confrontation.
With 800 participants from 70 countries and 100 speakers, the forum was important and a symbolic gathering that did not include high-level US voices. Iran sought to exploit the forum. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said sanctions wouldn’t work and intended to portray Iran as a responsible country and victim of US policy. He also boasted about evading sanctions.
Qatar, the host, wanted to use the gathering to challenge the isolation it felt during the Gulf crisis when Saudi Arabia and its allies, such as the UAE, had chosen to blockade Qatar. Instead, the event showcased how Qatar is not isolated and how it has grown its alliance with Turkey and its outreach to Iran. This is a unique alliance that is increasingly a third alliance system in the Middle East, different from the Iran-led grouping of countries that oppose the US and the pro-US grouping led by Saudi Arabia. Qatar and Turkey have their own agenda that is more closely connected to political Islamic parties, and more critical of the US role in the region.
However, the forum itself portrayed Qatar as an oasis of stability in a region recovering from conflict. The Qatar Development Fund signed an agreement with the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, to support the UN with $16 million. That is a tiny figure, but a token symbolic contribution that shows Qatar wants to portray itself as helping refugees.
Qatar also signed a two-year agreement with UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, showing its commitment to Palestinians. Qatar has transferred $30 million to Gaza in recent months, part of a $90 million pledge. Other UN organizations, including the UNDP and UNICEF, came to the event and signed agreements or praised Qatar’s role. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gave a rousing speech, saying climate change and migration were major challenges, slamming multilateralism and urging a new hope for the world.
THE FORUM sought to cement a kind of meeting place between some far-right populist political Islamic voices and more left-leaning voices involved in issues in the region. It also was supportive of Palestinian issues. For instance, there was a panel on “Palestine, Syria and Yemen” organized by Brookings Doha.
 The Doha meeting was in contrast to the October Manama Dialogue conference. That Gulf confab was similar to the Doha Forum, but included a different set of diplomats from countries that are more critical of Iran and are closer to Saudi Arabia, and took place amid the recent visits of Israeli ministers to the UAE and Oman. As such, in Manama, Israel had been on the agenda in a more positive light. In Doha it was the opposite: Israel was portrayed as isolated, while countries such as Turkey and Iran that are harshly critical of Israel had the spotlight. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said that Palestinians had done everything to achieve peace. “We even recognized Israel as a state.”
Somalia sent a delegation that said terrorism could not be fought by military means alone. Mali also attended and signed an agreement with Qatar for support of environmental issues. Turkey, which has been singled out by the Committee to Protect Journalists as one of the world’s greatest jailers of journalists, spoke to the forum about “preserving freedom of expression” and claimed, “Turkey has restructured its policies to ensure a sound environment for journalists.”
In general, the Doha Forum accomplished what it sought out to do: give Qatar a platform to show itself off and network with powerful countries. China, for instance, discussed its Belt and Road Initiative. Qatar also sought to highlight humanitarian issues, inviting Nadia Murad, the Yazidi genocide survivor, and hosting discussions about drought in the Sahel region and refugees.
Qatar was also doing outreach to Congressional Democrats, sensing that after the US elections, Congress will now have a Democratic majority in the House, which could benefit Qatar. At least six Congressional Democrats attended, it was reported. This was criticized by some on the Right in the US, such as the Conservative Review, which called it a “clandestine weekend trip,” although it wasn’t clear how clandestine it was if they posed for photos while there.
The Security Studies Group slammed the event as featuring “terror supporters.” But Americans across the aisle came as well. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer spoke, as did GOP political strategist Rick Wilson, who tweeted that it was a real pleasure to attend and that “Qatar is a stunning, vibrant nation.”