Qatar’s Doha Forum gives Iran a platform in post-ISIS Middle East

A variety of voices from the far-right to left met in Qatar, as the Middle East is increasingly divided.

US journalist Robin Wright (L) speaks while seated with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, during a session of the Doha Forum in the Qatari capital on December 15, 2018. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
US journalist Robin Wright (L) speaks while seated with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, during a session of the Doha Forum in the Qatari capital on December 15, 2018.
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
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 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 US-Iranian confrontation.
With 800 participants from 70 countries and 100 speakers, the Forum was important and it was 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 Forum to challenge the isolation that it has felt during the Gulf crises in which 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 also its outreach to Iran. This is a unique alliance that is increasingly a third alliance system in the Middle East, different than the Iran-led grouping of countries that oppose the US, and the pro-US grouping that is led by Saudi Arabia. Qatar and Turkey have their own agenda, it is one that is more closely connected to political Islamic parties, and also one that is more critical of the US role in the region.
However the forum itself portrayed Qatar as a kind of oasis of stability in a region recovering from conflict. The Qatar Development Fund signed an agreement with UNHCR to support the UN with $16 million, a tiny figure, but a token symbolic contribution that shows Qatar wants to portray itself as helping refugees. Qatar also signed a 2 year agreement with UNRWA, 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 UNDP and UNICEF, came to the event and signed agreements or praised Qatar’s role. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres gave a rousing speech claiming that 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- a Gulf confab similar to the Doha Forum, but including a different set of diplomats from countries that are more critical of Iran and are closer to Saudi Arabia- which took place amid the recent visits of Israeli ministers to the UAE and Oman. As such, at 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 Erakat, the Palestinian negotiator, said that Palestinians had done everything to achieve peace. “We even recognized Israel as a state.”

In general the Doha Forum accomplished what it sought out to do, giving 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 also hosting discussions about drought in the Sahel, and refugees.
Qatar was also doing outreach to Congressional Democrats, sensing that after the US elections the Congress will now have a Democratic majority in the House and this could benefit Qatar. According to reports at least six Congressional Democrats attended. This was criticized by some on the right in the US, such as 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. Security Studies Group slammed the event as featuring “terror supporters.” But Americans across the aisle came as well. Sean Spicer spoke and Rick Wilson, the GOP political strategist, tweeted that it was a real pleasure to attend. “Qatar is a stunning, vibrant nation.”