Qatar has been facing serious meddling in its internal politics by its Gulf neighbours since 1996, the country's defence minister tells TRT World in this exclusive interview.
When the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain imposed an unprecedentedly harsh blockade on the small but influential state of Qatar, many commentators struggled to grapple with a feud that had seemingly come from nowhere.
Yet in reality, the roots of the attempts by Qatar's Gulf neighbours to put their free-spirited "little brother" in its place run very deep, as defence minister Khalid Bin Mohammad al Attiyah explained in this exclusive interview with TRT World's Soraya Lennie.
And the blockade may have forever changed the very nature of the Gulf Cooperation Council, he says.
In your view, where did this [dispute between the Gulf states] come from?
KHALID BIN MOHAMMAD AL ATTIYAH: I can assure you that it has been going on for a long time. It goes way back to 1996 when we faced such things. But at that time it was more nasty, it was most like, it was a hard coup at the time [the attempted Saudi-backed coup of 1996]. Then we faced similar things in 2013-14. I'm sure by now everyone knows what happened then.
The only thing that they don't know is that all the accusations against Qatar; against the Emir of Qatar [Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani] — that he is taking a policy that is against the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] — this is not true, for a simple reason: The Emir [came to] power on June 25, 2013.
At that time I was in the government, but on July 26 I became the minister of foreign affairs. And then we went to give the oath in front of His Highness, the Emir [Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani]. Days later, maybe in July, I received a phone call from my colleague in Kuwait. He was asking me "Khalid what's going on? What's wrong?"
I asked him, "Sheikh Sabah [al Ahmad al Jaber al Sabah], what's happening?" He says, "Well we received a complaint from Saudi [Arabia]." And I said, "Complaint about what?" And he says that Qatar is making trouble in the region and we have to come together quickly to solve this issue. And that was maybe 10 days after Tamim bin Hamad al Thani was in power. So that shows you ... that it is not about Sheikh Tamim [bin Hamad al Thani, the eighth and current Emir of Qatar]. [It isn't] about the attitude of the state of Qatar. It's about something which they insist on doing since 1996, until today.
And then suddenly we have come to 2017, when they decided to have this embargo and besiege Qatar from all directions; the three neighbours [Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates].
I think today we are facing the same situation which happened in Nicaragua in the 1980s, where they had to go to the ICJ [International Court of Justice, which awarded the Central American country reparations that it wasn't able to collect from the United States] and by the end of the day they managed to get their full compensation on that [although Nicaragua ended up withdrawing the case from the Court in 1991, giving up on trying to collect from the US]
I think this is one of the ways that we might get compensation against all the damages which happened to Qatar because of [the blockade and blockading] countries.
What is it about Sheikh Tamim that they don't like, you think?
KMA: I have said this before, I will say it today and I'll keep saying this, Sheikh Tamim is considered to be the beacon of enlightenment in the region. And I insist on this. This man has given us, given our children, the best education anyone can have, the best health standards. He raised the name of Qatar all over the globe.
We have engaged people in culture, we have the best sports events … So what [would] the citizenship want more than this good standard of living? And I think being a young and ambitious leader sometimes triggers [an allergic reaction from neighbouring countries], if I may say so.
We've seen considerable weapon-buying in the region. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been buying hundreds of billions dollars worth of weapons — particularly, of course, from the United States. We see a $12 billion arms deal also with the United States for Qatar. Do you think all of this buying of arms and weapons equates to a regional arms race?
KMA: No, not really, because all these defense contracts have been planned [before the feud broke out] ... For example, I'll speak about Qatar. The F-15 contract which I signed recently in the United States; this has been going on for the past two years.
And [as soon as] we got [the US] Congress's approval, we concluded [the deal]. So this is a contract which has been negotiated and studied for a long time. We have a common enemy; we have terrorism now, everywhere. We have an ally with us as we speak today about countering terrorism; we have the United States present here in Qatar. We have a lot of things to do together in this matter. And we want to depend on ourselves and we want to depend on our armed forces, because this enemy is unconventional ...
Who do you see, or which state do you see, as the biggest threat to Qatar's sovereignty?
KMA: You cannot pinpoint a finger to a state or to a direction. The thing we should do is to prepare ourselves to be ready for the unexpected.
The United States has a very important military facility here. Around 11,000 of its troops [are posted in Qatar, and are] very key to US security and [to] its role in combatting terrorism in the region. Now we've heard for a long time that the UAE wants to, has been lobbying to move that base there. Donald Trump [on July 12, 2017] was asked about this very thing. And he said "If we ever had to leave, we'd have ten countries willing to build us another one. We're not going to have a problem with a military base. But if we need another military base you have other countries that would gladly build it." Are you concerned the US could actually move the base?
KMA: I'd like to answer you in two parts. First of all, I'm not surprised that the UAE is working to get the base out of Qatar. Yes, it is painful when you hear that your so-called "brothers" working to sabotage your reputation and wanting to take the American base out of Qatar. But let me assure you [about] something. Our relation with the United States, especially in defense, is a strategic one. When we are fighting with our men and women in Qatar to combat terrorism, when we are busy doing this for the whole world and for the stability of the region, we find voices like this [rise] from time to time. But I assure you that our relationship is strong; our relationship is [both] a historical one and a strategic one with the United States.
You speak of your "brothers" in the GCC. And the "unfortunate moves", as you say, that they have been, or some of them, have undertaken to undermine Qatar's position in the world. And this has been going on for several years now. We know that Qatar is a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. So why did Qatar join that coalition?
KMA: We are ... a member of the GCC and at [the same] time, we have our own opinion on how to solve the situation in Yemen. We always believe in dialogue. We always believe in development as the shortest way to solve issues such [as] the one in Yemen. And people when they start to find hope, they can forget about extremism. But unfortunately, we find ourselves obliged to join the coalition. And we've never been inside Yemen by the way; we've been defending the border of Saudi ... But after the recent aggression on Qatar, they asked us to leave the border of Saudi Arabia, which we did, and all our soldiers are back.
Many people say, including the United Nations, that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for the majority of civilian deaths in Yemen; this coalition which previously included Qatar. We've had congressmen and senators in the United States, including Ted Lieu, call this a "war crime." Do you see that Qatar is somehow responsible for this crisis in Yemen now?
KMA: I think looking into the role of Qatar very closely, even by an investigative authority, I think you'll find out that we've never been engaged in any operation which comes near or in a field of operation where there [are] civilian deaths.
Totally off topic. I am shifting gears. The Turkish military base. Is this a point of a discussion [between the Gulf states] or not?
KMA: Well, it's one of the 13 points which popped up. We were asked to close the Turkish base. But unfortunately, we did not choose the time to attack, besiege and boycott Qatar. They [the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis] chose the time. They can not come and ask us to close the base which everybody knows about for long time back. This should be considered a relation between two countries; two sovereign states.
It has been one year since the attempted coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016. So how close do you think that Qatar was to [experiencing] the sort of situation happening here?
KMA: I think we were watching the scene very closely. His highness the Emir was the first to call President Erdogan that day. We have a gut feeling that — if I may say so — Qatar would be the next somehow because the position Turkey and Qatar take is an honoured position with the [oppressed people] around the world. We felt that we might be the next target.
In the midst of this crisis from the beginning, you saw Turkey springing to action sending aid, food, and whatever it could [offer], the same as Iran. So what's [Qatar's] relationship with Iran now? Has it changed? Has it improved, because of course, this is one of those 13 demands?
KMA: When we come to the relationship between Iran and Qatar, if you look around us [and our] neighbours, who boycotted and besieged Qatar, they have [far more extensive] relations with Iran than Qatar does. If you come to trade, they have billions of billions of dollars [of trade] with Iran. If you talk about the Iranian presence [in their countries], hundreds, thousands of them [are living there]. The matter is, at the end of the day, not about having relations with Iran or not because they have better relations with Iran. But in this crisis Iran did reach out to us, especially [regarding] the food supply, and this is the only way we have [to get food].
Lastly, going back to the GCC, is the GCC as we know it dead? And could things ever return to the way they were?
KMA: If you had asked me this question before June 5, I would have said "The GCC is there." But today it is not [for] me to answer you. I don't have the mandate to answer you. The answer for this question is only in the hands of the Qatari people.
If they say "We want to leave the GCC" would you say "Okay"?
KMA: I don't have a say on this today. This is for the Qatari people to decide.