Fahad Al-Attiyah: We are still suffering a lot of damage as a result of the blockade
Qatari Ambassador to Russia Fahad bin Mohamed Al-Attiyah has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about the consequences of sanctions against Qatar, the normalization of relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Syrian crisis, and gas relations with Russia.Question: It‘s been a year and a half since the diplomatic crisis led to a blockade of Qatar by a number of its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. Has your country adapted to the new circumstances? How does the blockade affect the economic and financial situation in Qatar?
Answer: We are now adjusting ourselves to the new reality. The government has worked tirelessly since the blockade to ease the impact on the people directly and to make sure that negative consequences of social blockade does not impact day-to-day life of ordinary hard-working citizens and residents. But we are preparing ourselves that this will take a longer term before it is resolved.
That said we are still suffering a lot of damage as a result of this blockade. The separation of families, the fact that people in Qatar who have businesses or assets in the neighboring countries, cannot access them. The cost of flying – the airspace is blocked and our airlines have to take really longer routes and the disruption that this has caused to many passengers from all over the world. Maritime routes – the risks, the intimidation that our ships get from the blockading countries. The constant bombardment of their media against our leadership, against the symbols of Qatar which carries a lot of weight on the population. All of this has never stopped since June last year. This assault on our symbols, this assault on our country, this assault on our sovereignty still continues to this present day, and we are still paying a heavy price for it.
But the question is what the alternative is. There is no alternative for us. Either we live independently and freely in a mutually respectful way or we become a servile state to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. So we stand by the principles of the international legal system. We urged the international community to hold Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to account for the violations. And Qatar will continue to adapt to this reality, irrespectively of how hard it is, because the alternative option for us is to basically given in to bullying, give in to intimidation, give in to countries that will take the law into their own hands, and this is completely unacceptable.
Q.: The decision of Emir of Qatar not to attend the Arab Gulf summit in Riyadh – should we read it as a sign that a rift between Doha and three Gulf Arab states is unlikely to be resolved soon?
A.: We don‘t have to wait for a summit to solve a problem of this nature. I think it is clear that this summit is nothing but an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to whitewash its crimes, especially when it comes to Khashoggi. It‘s linked to that. My take on it is that the pressure that the international community has placed on Saudi Arabia especially in the aftermath of the Khashoggi forced Saudi Arabia to want at least cosmetically to extend itself to others. How can a leader of a country that is under blockade go to a summit to a country that is blockading it? Kuwait has acted as a mediating country, and if they really wanted to talk about the situation, they could have gone to Kuwait, a neutral country. But it shows again that they, the Saudis, wanted to demonstrate and flex their superiority and muscle by extending just a mere invitation. Like it‘s enough – that the Emir will jump on a plane and celebrate and go there, to a country that up until this very moment is still blockading Qatar, and still attacking Qatar. This is a complete absurdity and contradiction. If Saudi Arabia is serious about resolving the crisis which it started in a completely unprovoked fashion, through the proper channels either through the mediation of Kuwait or through choosing another place – then we would be happy to sit without any preconditions and engage into an open dialogue with them. We had sent our representative to the summit, because we value the [Gulf Cooperation Council] GCC as an organization, we still think it can serve its role, if it takes its proper position in the future – but we are not going to fall for these decoy tactics of the Saudis and the UAE by going to them when we are under blockade.
Q.: As to mediation, has Russia offered to help resolve the situation, as long as it has good relations with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia?
A.: I haven‘t been informed that Russia wants to actively be a mediator, but Russia will not, I believe, object to be a mediator if asked. But not only one party, all parties have to come to ask. The Saudis insisted that the issue should not be resolved with the help of anyone. Kuwait stepped in to act as a mediator, which we all accepted, and the leadership of Kuwait currently does that role and we are thankful to them for the effort, for taking such a big responsibility. In any event, be it Russia or others, we welcome. Russia has a very unique role in international relations and peace and security. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Upholding law and order at the international level is a part of Russia‘s responsibility. When there is a violation of the international legal system, somebody has to issue a ticket to that violation, just like when somebody is crossing red at the traffic light. And that is where, I believe, Russia can play a very constructive role by reminding all the parties not to violate the international legal charter that we all agreed on and we all signed up to and to resort to the mechanisms that exist within the international legal system to resolve any conflict.
Q.: Qatar and Saudi Arabia have long been considered to be involved in conflicts in the Middle East, Syria among others. Has the discord with Riyadh affected the Doha‘s position concerning the Syrian crisis and the future of Bashar al-Assad?
A.: Qatar is a small country that is reliant on trade for its existence. It is motivated to ensure that the region is safe and stable. It is not motivated to have a fractured region. When we engage in any way or form in any conflict that has a rise in the region, we engage with the intention that we want to resolve that conflict and we want to contain the fallout of it based on the understanding and knowledge that such consequences, if not contained may impact us and others.
What happens when people like al-Assad and others take a heavy-handed approach on dissent - they are the ones who should bear the responsibility for opening up their country for intervention of foreign forces, they should not blame the others. What others do is finding either an opportunity to come in and meddle and play in order to set their own agendas, and that is what happened with Syria, where a lot of foreign countries ended up finding Syria to be a playground in order to define a certain political outcome out of it, either to break up Syria, or cantonize Syria, or make Syria another Balkan.
We look at Russia as a major participant in this conflict, and the Astana process and the UN process are the processes that should be celebrated, supported, encouraged if they are there to stop bloodshed. But one has to ask a real question: can someone who has fractured his country in this way, who has under his responsibility 700,000 plus people died, 15 million people displaced, entire infrastructure destroyed, can that person really reunite the country? We just pose that question to our partners and friends and we want them to answer that, because from my point of view, we think that the answer is no. That person is the reason why we have this conflict, and therefore we are not there to decide on behalf of the Syrians who should they choose, but we are there to encourage those involved in the conflict to put together a very robust process fast enough, so that the Syrian can decide who can be their leadership.
Now, what Saudi Arabia does and how Saudi Arabia operates in the Syrian conflict, you should probably pose that question to them. We don‘t see that there has been a constructive role of Saudi Arabia from the beginning in the conflict, to be honest. And the change of the position that they had over and over again in Syria meant that they had no consistent policy on approaching the Syrian conflict and on also how to resolve it. It shows in whom they are supporting, the allies, the change of allies, the change of gear and the fact that they also tried to undermine Turkey which is a bordering country. It also was a cause for alarm.
Q.: What is your opinion of Iran’s role in Syria, do you approve of Tehran’s actions, that supports the Syrian government or do you have disagreements on the matter?
A.: Iran just like any other country has legitimate interests. We don‘t mind these legitimate interests to be protected. But what we mind is when they cross the line of legitimacy and when Iran starts, just like any other country, to entrench itself in a way that does not serve the Syrian interests, the Syrian people, when sectarianism becomes a policy in order to divide and control, and that is what we do not accept.
We think that Syria is for all Syrians irrespective of their ethnicity, religion and sect, and that is what Syria has been for decades. But it‘s easy to come and fracture tranquility by supporting one faction or another and stirring social havoc between different components of society. We urge Iran and others to reconsider their positions and really try to look at Syria, to look at what is good for Syria and the Syrians, first and foremost. We are happy to support Russia, Iran and others, Turkey, if they are genuine and sure about this and come to support Syria from that principle.
Q.: The political office of the Taliban movement is headquartered in Doha. Assuming that Kabul and Taliban come to an agreement to hold direct talks would your country provide a venue for such a meeting?
A.: Qatar takes its role in bringing peace and stability very seriously. One of the ways we do this is through mediation and we have not just done that in this instance, but also with Lebanon, South Sudan, with Darfur, with Libya and England – the Lockerby, in Yemen before the conflict we were mediators between different factions. And what we did with Taliban office falls within the same framework of thinking: there is this ongoing onslaught, conflict in Afghanistan between Afghans themselves and what we try to do is to provide them with a neutral platform for them to come and engage, with no interference. We will continue to be committed to facilitating dialogue between conflicting parties, doesn’t matter where it is.
Q.: Do you welcome the Russian role here, because Russia is also trying to mediate, with the talks in the so-called Moscow format?
A.: Yes, I saw that and we were very pleased that such an active role was taken by Moscow and we are happy to support that in whatever capacity we have.
Q.: Qatar has recently announced its intention to leave OPEC, saying that it wants to concentrate on gas production. Does this mean that Qatar will reduce oil production? I so then how big will this reduction be and over what period?
A.: The answer is no. Our oil production is really one of the smallest in the OPEC basket - it is about 650,000 barrels. If you compare that to other producers in OPEC, it is the smallest, one of the smallest to be honest. As this statement goes, we are one of the largest, in fact the largest LNG producer in the world, and that is where most of our focus is going to be, as stated by the Minister of State for Energy Mr. Saad Sherida Al-Kaabi.
We believe that OPEC has served its role, and perhaps what my personal analysis is that it has been politicized as an organization in the sense that we cannot see why oil prices dropped all of a sudden. Again I would not rule out the link between the oil price drop with the Khashoggi murder and the fact that the Saudis did that in order to win favors with the United States, especially with President Trump. I think that may have raised eyebrows all around the world, as to you have now impacted not only the interests of your own people by denying them revenue that should have gone to the Saudi treasury, but it also impacted the interests of all the oil-producing countries, including Russia, by taking such a step in order to save yourself. And probably our move out of OPEC was not completely on the consideration of whether we should focus on gas or oil – naturally we are a gas producer – but also because OPEC is in the process of becoming more of an instrument in the hands of few and not there to serve the interests of all.
Q.: What about the so-called ‘Gas OPEC‘? Now that the LNG market has been growing at a very fast pace, do you think this could come back to the agenda?
A.: There is a forum of exporting countries, which was founded by both Russia and Qatar and many other countries, which takes Doha and the Secretary General is Russian. I think it is there to support the interests of both producers and consumers of natural gas. As the gas market is growing you need a form of an organization to organize and provide a platform for cooperation between different producers.
Q.: The idea was to make such an organization similar to OPEC so that it controls and influences gas prices and the market...
A.: I am not familiar with how prices are done in the gas industry, but I don‘t think it is there to mimic OPEC as a cartel, no. I think it is there to create greater collaboration between the different producers and to understand what is needed in terms of – what the market needs in terms of technologies, investments, in order to facilitate access to energy.
Q.: I just wanted to know whether there is discussion going on at the moment about a new gas organization similar to OPEC.
A.: No, I have not heard and I don‘t think there is something of the type in the pipeline.
Q.: It was announced long ago that Russia‘s Novatek had reached an agreement with Qatar on the possible swapping of LNG. A memorandum was signed two years ago, but there has been no progress since then. Does Qatar have no interest in this? Has the memorandum expired? Do you consider Russia a direct competitor in this market, where there is no room for interaction?
A.: I don‘t know about the first part to be honest. If there has been a memorandum signed, I don‘t know, maybe there is cooperation. I am not familiar, so I cannot answer that question.
As to the second part of the question, whether we consider Russia as a competitor, I think we both produce the same commodity but in terms of LNG, Russia is not one of the largest LNG producers, it is one of the largest gas producers in the world. It is still developing its LNG production, and in that space we are all competing in the global market. But we have our own markets and the distribution of the market has been pretty much determined by infrastructure that was made historically. So, Russia has always been supplying its energy through pipes, and we‘ve started up with supplying our gas through ships. And it‘s two different formulas. When Russia utilizes its full potential and uses the same method of shipment like we do, then we will be in the direct competition space. But I don‘t see that this competition produces any kind of friction between us.
A.: Does the new Rosneft shareholder - QIA, have an obligation not to sell its stake for a certain period?
A.: I don‘t think so. This is a market deal. It depends on what the agreement stipulates. They are shareholders and I believe that they can sell their shares whenever they want or keep them as long as they want.
Q.: My last question will be about the World Cup. How have preparations for the World Cup been going on in Qatar? Did you see any positive things here in Moscow during this year World Cup that you probably would like to borrow?
A.: First, Russia has produced, I think, what everyone have so far stated the best edition of any of the World Cups. My congratulations. Second, that makes it harder for us to produce something better. But we are adamant that our edition will be even better. That said, that we looked at the Russian experience and we found a lot of things that we can learn from. We are already engaged with Russian entities and different groups who have made the Russian World Cup a reality. We are trying to get the experiences, pass on those to the people who are working on the delivering of our World Cup. I am pleased to say that one of our stadiums, I don‘t know if you know that, is built by a Russian construction company. That is also an important fact to raise, because as the legacy of your World Cup, now we have a Russian company building one of our stadiums. In terms of fan control, fan management, security, all of that, all the people who have worked in your World Cup are now actually engage with our people in trying to share with them some of the experiences. It‘s a great opportunity, it offers great chances for both Qatar and Russia to collaborate through.