Major conference brings together Qatari opposition for the first time
London- Qatar’s opposition in exile met under one roof in London to highlight its plight and grievances against the ruling government in Doha. Amid stringent security measures, policymakers, academics, media figures, as well as exiled Qatari nationals, discussed human rights, press freedom and counterterrorism as they pertain to the Gulf state.
The September 14 conference, titled “Qatar, Global Security & Stability,” was organised by Qatari businessman and opposition activist Khalid al-Hail. “What we are doing here today is making history,” he said in his keynote address.
Hail said he was one of many who have been detained and tortured by the regime in Doha but that he was fortunate enough to escape. “There are, however, many other honourable people who are still held in terrible jails. Some of their relatives are here with us today. They are here to say that time has come for change,” he said.
The event’s five sessions focused primarily on the opposition’s qualms about the policies of Qatar’s rulers, mainly their support for political Islam and radical groups suspected of ties to international terrorism and their relations with Iran, including shared foreign policy goals that are viewed by many in the region as sources of instability.
Doha’s human rights record, particularly as it relates to its bid to host the 2020 World Cup, and its controversial news channel, Al Jazeera, and whether it is a model for press freedom or just a medium for promotion of radicalism were also featured. Qatar’s efforts to boost economic and geopolitical influence was the subject of the final session.
Members of the panels included British career politician Lord “Paddy” Ashdown, British members of parliament Iain Duncan Smith and Daniel Kawczynski and former Deputy Mayor of London Roger Evans.
A number of former US officials were also in attendance, including Bill Richardson, who served as UN ambassador and energy secretary in the Clinton administration, and former deputy commander of US European Command General Charles “Chuck” Wald.
Speaking to The Arab Weekly on the sidelines of the conference, Wald emphasised that the current dispute in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was of paramount importance to the United States from a geopolitical standpoint.
“I think it’s the number one area we have to resolve,” Wald said.
In June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Doha over what they described as Qatar’s interference in their countries’ internal affairs and support for radical groups such as Hamas, the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood. Mediation efforts have yet to yield any tangible results.
“North Korea gets a lot of attention and it should because of the nuclear weapons, but from a standpoint of the most vexing and probably most important problem for us to solve from a Western standpoint, it is this Qatar issue with the GCC,” Wald said.
“This kind of distracts or detracts from the real issues, whether it is extremist groups in Syria or the Iranian issue with nuclear weapons, so [I] think it takes away from that. Qatar is part of the solution in the long term but right now it is problematic.”
During a panel titled “Al Jazeera: Free Press vs. Voice of Terror,” former Al Jazeera English International Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy highlighted the network’s methodology.
Fahmy told The Arab Weekly he attended the conference because there are a considerable number of Qataris living at home and in exile who want to see a better future for the country.
“One that respects press freedoms and human rights, a country that does not support militant and terrorist groups across the region that have contributed to the death of many innocent people, in Libya, Syria and other places and it is an opportunity to see why Qatar is a state sponsor of terrorism,” Fahmy said.
He said the international community should understand that Qatar has two faces.
“They will portray news on Al Jazeera English that is balanced and well presented, but on the other side on the Arabic- languagee channel they will produce the worst kind of journalism, that is laced with inflammatory rhetoric that supports terrorism and sedition and that is the problem the West is not familiar with,” he said, adding that Al Jazeera Arabic needs to be completely revamped.
The conference also shed light on the plight of the al-Marri tribe in Qatar.
Qatari opposition member Mohammed bin Jalal al-Marri, currently in exile in Saudi Arabia, highlighted the brutal manner in which the regime in Doha crushes any form of dissent.
Thousands of members of the al- Marri tribe have been displaced and are stateless, starting from crackdowns dating to 1996 and continuing as recently as this month, in which more than 50 members of the tribe have had their citizenship revoked.
“Members of our tribe who pledged allegiance to the previous emirs were tortured. They were made up of more than 200 military officers and were all thrown in prison,” al-Marri said at the conference, adding that his father was one of those military officers jailed for several years before having their nationality withdrawn.
Al-Marri also told the conference that Qatari authorities refused to grant him or members of his family permission to see his mother when she was dying of cancer in Qatar.
“She passed away because we could not reach her to help,” he said.