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Qatar’s key role in peace building in focus at Doha Forum

Discussions at this year's event centered on Israel's actions in Gaza, with a strong focus on the urgent need for a ceasefire

Qatar’s key role in peace building in focus at Doha Forum
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

This year’s edition of the Doha Forum, held on 10-11 December, centered on “Building Shared Future”, understandably focused on the ongoing Israeli military aggression in Gaza. 

Established in 2003 as a platform for global dialogue with about 140 participants, the annual event has expanded significantly, inviting over 1,000 foreign delegates this year. With the forum handling travel and accommodations of the delegates, there is a considerable financial investment. More importantly, it demonstrates substantial diplomatic investment.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Amir of Qatar, was present on day one to present an award to Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Founded in 1949 to assist 750,000 Palestinian refugees escaping Zionist assaults, the UNRWA now has responsibility for 5.9 million refugees. Entirely dependent on voluntary contributions, UNRWA is short of money. Numerous speakers expressed concerns over the prevalent ‘donor fatigue’.

Qatar’s conflict-resolution diplomacy

Qatar has been active in conflict-resolution through diplomacy for decades. Qatar’s recent mediation efforts eventually led to the declaration of a limited ceasefire by Israel, enabling the release of over 100 hostages held in Gaza and a larger number of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

In 1995, Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, the then Qatari Amir and grandfather of the current Amir, wanted to host talks between India and Pakistan on Kashmir. He told the visiting minister of state from India that the two delegations would remain locked in a palace till they sign an agreement to be referred to their respective governments. India politely declined the offer.

Under the current Amir’s leadership, Qatar has made substantial strides in proactive diplomacy. Notably, Qatar facilitated talks between the Taliban and US, leading to the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan. More recently, Qatar brokered an exchange of detainees between Washington and Tehran, releasing $6 billion of Iran’s  assets frozen by Washington in South Korea.

Qatar skillfully managed the 2017 blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, effectively exposing false allegations of financing terrorism. Previously, in a strategic move in 1996, Qatar had bolstered its own security by inviting the US to set up the Al-Udeid Air Base, now the largest American base in the region.

In short, peacebuilding is an integral part of Qatar’s diplomacy. A factor that has helped Qatar in this matter needs mention. The Amir, ministers, and senior officials all speak fluent English, eliminating the need for interpreters while speaking to foreign interlocutors. The current prime minister and foreign minister, 43-year-old Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, spoke without any teleprompter when he was asked rather tricky questions by a prominent anchor from Al Jazeera. This is unlike the 1990s, the time I was posted in Qatar, when they would almost always need interpreters because they chose to speak in Arabic, partly because not all of them were comfortable in English.

Al Jazeera and its origins

If there is any channel in the Global South that can compete with BBC and CNN, it is Al Jazeera, a part of Qatar’s diplomatic outreach. I was in Doha when Al Jazeera was born in 1996, and the story of its origin might interest the readers. 

Saudi Arabia and the BBC initially agreed to set up a news channel, with Riyadh providing funding and the latter holding editorial responsibility. Riyadh later had second thoughts and wanted some say in editorial decision-making. The BBC refused and the channel failed to take off. The news staff from the BBC who had just joined the new joint venture found themselves unemployed. Qatar seized the opportunity and started Al Jazeera, employing them.

Gaza and Israeli aggression

At this year’s Doha Forum, the United Nations was prominently represented, featuring Secretary General Antonio Guterres who delivered two speeches – one in person and the other virtually.

Guterres emphasized his unwavering commitment to pursuing a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. He had earlier utilized Article 99 of the UN Charter to call for a session of the Security Council. During this session, a resolution proposed by UAE advocating for a ceasefire and the release of all hostages was vetoed by the US. Out of 15 members in the Security Council, 13 voted in favor of the resolution, while the United Kingdom abstained. 

Washington’s veto and its decision to provide Israel with ammunition came in for sharp criticism. 

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, got a loud applause when he said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not stop unless US President Joe Biden signaled the ‘costs and consequences’ of Israel’s brazen violation of the Geneva Conventions over the indiscriminate killing of civilians. He received another applause when he referred to the ‘lip service’ rendered to ‘the two-state solution.’

“If Washington and London are serious about that solution, all that they must do is to recognize the State of Palestine as over 140 other member-states have done,” he said.

China’s prominent presence and India’s absence

Apart from Arab nations, China had a visible presence at the Forum. Dr. Huiyao Wang, the president of the Center for China and Globalization, chaired and was a panelist at a few sessions. Sri Lank’s Finance Minister Ali Sabry spoke on international finance, and ministers from Bangladesh and Nepal were also present, although they did not address the Forum. 

India’s presence, however, was rather modest. There were half a dozen individual invitees from India, but no speaker.

It needs to be pointed out that India, the voice of the Global South, could have been more proactive. It may be the case that Qatar did not take the initiative to invite any ministers from India. That should not have prevented the Indian diplomacy from subtly asking for an invitation. Even on earlier occasions there was no minister from India. It was noted that when Dr. Wang spoke about China’s good will for the South and its keenness to collaborate with the South for mutually beneficial economic progress, he was listened to with respect.

The Q&A with political leaders

The Forum’s logistical arrangements were seamless. There were   interviews with political leaders  by renowned journalists like Al Jazeera’s James Bay and CNN’s Becky Anderson. Interviewing Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Bay tried to draw a parallel between Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Netanyahu’s aggression in Gaza. Lavrov,73, with his experience of 10 years   in New York as permanent representative and 19 years as foreign minister easily outwitted Bay.  Lavrov explained at length how Russia’s attempts at a diplomatic resolution were thwarted by Washington. He added that in March-April 2022 Ukraine had reached an agreement with Russia at talks in Istanbul, agreeing to abandon attempts to join NATO. That agreement, Lavrov told an appreciative audience, was torpedoed by Washington and London. 

Becky Anderson interviewed Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian and tried in vain to browbeat him.

The death sentence to eight Indians

The Indian embassy has an active role in Qatar with a significant Indian community of about 800,000 in the country. Bilateral trade is rather unbalanced in Qatar’s favor, with India’s exports at $1.20 billion against imports of $7.93 billion. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), has invested in several Indian companies including Adani, Byju’s, Verse Innovation, and Swiggy. According to Embassy’s website,   the QIA intends to open an office in India.

Will it do that while the issue of eight Indians facing death sentence in Qatar remains unresolved?

The Indian community in Qatar was tight-lipped on the matter of the death sentence to the eight Indians, with the issue remaining uncovered in Qatari media. The Doha-based correspondent of a Malayalam daily was asked to leave the country after the daily carried a story on the matter. While the correspondent was not the one responsible for the story, with the daily reporting it from its sources in India, the action shows the sensitivity of the issue.

London-based Financial Times on 27 October reported that the Indians on death row had been charged with spying for Israel. This report is intriguing, considering the absence of hostile relations between Qatar and Israel. 

But whatever the reason for their arrest and subsequent conviction, my assessment is that they will not be executed. The Court of Appeal has concluded the hearings, and its verdict is expected. India needs to use its best diplomatic skills, and if need be, at the summit level, to ensure that the death sentence is revoked as early as feasible.

My assessment is the ministry of external affairs and the Indian embassy in Doha are currently doing their utmost in the matter, without making it public, and that too  for good and sufficient reasons.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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