Breaking With Qatar

There are provocative, if not dangerous, crossroads in history which can easily take us down either smart or dim-witted paths. I suspect the recent break in relations with Qatar announced by KSA, UAE and Egypt . . .  and with the full blessing, if not lead, of the White House… will prove to be one such weighty moment.

I also suspect that with Trump in the vanguard there is a great chance he will turn a periodic and unfortunate regional flex into a tragic raging fire. Lost for meaning and purpose… it’s what he does best.

I’m no stranger to the region having spent much time there, over the past few decades, as a welcome guest, attorney, advisor and friend who has seen and shared in both its beauty and its pain.

There’s no country, in the Middle East, Gulf and parts of Africa, where I’ve not been asked to provide counsel to persons and movements… including some designated as “terrorist” by those against whom they struggle, or by governments that call them friend or foe alike.

I’ve been to Qatar … often. Though I may have disagreed with some of its policies, on whole, that matters little. Mature political minds learn to distinguish between what’s wanted and what’s needed… and do so without sacrificing principles along the way.

More important, decades of travel on the hard scrabble roads of resistance and dissent… and years of courtroom battles all over the world… have left me with a pretty good understanding of who I am and why.

I’m a fan of Qatar and have been since my first visit some 15 years ago.  Do I say this as some starry eyed kid impressed with its wealth or friendship with friends? Not at all.  I’ve seen much more opulence in the palaces of Saudi Arabia. However, in KSA, I’ve seen none of the reach for personal choice and freedom that stretches throughout Doha.

There are more than a few things that impress me about Qatar. It’s willingness to host a veritable who’s who of international players and adversaries, as so much the Switzerland of the region, stands alone. In no other regional state do we see such an institutional effort to keep open channels of communication and, at times, negotiation around complex issues replete with risk for hosts and guests alike.

After all, when these channels close, civilians die and refugees flee by the millions only to become stateless… and vulnerable for generations to come.  It is the nature of today’s political warfare by proxy.

Indeed, back in the day, it was not at all unusual for prominent “supporters” of Al Qaeda to walk in one door of a Doha hotel while US government officials came thru another. No, this was not a part of any grand international tripartite conspiracy, but rather a much needed opportunity for adversaries to try to ratchet down the violence. And when all others turned their back on any hope, was it not Qatar that welcomed the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government to see if a peaceful conclusion to decades of suffering might be reached?  How many former hostages from throughout the world are today with their families due to the willingness of Qatar to negotiate… when others died through the sanctimonious refusal of some states to do so?

On still other occasions, leaders of various resistance movements would attend government sponsored conferences in Doha that also drew “NGO’”s from the very states against which they fought. No doubt, among their ranks were government officials. I’m not suggesting that any formal back channels were in play. None were. But, at times, people need to hear in private what can’t be said in public. It’s very much the art of life, if not just survival.

Indeed, at one such conference, I had a long “discussion” with someone who introduced himself to me as the “Deputy Mayor” of Jerusalem. Sure. Needless to say, things between us got heated… and when they did, he told his nervous Mossad bodyguards to take a walk. They did so even while hotel guests turned to get a front row seat for the argument that ensued.

At moments of intense confrontation, if not conflict, in the region, in Doha there always seemed to be efforts underway to facilitate a step back from the madness. Was it for personal economic gain or prominence? Of course not. There’s only so much wealth and position one requires as companion to their journey. Unfortunately some have not learned this lesson.

Over the years, I’ve attended conferences throughout the Arab and Muslim world where government officials hosted an impressive array of experts, human rights activists, and scholars who came together concerned about tragedies old and new. In more than a few, I’ve been a presenter. Though I left them all inspired by the solidarity and voice of the moment, very few translated into action. This was never the case for those hosted by Qatar.

Am I suggesting that Qatar has not, at times, been a partisan in some of the regional struggles… even bloody ones? Of course not, but who hasn’t?

Indeed, Doha has long been home to the political leadership of Hamas, a resistance movement seen throughout the region, and much of the world, not as a terrorist group but rather a national liberation movement. Doha has also developed increasing ties to Iran as a result of a mutual security agreement signed in 2010. . . and a joint economic venture involving natural gas.

In other ways, Qatar has proven itself light years ahead of its contemporaries. Rich with integrated universities, controversial academics, human rights groups and foundations, its efforts to rebuild ravaged communities throughout the region have been second to none. While many have mourned the repeated destruction of Gaza by Israel, few have opened their hearts and pockets to its rebuilding. Qatar has done so time and time again… working with Hamas in that effort.

Ultimately, the measure of any society’s wealth is its vision for the future.  Here, too, Qatar’s outlook is bright. Its young walk with great pride and dignity as they pursue an opportunity to learn who it is they wish to become and, then, set off to chase that dream unencumbered by the rigidity of family or tradition.

As one who has seen too much death and destruction in the region and lost too many friends to the darkness of prison dungeons or a martyr’s funeral I stand with Qatar in its efforts to find peace and justice through the portal of discussion… not violence.

For many in the West, the Middle East and Gulf has always been a mystery… one wrapped in a blanket of great trepidation fueled by ignorance and uncertainty.  From the comfort and safety of our homes, we see painful mayhem throughout the region yet fail to fully understand it is driven largely by two burning, but connected, issues of the day… sectarian tension between Arab States and Iran and the seventh unbroken decade of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians at the hands of Israel.

Today, with a convenient shout throughout the halls of the Western seats of power, and their regional proxies, can be heard the echo of Qatar as the state funder of terrorism. Though it flies in the face of the reality of decades of efforts and evidence to the contrary, the claim draws traction from those who seek to build a united front on behalf of the West and Israel while, at the same time, it stokes the fires of opposition to Iran.

One can but wonder how much softer the echo might be if Qatar ceases its long term efforts to build détente with Iran and abandons its commitment to the resistance in Palestine. History, ever a portent of what is to come, will not leave this question unanswered.


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Stanley L. Cohen is lawyer and activist in New York City.

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