Qatar: Dragging its feet over reform? | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 13.06.2019
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Middle East

Qatar: Dragging its feet over reform?

As allegations linger over financing terrorism and treatment of foreign workers, is Qatar doing only the minimum over reform? Conflict Zone's Tim Sebastian meets foreign ministry spokesperson Lolwah Al-Khater.

Watch video 26:06

Lolwah Al-Khater on Conflict Zone

There is "no question" over Qatar's commitment to guest workers in the country, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry has said.

"They are helping us in developing our country," Lolwah Al-Khater told DW's top political interview show Conflict Zone.

In 2017, Qatar signed an agreement with the UN International Labour Organization to work on reforms to improve conditions for migrant workers. Implementing all the measures in that agreement, said Al-Khater, would make the country "a leading example in the region."

"This is what we aspire to."

Watch video 02:56

Rights groups say Qatar's workplace improvements just window-dressing

Guest worker rights

But Qatar has received stark criticism from human rights groups over its treatment of guest workers. In February, Amnesty International said that "authorities risk falling behind on their promise to tackle widespread labour exploitation" and called for "a labour system that ends the abuse and misery inflicted upon so many migrant workers every day."

Al-Khater said that Doha welcomed the Amnesty report: "We deal with constructive criticism very positively."

The foreign ministry spokesperson rejected the suggestion that authorities were dragging their feet over reforms.

"No, we don't do the minimum. We are the best when it comes to our region," she said.

Watch video 01:10

World Cup workers in Qatar living dangerously

Terrorism

Al-Khater sat down with Conflict Zone host Tim Sebastian on a visit to Berlin as Qatar marked two years of the blockade by neighbors Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, who sought to isolate the country through travel and trade restrictions.

In June 2017, the Arab quartet accused Doha of funding terrorism and listed 13 demands, which included shuttering Qatari-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera and breaking off diplomatic ties with Iran, a key ally. The Qatar government strongly denied the allegations and protested the ultimatum. 

In October 2017, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin visited Qatar and agreed greater cooperation between Washington and Doha, including "on charitable and money service business sectors in Qatar to prevent terrorists from continuing to use those sectors for illicit financing purposes."

Asked why it hadn't already cracked down on illicit funding, Al-Khater defended her government, saying that in a recent visit in 2019, Mnuchin had been positive about Qatar's efforts.

"The State Department said that Qatar is ahead of its neighbors. This is a fact," she said.

Sebastian also asked if Qatar was playing word games with its support of Hamas, after its own counter-terrorism envoy, Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, said in April 2018 that "Hamas is not a terrorist organization."

"There isn't a single Arab country that designates Hamas as a terrorist organization," Al-Khater told Sebastian.

Challenged by Sebastian for another definition of the acts of suicide bombers, Al-Khater said it was "not acceptable" but refused to call it terrorism.

"You want to call it terrorism, fair enough. But the problem is you are not dealing fairly with the different parties here. We're talking in the context of occupation. There is Israeli occupation that is killing people on a daily basis."

Hate speech

In April 2018, the Anti-Defamation League said Doha had "continued to use its prominent platforms to promote strident anti-Semitic preachers," a criticism which Al-Khater said was untrue.

"There always needs to be a balance between freedom of expression and what people think and then what the government should do," she said.

"We have platforms in Doha that represent all voices, including voices that are considered by many Muslim conservatives as voices that should not be represented. We represent all voices in Qatar with no exclusion."

Responding to quotes from a broadcast in December 2017 that called on Muslims to "cleanse" al-Aqsa from "the filth" of the Jews, Al-Khater again denied that the government accepted such language.

"I'm a representative of the government and I'm telling you that any description of any group in such terms is absolutely not acceptable, it's discrimination and we don't approve of it."

Al-Khater said too that "Islamophobic voices" were represented in many countries but such views were tolerated as "freedom of expression." She called for "fair treatment" over the issue and said other countries, including Israel, were using "the same terms exactly against Muslims."

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