IN an obvious effort to quash criticisms of alleged political misuse of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, in its ongoing action against the State of Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has announced the reopening of its border with its neighboring state, which had been closed since June 5. This was when the Kingdom, together with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt, cut off diplomatic, trade and transport ties to Doha on charges that the major US military ally in the Gulf, in its fight against terrorism, had been clandestinely supporting terrorism. Qatar has vigorously denied this accusation, and the US and Turkey, who are both major players in the fight against Islamic State extremism, have confirmed Qatar’s position.
The announced purpose of the reopening, on orders of King Salman, is to allow Qatari pilgrims to perform the Hajj, an annual holy pilgrimage which reenacts the Prophet Muhammad’s farewell pilgrimage in AD 632. It begins on August 30 and ends on September 4. It is a central tradition of the Islamic faith, and all adult Muslims who are physically and financially able to do so are obliged to perform the Hajj once in their lifetime. The Hajj draws to Mecca 2,000,000 pilgrims from various countries, including the Philippines, and is the biggest regular gathering of people in the world. St. John Paul II’s papal visit to Manila for the World Youth Day in 1995 gathered some 4,000,000 people, but that wasn’t an annual gathering.
Closing the borders
The unilateral closure of the Saudi-Qatari border was part of the 13 measures imposed by Saudi Arabia on Doha. These included an outright ban on Qatari pilgrims from the Hajj. The ban was eventually toned down. Under Salman’s new order, Qatari pilgrims could now enter Saudi Arabia by land and be flown onward from two Saudi airports in Dammam and Al-Asha at the King’s expense. At the same time, the King has dispatched a plane of the Saudi flag carrier to fly Qatari pilgrims to Jeddah, near the Red Sea, the city closest to Mecca.
Doha has not officially reacted to the King’s move, but the Saudi Press Agency has reported that some 100 Qatari pilgrims had already arrived at the border crossing as of last Thursday. Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdul Rahman was initially quoted as saying, there must be a full lifting of the hostile measures unjustly imposed on Doha. The King’s move reportedly came after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s latest communication with Saudi Arabia.
While the move appears to be a concession to Doha, it only highlights the fact that Qatar Airways, which is vying with the top international carriers for the honor of being the world’s No. 1 airline, may not yet enter Saudi, UAE, Bahraini, or Egyptian airspace; that direct commercial flights from Doha to Saudi Arabia are still banned; and that Qatar’s currency may not yet be traded in Saudi financial institutions.
Qatari pilgrims’ plight
More than 20,000 Qatari nationals are reported to have registered for the Hajj this year. But the government has not acted on their registrations because of the closure of the Qatari diplomatic and consular missions in Saudi Arabia and other reasons. Without these diplomatic and consular establishments, who will assume Qatar’s official responsibility for the pilgrims well-being while they are in Mecca?
In case any pilgrim develops a special problem, who can they call? Who will take care of their simplest logistical needs, like transporting them from the airport to their hotels or to Mecca and back? If the Qatari currency is no longer to be honored where it used to be, what happens to those who do not have any international currency?
Because of these details, Foreign Minister Abdul Rahman must be heard: the blockade must go. What appears to be a magnanimous gesture on the part of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques could ultimately prove empty.
Beyond the issue of the Hajj, at the request of some readers with relatives working in Doha, I sought an interview last week with Ambassador Ali Ibrahim Al-Malki, Qatar’s ambassador to the Philippines, to get an update on the Gulf, where over one million Filipinos work, 260,000 of them in Qatar, and 800,000 in Saudi Arabia. Since Qatar has been under siege for more than two months now, there seemed to be legitimate concern among families here for their relatives working in the embattled state.
The Ambassador was gracious enough to receive me. And, in answer to my questions, he assured me that except for the woeful effects on some 30,000 Qatari families which had been “torn apart” by the measures imposed by the four countries, including Qatari college students who had been forcibly deported from these countries at the outbreak of the crisis, “life goes on normally well” in all of Qatar. Some independent sources have suggested that if there was any plan to drain Qatar’s warehouses and food stalls of food, that plan has certainly failed: food and all amenities of modern living are in abundant supply in the sheikhdom.
A siege, not a blockade
For starters, Al-Malki pointed out that the action of the four countries against Qatar was “not a simple blockade but a siege,” and that as of now it has “absolutely failed” to bring Doha to its knees. Instead, it has “increased our strength and pushed us to work harder for our country,” the Ambassador said. “Qatar is a state based on a solid foundation of values; the good leadership supported by its loyal people is at the top of them.” It will “continue to rise and move forward,” he said.
As a result of the siege, Qatar has been able to turn challenges into opportunities, the Ambassador said. For one, it has managed to increase its trade volume through Hamad Port, (with Doha-bound ships transiting through Oman rather than UAE,) and develop alternative sea and land passages, along with sustainable food supply. At the same time, it has managed to enter into new economic cooperation agreements with some countries, and to diversify its sources of income and investments. It will continue to work on more of these, said Al-Malki.
Both the 313,000 Qatari population and the expatriate population, consisting of 650,000 Indians, 350,000 Nepalese, 280,000 Bangladeshis, 260,000 Filipinos, 200,000 Egyptians, 43,000 Indonesians, and at least one from Liechenstein, with the possible exception of some Egyptians, have shown full support for the leadership of Emir Sheikh Tanim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Ambassador said.
Despite the refusal of the four countries to dialog, the Emir has responded to the crisis with remarkable sobriety and statesmanship. His recent speech on the crisis was remarkably restrained, and well-received around the world. He rejected the accusation against Qatar, without wounding any of the leaders of the four Arab states. He simply proposed that any solution to the crisis be based on two principles, namely: that it should be within the framework of respect for the sovereignty of each State; and secondly, that “it should not be in the form of orders by one party against another, but rather as mutual undertakings and joint commitments binding to all.”
Siege still unexplained
Reiterating the Emir’s position, Al-Malki regretted the fact that despite the passage of over two months, the four countries have not been able “to justify the siege that they imposed on Qatar, based on baseless allegations, followed by unrealistic and not actionable demands. They provided six principles and considered the (earlier) list of demands cancelled, exactly after 10 days of providing them, then again they demanded that the State of Qatar act upon those demands,” the Ambassador said.
He pointed out that Qatar has already refuted “the false and baseless allegations,” and exposed the full dimension of the unfair media campaign against it, based on fabricated statements maliciously attributed to the Emir, after one of the four countries hacked the Qatar News Agency website.
I asked the Ambassador: “Can you honestly say your government has done enough to show the world that you are a victim in this conflict, and that you are irrevocably committed to fighting terrorism, instead of allegedly supporting it?”
Against terrorism at all cost
Al-Malki: “At the outset, let me emphasize that Qatar will spare no effort to defend its just cause, protect its sovereignty and clarify the facts for those interested. In this, Qatar is communicating with the international community and international humanitarian organizations.
“The State of Qatar has been ahead (of many others) in combating terrorism by all means. Note that the State of Qatar’s position on terrorism is consistent. Qatar condemns all forms of terrorism whatever the causes or motives.
“In addition, the State of Qatar is an active and leading member of international conventions committed to combating terrorism and its financing, at the regional and international levels, and the international community can attest to that.
“Furthermore, there is an existing cooperation and a broad and multilateral partnership between the State of Qatar and the United States on various issues, including terrorism and regional security. Qatar has enhanced this cooperation by signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on combating terrorism financing with the United States last July. It is so obvious for everyone at this point that if the Americans, who are leading the war against terrorism, are not satisfied enough with our efforts on this issue, they would not have joined us. This alone should have silenced all the allegations of the four countries against Qatar.”
Question: “All parties to the conflict are close allies of the United States. Do you feel the US, President Trump in particular, can do more to convince the parties to talk peace?”
Answer: “The US administration, since the start of the Gulf crisis, has a crucial role in the situation. We both share a common view in adopting dialogue as a means to resolve this crisis, as well as the need for unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as an important system in the region, which must continue as one power bloc. Any dispute in this area will affect the entire regional peace and security.
US unwavering support
“The US was the first to call for lifting the unjust and illegal siege imposed on Qatar at the time that the four countries continued to ignore the American demand to open the crossing borders and land ports, as a gesture of good faith.
“The US State Department officials are doing their efforts to encourage ‘all parties to exercise restraint to allow for productive diplomatic discussions.’
“The recent tour of two US envoys in the region to support the Kuwaiti mediation—(retired US Marine General Anthony Zinni and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Timothy Lenderking met with Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al-Jarallah in Kuwait on August 8)—reflects the seriousness of the United States in reaching a solution to the crisis, especially after the speech made by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his last visit to the region last month, in which he also stated that telephone calls alone are not enough to achieve a breakthrough in the GCC crisis.”