The defense minister says his country — and the White House — is exasperated by a dispute with its neighbors.
The ostensible purpose of this past week’s visit to Washington by Qatar’s defense minister, Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah, was a strategic dialogue with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But welcoming the emissary was also a way for the Trump administration to tell Qatar’s neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, that it dislikes the boycott against Qatar they launched last June to punish it, they say, for supporting terrorism. “It’s gone on too long,” said one senior U.S. official who works in foreign affairs (although the president at first endorsed the blockade). The administration wants the Gulf states united to fight militant Islamists and contain Iran, instead of feuding with one another. Attiyah talked to The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth about the dispute, his nation’s dependence on Iran and a possible rapprochement. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: Didn’t the recent dispute between Qatar, on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the other, begin when the UAE reportedly hacked into your country’s computers and put out a false report that your emir had made a pro-Iran statement?
A: The beginning was an ambush. The only thing is, I don’t think they calculated right. They thought they could strike hard and bend the Qatari people. But the people showed solidarity and became more resilient. We enhanced our bilateral relations all over the world. So, you may say that the plan failed. All their 13 demands.
Q: One of the 13 demands was for Qatar to stop backing extremism?
A: Yes. Out of the 13 demands, not a single one was a genuine claim. We are the only country who signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States to counter terrorism. We have teams from all concerned departments working together [with the United States] almost on a weekly basis.
Q: Have you interrupted any terror strikes?
A: There are the hard operations and the programs and training. Today we are flying side by side with Americans to counter terrorism —
Q: You are flying side by side where?
A: To Iraq and Afghanistan.
Q: And Syria?
A: [The coalition and NATO] are using our strategic airlifts. But we are facing problems, because the neighbors are disturbing the operation. The airways are blocked.
Q: Do you mean UAE airspace?
A: UAE and Saudi. They are members of the coalition. But with their embargo, they are disturbing the operation.
Q: Is this the reason the U.S. is tired of the dispute and wants it to end?
A: This is not a way to counter terrorism. This operation needs a lot of intelligence sharing, and if you don’t talk to your neighbors, how can you get information exchanged?
Q: How can the dispute be resolved?
A: The only way to resolve such a dispute is a dialogue, which we have been calling for since the beginning of the crisis.
Q: And they say?
A: They want to come with preconditions. We refuse the idea of preconditions.
Q: President Trump has offered to mediate, hasn’t he?
A: Yes, he is trying. And I hear he will invite the GCC soon to Washington.
Q: The administration wants to contain Iran and fight ISIL [another name for the Islamic State]. Reportedly, they find this dispute a distraction.
A: This is exactly the picture. If you want to have a sincere dialogue with Iran where both parties lay down their concerns and try to come to an understanding of the region . . . the best way is to sit and talk.
Q: Isn’t the administration concerned with Iran’s military activities outside its borders?
A: Absolutely. But how do we address this issue? There is the hard way, which will be a disaster, and then there is engagement and dialogue, which we always encourage.
Q: Your country shares a gas field with Iran. Do you have to have friendly relations with Tehran?
A: We have to have friendly relations with everyone. We are responsible for the supply of [an enormous amount] of the world’s energy. We have to have a smooth flow of energy, and that means we have to eliminate having enemies.
Q: You have Turkish troops in your country. Were you actually afraid that Saudi Arabia or the UAE might invade?
A: I wouldn’t say afraid. They have intentions to intervene militarily —
Q: Saudi and UAE?
A: Yes, for sure. They have this intention. But our relations with Turkey go way back before the crisis.
Q: But you seriously think the UAE and Saudi Arabia have intentions to invade? Today?
A: We have diffused this intention. But at the beginning of the crisis, they had this intention. They have tried everything. They tried to provoke the tribes. They used mosques against us. Then they tried to get some puppets to bring in and replace our leaders.
Q: They wanted to install a new emir?
A: Yes, it is true. They put their puppet, Abdullah Ali al-Thani [a relative of a former Qatari emir], on TV and said, “His Highness the Emir XYZ.” . . . Then, when their plan failed, they kidnapped this man , and he tried to commit suicide to get out of Abu Dhabi. They tried to seduce him, and he followed them for a while, and then they found a substitute for him, so they wanted to get rid of him. They have another one now.
Q: They now have another one who they are trying to make emir? What are you going to do?
A: They can’t do anything. The Qatari people love their emir.
Q: Because of the boycott against Qatar, you’ve had to import much of your country’s food from other countries via Iran’s airspace, right?
A: Yes. Iran is the only airspace we have — they blocked everything else. Iran gave us a sea line so we could get our food — some of it comes from Azerbaijan, Turkey or Europe.
Q: How was your conversation with Defense Secretary Mattis? What was the headline?
A: The headline is that we have plans to take our military-to-military cooperation to another level. We are going to expand Al Udeid [the air base that hosts the U.S. military] and build housing and increase the capacity.
Q: And Qatar is paying for this?
A: Of course. We are hosting them. At the same time, we are going to increase our exercises and training — most of our equipment is from the U.S. We will have the F-15s in a couple of years. We already have the C-17 and C-130.
Q: What do you think of the Russian presence in the Middle East, especially in Syria? And why are you buying Russian military equipment?
A: Russia has been in Syria for the past 40 years. I think they have interests in the region. The more we keep the instability in the region, the more we are inviting foreign players to come in.
Q: In the past, your country has been accused of backing extreme terrorist groups in Syria.
A: It is false. Back then and today. This is a false accusation against Qatar. We have been concentrating in Syria on combating ISIL.
Q: And is that going well?
A: Yes, the ISIL operation is going very well. It is much better because previously when you pressured them in Iraq, they popped out in Syria. When you pressured them in Syria, they popped out in Iraq. We need to give the credit to General Mattis on this because he fought ISIL very well.