"It's up to Doha... we have nothing to lose." Bahrain is watching "rogue power" Iran closely too: "We're ready to counter any subversive activity."
Boycott of Qatar will last 'as long as it takes,' says Bahrain's foreign minister, but there may be legal action in the works
Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa says the boycott of Qatar will "continue as long as it takes," as Qatar has shown no willingness to engage with its neighbours.
Leading his country’s delegation to the UN General Assembly, Sheikh Khalid said that at the heart of the Qatar crisis is "a momentum to counter terrorism and extremism, [and] it is incumbent on us to deal with our own internal problem, that is Qatar." The boycott would continue until Doha changed its behaviour.
As the week of high level meetings at the United Nations drew to a close, Sheikh Khalid gave an exclusive interview to The National at Bahrain’s mission to the United Nations.
He spoke also of the need to push back on Iran, calling it "a rogue power that can bring destruction to his neighbourhood."
Sheikh Khalid had extensive bilateral and multilateral meetings in New York before delivering his speech to UNGA on Saturday. As well as discussions on countering terrorism and Iran’s role in the region, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq also topped the foreign minister's agenda on regional issues. The delivery of the sustainable development goals and youth issues were the important domestic issues discussed. Palestine too remains a priority for Bahrain, he said — not as a religious issue but rather "a political one par excellence."
Of course, the Qatar crisis was never far away, hovering on the side lines of the United Nations General Assembly. Several times, the foreign minister rmade reference to the fact that the issues of concern with Qatar are long-standing.
"When we arrived here at UNGA, everyone was mentioning that it is the hundredth day of the crisis," he said. "Actually for us it is much longer than that. We have been going through a difficult time with Qatar on several fronts for several years.
"For 20 years, we have been very patient with a lot of things they were doing and continue to do and then we tried to reach agreements with them in 2013 and 2014, " — a reference to the agreements signed by the leaders of the GCC, including the Qatari Emir.
"However they did not keep their word about many things," Sheikh Khalid said. "Incitement, supporting violent groups in the region, interfering with countries’ affairs, financing terror groups left, right and centre, dealing with all of those rogue entities, non-state actors that are destabilising the region, undermining Egypt in every way, continuing to undermine Bahrain and support their agents there. We have a lot of proof about this and have made it public over the past weeks."
Between 2014 and the eruption of the latest crisis, "they were saying one thing, and doing something else, especially in the field of terror financing." One example of such financing, he said, was Qatari money "used in Syria to move populations from their ancestral homes, as part of a deal to release falconers from Iraq. " Qatari cash went to Hizbollah elements in Iraq, said Sheih Khalid "which the Iraqi government rightly stopped and confiscated."
This was in reference to an incident last April when a Qatari private jet landed in Iraq with suitcases containing hundreds of millions of dollars, seized by the Iraqi government and meant to be for armed groups in return for the release of 25 Qataris abducted in 2015.
Qatari money "in the millions" goes to people in Africa, Libya and Yeme, he added.
As for the timing of making these matters public, Sheikh Khalid said: "We just couldn’t take it any more."
He explained: "After we met in Riyadh (last May), the leadership of the Muslim world met with the American President Donald Trump, we felt there is a new momentum in the world to counter terrorism and terror financing, to counter incitement, to counter extremism and we know we have a problem within us, with Qatar, so it was incumbent upon us to act so we can concentrate efforts on helping the world. Even if we started late, better late than never."
As for the fact that the crisis continues with no end in sight, "Maybe some people did not expect it to take this long. We expected Qatar to come forward and talk to us directly, instead of going to the rest of the world to say they are under siege and all sorts of claims. It is Qatari intransigence that has made it take so long."
And yet there was a moment where it seemed a resolution was possible. When the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad called the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on September, 8 it was seen briefly as an overture from the Qataris and a willingness to work through the crisis. However, it was short-lived.
"Their overtures are always qualified with ‘but’ … after the phone call, the statement from Saudi Arabia was very clear. It said Sheikh Tamim called, which was the truth, and they discussed sitting together for a dialogue to benefit all. It was clear and effective. Suddenly, we see a statement coming out from Qatar, talking about a phone call from the United States, and then a phone call ‘took place’ [between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Sheikh Tamim], and the content was not even correct. So the Saudis and us and the Emirates and Egypt, we just can’t play with language any more.
"Let us be clear, let us be straight forward, let us call a spade a spade and don’t play with words. This is a lesson that they should have learnt, if they were keen, they could have issued another statement. We asked for clarity in a direct message, and they were not clear."
The Qatar emir's speech to the UN General Assembly this week "just repeated old rhetoric," said Sheikh Khalid. What about Qatar’s claims that the boycotting countries want to control Doha? "Absolutely not true. We want Qatar to be a responsible country. There is no problem with different foreign policy (approaches), we have countries within the GCC with different policies. We respect that and we benefit from that, but we just don’t want subversion, undermining our states and we don’t want any threats against our people."
In response to a question about Doha's motivations in aligning itself with the Muslim Brotherhood, at great cost to its ties with its closest neighbours, Sheikh Khalid said, "It isn’t ideological, it is a convergence of interests., I see the use of a political bandwagon."
The alternative to that ideology is what Bahrain wants to foster.
"We want to form an alliance for stability and prosperity for all, open societies that will benefit and be part of the world. That would benefit all our populations. We do not want the region to go through conflicting interests of party politics or terrorism or get embroiled in issues based on the past or based on hegemony or breaking international law. We want responsible countries in the world to honour their obligations to the world. The challenges are terror, backwardness, the use of religion to cloak sinister goals — and we see the Iranian regime as a rogue country that is not helpful to harmony with the rest of the world. We have seen Qatari policies going along that path. We don’t want that to take control of our lives or our children. So we are taking up the fight now, for a better future for our daughters and sons’.
As for how long the boycott of Qatar is expected to continue, Sheikh Khalid said that was up to Doha.
"We have nothing to lose," he said. "There is no humanitarian crisis, there are no humanitarian issues for the Qatari people or the people of our countries. Family relations are not affected, we have many mixed families and they can come and go. We have several hospitals in Bahrain where Qataris come to seek treatment and that continues. The military operations of our allies are not impacted. Qatar is not blockaded."
On Manama’s particular issues with Doha, Sheikh Khalid said, "‘Qatar for the last couple of decades has had relations with subversive groups, especially with those living in London. They paid their salaries. And when we opened up and allowed many people to come back after His Majesty’s (King Hamad bin Issa AlKhalifa) reforms, they kept that relationship with them. Doha was in cahoots with many of them and it was very clear in 2011. we see it all — financing, telling them what to do and we have all the evidence."
Based on that evidence, Bahraini MPs in the past few weeks have spoken of the possibility of going to the International Criminal Court to complain officially about Qatar’s behaviour.
"I can confirm we are putting together a legal file but I do not want to comment further on a legal file or how we will use it," Sheikh Khalid said.
Iran is another troublesome neighbour for Bahrain, and while the past few years has seen the international community opening up to Tehran as the nuclear deal was being negotiated and then implemented, there is now a different attitude in the White House.
"It is not necessarily related to Washington. Anything that is not true and not on a sound foundation will not last, " Sheikh Khalid said. "Everyone wants Iran to be a member of the world community but you need clarity and openness and to be a responsible member of the international community. Even the supreme leader of Iran confirmed that the weaponisation of the nuclear programme is continuing. We welcomed the nuclear deal but we called for everyone to adhere to it and we don’t see that they are.
"A good power brings prosperity to its neighbourhood and a rogue power will bring destruction to its neighbourhood and that is what we are facing from Iran. Yemen, Iraq, Syria, even with their cells in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, — it all shows that they are a rogue country. and we are watching them and ready to counter any subversive activity."
However, he added, "The world should realise we need effort to bring Iran to be a responsible member of the world community. We don’t want the Iranian people to suffer more hardship than what they are going through."
On the American president’s speech to the UN last Tuesday, Sheikh Khalid said, "It was a very clear description of the Iranian regime." Bahrain "sees eye to eye" with President Trump when it comes to the Iranian case, he said, and confirmed that efforts by Kuwait to mediate with Iran had stalled.
"The request came from Iran [for mediation] and our decision was, we do want to have a dialogue with Iran, we need it to solve issues but we didn’t want to waste time talking while certain things happen." What things? "Stopping this call for exporting the revolution, and the supreme leader has to stop treating a Shia in Bahrain or in Saudi or in Pakistan or in Iraq or in America like they are his subjects. They are citizens of their own countries."
Iran had to adhere to the UN charter of good neighbourliness and non-interference, he added. The Iranians said it would not be possible and so the mediation stopped in its tracks.
"The major actor that is undermining any success of a peace process in Yemen is Iran. They are providing money and weapons for their allies (the Houthis), and so they say they are not interested in peace. We want all Yemenis to be part of the solution, and that requires them all to come to the table."
Earlier this year, Sheikh Khalid visited Iraq. Asked if this signified better ties, he said, "I really would give a lot of credit to the prime minister of Iraqi, Haider Al Abadi. From the beginning he made a lot of effort to reach out. Now we have a partner in Iraq, with Prime Minister Al Abadi, the right person trying to help his country and he deserves all the help from the world."
Anyone trying to impede this approchement — ie Iran — should be warned off, he added. in reference to Iran.
And what of the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq?
"Iraq is one country and the Kurds of Iraq are an important segment of the social fabric societal fabric and that's how they remain," Sheikh Khalid said. "Iraq is a cradle of all civilisation, so why would someone want to pull out? Iraq deserves to remain united and strong. If the Kurds see shortcomings, that should be addressed’.. The referendum sends the wrong message."
In addition to his agreement with Mr Trump’s assessment of the Iranian government, Sheikh Khalid sees convergence with the American President’s approach to governance, as stated in his UN speech. He said "we see a clearer, better picture now from the US administration in understanding the challenges we are facing". In response to those who say there are mixed signals from Washington under Mr Trump, Sheikh Khalid responded "if we say we are getting mixed signals now, what do we say about the past administration" of Barack Obama? He went on to say "the President was very clear in his UN speech, when he said we should respect the sovereignty of countries, this is very very important".
"The relationship between our region and the US is now getting clearer.. the US is our friend and ally, especially as we have a very historic relationship with them in Bahrain, started people to people, military, diplomatic, free trade agreement, major non-NATO ally, this is something for the prosperity of the region, we see more openness and commitment (from Washington DC) now," he said.
As for Syria, Sheikh Khalid said "there will be hopes for a political solution if the world powers, that is Russia and the US will exert more pressure together". Bahrain, like many states in the region, recognises that Moscow has interests in Syria, Shaikh Khalid said, however "when they enforce a solution that will drive out the terrorists, drive out the proxies gathered from countries in the region to fight either for or against the regime, settle Syrians back in their cities, then the Syrians themselves will rebuild their cities".
Sheikh Khalid said that "we need an agreement.. once Syrians get back to their country, they can rebuild a city in no time. They are a very resilient, intelligent and innovative people, some of the best on earth".
He urged the international community to "just give them the chance, but we need an agreement".
In terms of coming to that agreement, Sheikh Khalid deems the importance of the Geneva talks of 2012 upon which Syrian negotiations are built as in its focus is maintaining the state; "we need to protect the state".
"You need the state of remain that will keep Syria together and then of course it is the relationship with Syria that will define who we work with or not, and whether it is a good relationship or not," he said.
However, Sheikh Khalid insisted that "foreign intervention, Hizbullah, Iran, foreign fighters, all need to get out".
The question of a future for the country under President Bashar Al-Assad is best left to the Syrian people, he said.
"That is a very Syrian matter, Bashar Al-Assad is not a matter that we have to deal with in any way. He is currently the president of Syria, and it is a matter to the Syrian people to decide whether they want Bashar Al-Assad or not, no other country is to determine that matter."