The Cable

Qatar Pulls the Human Rights Card in Washington PR Blitz

Doha argues its citizens are suffering as a result of the three-country blockade

<> on October 24, 2011 in Doha, Qatar.
<> on October 24, 2011 in Doha, Qatar.

While U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Doha this week, the Qataris have launched a public relations campaign in Washington to garner support in its fight against the three-country blockade.

A delegation from the Doha-based National Human Rights Committee, whose members are appointed by the Qatari government, said its representatives met this week with Ellen Germain, director of Arabian Peninsula Affairs at the State Department. “We told them, you have political interests, military interests, economic interests” with regards to the Gulf crisis, said Ali Bin Samikh Al-Marri, the committee’s chairman. But when it comes to human rights, “we wait for you to take action.”

Speaking at a July 11 media roundtable hosted by the Qatari embassy in Washington, DC, Al-Marri said the organization has received more than 2,900 complaints in the past month related to the blockade.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and several other Arab countries cut diplomatic ties with the tiny nation of Qatar, turning a diplomatic dispute into a widening political crisis in the Gulf. The countries have cut off all trade with Qatar, blocked Qatar-bound planes from flying through their airspace, ordered their respective citizens to leave Qatar, and deported Qatari nationals.

The latter two demands have forcibly separated families in a region where cross-border marriages are common. Mothers have been separated from children and husbands from wives. Students have had to leave universities early; business owners have had to abandon their enterprises. Even those currently undergoing inpatient medical care have been uprooted.

The appeal to human rights may get limited traction in Washington given Qatar’s own restrictions on freedom of speech, independent political parties, and women’s legal rights. Qatar has frequently attracted frequent criticism from international human rights groups. Authorities sentenced a poet to 15 years in prison for reciting a poem critical of Qatar’s ruling emir (he was released last year after serving three years). International soccer federation FIFA has come under fire for awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, where migrant workers constructing a new soccer mega-stadium face abuses likened to modern-day slavery.

The blockade does present genuine human rights concerns, however.

“Imposing blanket restrictions on whole nationalities is restricting people’s right to family life,”  said James Lynch, deputy director of global issues at Amnesty International, in a phone interview with Foreign Policy.

“The states imposing these measures have also issued orders to their nationals and to Qatari nationals to cross borders, and given them an arbitrary deadline and no sense of the consequences,” said Lynch, who called this an “egregious” breach of the right to freedom of movement.

The NHRC campaign comes as Tillerson is in Qatar, where he just signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar agreeing to work together to combat terrorist financing. Tillerson did not mention human rights in the July 11 press conference announcing the memorandum.

Doha has a close relationship with Washington and hosts the U.S. military at the Al Udeid Air Base, which served as a staging ground for U.S. attacks on ISIS in 2016. There is currently no U.S. ambassador to Qatar.

Qatar is heavily economically dependent on Saudi Arabia but, unlike other Gulf nations, has often refused to march lock-step with Riyadh’s preferences. Qatar’s state-funded broadcaster Al Jazeera has often criticized Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and those two countries have demanded that Qatar shut down the news outlet.

The blockading nations “would like to use the civilians and the people to pressure the Qatari government,” Al-Marri said.

Al-Marri accused the State Department of focusing exclusively on political issues and ignoring the human rights aspect of the crisis.

When asked about the meeting and any impending action on human rights in Qatar, State Department Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs press officer Grayson Vincent wrote in an email, “We have nothing to announce at this time.”

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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