The top Qatari official unveiled details of a secret meeting with the Taliban’s supreme leader in Kandahar.
Qatar’s Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani has tapped into a wide range of topics in an interview with CNN last week, held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The interview covered a wide range of issues in the region and beyond, including the recent regional wave of normalisation with Syria’s Bashar Al Assad regime, secret talks with the Taliban, and policies concerning the LGBTQ community.
While it has been nearly five months since the Arab League took back Assad into the fold, the matter has remained a key issue that has emerged as a talking point in interviews with officials from Qatar, a staunch opponent of normalisation with the regime.
During the interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Sheikh Mohammed reiterated that his country’s position towards Assad remains unchanged, and said the Gulf state does not “see anything that makes him eligible to come back to the Arab League.”
“We don’t want to break the consensus on the decision, because at the end of the day one vote won’t matter and we try to explain our position, the other Arab countries have a different perspective than us, so we didn’t want to object to that decision in the session itself,” the Qatari foreign minister said.
In May, the Assad regime received a warm welcome back into the Arab League following more than a decade of isolation. The bloc had suspended the Syrian regime in 2011 as a response to his violent crackdown on peaceful protests, which had plunged the country into war and caused a major refugee crisis.
During the Arab League summit in May, Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani left the meeting ahead of Assad’s speech – his first such appearance since Syria was reinstated into the bloc.
The move was widely seen as a clear rejection of Assad’s presence in the regional bloc.
Sheikh Tamim also reiterated his vocal stance against the Syrian regime at the UNGA last week, slamming Assad’s chokehold over the country.
“It is not permissible to condone the gross injustice that has befallen the brotherly Syrian people as if it is its destiny. The crisis is still awaiting a comprehensive settlement through a political process leading to a political transition,,” Sheikh Tamim said.
Qatar’s foreign minister echoed Sheikh Tamim’s remarks during the interview with CNN.
“His Highness just mentioned that in his speech, we cannot tolerate war criminals, we cannot see the Syrian people still suffering and we just give the government there a waiver to be normalised,” Sheikh Mohammed said.
The Qatari diplomat added: “We cannot reward someone for not implementing Security Council resolutions.”
On secret talks in Kandahar
Over the past decade, Qatar has been a key facilitator of dialogue between all parties in Afghanistan, even after the Taliban captured the Afghan capital of Kabul on 15 August 2021.
Aside from hosting meetings between the Taliban and the West, Qatar has maintained its dialogue with the acting Afghan administration.
In June, Qatar’s foreign minister met with the Taliban’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada in Kandahar, the birthplace of the entity.
The meeting with Akhunzada was a crucial point, given his position as the decision maker in Afghanistan, especially with regards to the latest repressive Taliban policies that have targeted women and girls.
During the CNN interview, Sheikh Mohammed disclosed details of the secret meeting in Kandahar for the first time.
“We’ve been very clear, if you want to be part of the international community, you need to cooperate with us. You need to work with us, together, in order to have your country as a Muslim modern country as Qatar,” Sheikh Mohammed told Amanpour during the interview.
The Qatari official added: “Qatar is a Muslim country where women are allowed and proud, they are an active part of the community, they are very productive, they are leaders, ministers, ambassadors. They are, on all levels, in the work or schools, they are outnumbering the men in higher education even.”
Despite promising a moderate rule following their takeover, the Taliban tightened restrictions on women in what is widely being seen as an approach that is reminiscent of their former rule between the 1990’s and 2001.
In March 2022, the Taliban banned girls from going to school on the day the institutions reopened. Then in December 2022, the Taliban prohibited females from attending university and Afghan women from working with nongovernmental organisations.
Sheikh Mohammed revealed that the Qatari delegation stressed during the meeting in Kandahar that the interim Afghan administration must at least allow women NGO workers to return to their jobs.
“We agreed with them that we need to, at least on a smaller scale, have things moving. Re-allowing women to work again in NGO’s, delivering assistance to families in Afghanistan,” Sheikh Mohammed said.
However, the Qatari official added that Muslim scholars also have the “moral role” to engage with Akhunzada.
“I think we have a responsibility as Muslim countries, as countries in the region, to be vocal on that and to talk to him, because we are the best people who can explain [to] them that we are all Muslim countries and we are acting as normal societies,” Sheikh Mohammed added.
Responding to a question on whether Qatar has hope in a reversal of strict policies in Afghanistan, Sheikh Mohammed said: “We are always hopeful.”
On LGBTQ policies
Meanwhile, regional policies towards the LGBTQ+ community has remained an issue of concern by western media, especially in the lead up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar—the first to ever take place in a Muslim and Arab nation.
Much of the criticism Qatar faced last year was centred on its alleged abuse of migrant workers and its stance on the LGBTQ+ community, despite statements from the Gulf country welcoming all football fans to enjoy the tournament.
During the CNN interview, the host asked Sheikh Mohammed about what it would take from Global South to accept the LGBTQ+ community.
“I think that, first of all, this debate and argument is not happening in the so-called Global South only, it’s happening even in the West, happening in America, it’s happening elsewhere, it’s everywhere,” Sheikh Mohammed said.
The senior Qatari official stressed that the people of his country like “to preserve their tradition and they are very proud of their faith, and this is something not acceptable in our faith.”
“As long as they [LGBTQ+ community] are respecting the law in public areas, their safety isn’t a question[…]look at Qatar’s history, track record in the last 50 years and just compare it to any other country in Europe. You can see hate crimes in Europe against LGBT in thousands[…]in Qatar, it was zero,” the Qatari foreign minister said.
The senior Qatar official concluded: “I mean, we are walking in Europe, in the western country, if we did something to disrespect their rules, we say to our people that you will be held accountable for that, because your job there is to respect the host country you are in.”
Despite the criticism, Qatar hosted what has been widely dubbed as “the best World Cup” in the tournament’s history. In December last year, Qatar 2022 won “the best World Cup” in a BBC Sport poll, which saw Doha garner the vote of 78% of football fans.