Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, has said he will not bow to pressure from a group of Arab states blockading his country, calling the independence and sovereignty of the Gulf nation a “red line”.
“Our sovereignty is a red line. We don’t accept anybody interfering our sovereignty,” Sheikh Tamim told US television programme 60 Minutes.
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Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar on June 5 and imposed a land, sea and air embargo, accusing it of supporting “terrorism”. Doha has repeatedly denied the allegation.
“They don’t like our independence, the way how we are thinking, our vision for the region,” he told host Charlie Rose in a wide-ranging interview that aired on Sunday.
“We want freedom of speech for the people of the region and they’re not happy with that, and so they think that this is a threat to them.”
When people took to the streets across the Middle East and North Africa in protests that would become known as the Arab spring, Qatar “stood by the people,” Sheikh Tamim said.
“The difference between us and them during the Arab Spring is that we stood by the people. They stood by the regimes.
“I feel that we chose the right side when we stood by the people.”
‘It was a shock’
The months-long diplomatic dispute began about two weeks after a late May Arab-Islamic-American summit in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, which was attended by US President Donald Trump and representatives of 55 Arab and Muslim-dominated countries.
Among them was both the Qatari emir and the leaders of the countries that subsequently blockaded Qatar.
“It was a shock,” said Sheikh Tamim, referring to the blockade.
“A few weeks before that, we were meeting, all of us together, in one room, including President Trump,” he told CBS News’ 60 Minutes.
“We were discussing terrorism, financing terrorism, and nobody brought any concern from those countries. Nobody told me anything.”
When asked about the presence of Taliban in Qatar, Sheikh Tamim said that they were asked and allowed to set up offices in the Qatari capital of Doha at the request of the United States.
“The reason why they came here, it’s not because we asked them to come,” he told 60 Minutes.
“America asked … They wanted to have dialogue so they asked us if we can host them here and have the dialogue. So we hosted them here, this is the reason why they’re here,” added Sheikh Thamim.
“When they [blockading countries] talk about terrorism, absolutely not. We do not support terrorism.”
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Washington, DC, said that this was the “first public statement from the emir since this crisis began back in June.
“He made it very clear his belief that the charges by the other Gulf states and Egypt are completely baseless … and rejected out of hand the claims by the boycotting states that Qatar is backing terrorism in any form,” added Hanna.
‘We want it to end’
In the interview, the emir also said he is willing to attend US-hosted direct talks to put an and to the diplomatic crisis, but added that he has yet to hear a response to Trump’s offer to hold a meeting at his retreat in Camp David.
“We want it [the crisis] to end. But nothing is going to be above our dignity, our sovereignty,” Sheikh Tamim told 60 Minutes.
“But we want it to end, I always say that. If they going to walk one metre toward me, I’m willing to walk 10,000 miles towards them.”
On June 22, the quartet issued a 13-point list of demands, including the shutdown of Qatar-based media network Al Jazeera, limiting ties with Iran, and expelling Turkish troops stationed in the country as a prerequisite to lifting the blockade.
Doha rejected all the demands, denouncing them as attempts to infringe Qatar’s sovereignty.
During the interview, the Qatari emir reiterated that the fate of Al Jazeera, which was launched in 1996, was not up for discussion.
“We’re not going to shut down Al Jazeera,” he said.
“When you tell me to close a channel like Al Jazeera, history will write one day in 50, 60 or 70 years how it changed the whole idea of free speech in the region.”
Attempt to change Qatar leadership
The emir of Qatar also accused the blockading countries of seeking “regime change”.
It was “obvious” that the Saudi-led quartet is trying to force a change of leadership in Qatar, Sheikh Tamim said.
“History as well tells us, teaches us, they tried to do that before, in 1996 after my father became the emir.”
Sheikh Tamim became emir in 2013 at the age of 33, after his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, transferred power to him.
The 60 Minutes interview took place in Doha in early October, shortly after the emir’s return to the country after his first foreign trip since the start of the crisis.
In a major show of unity, thousands lined up the streets of Doha to welcome back Sheikh Tamim following the trips to Europe and the United General Assembly in New York, where he denounced the “unjust siege” imposed on Qatar.
When asked by Rose if he thought that the Saudi-led group had underestimated him, Sheikh Tamim replied: “I think they underestimated the Qatari people. I’m so proud of the people.”