Qatar is a small country at the centre of many major issues, energy, diplomacy, investment, and now even football… How do you assess its power and role in the world?
We are geographically a small country, but every country, big or small, has a role to play in contributing to what is happening around the world. Our foreign policy in Qatar aims to bring different points of view together, to help all parties who need it, and to play a role of facilitator, in the region and beyond. The world needs dialogue to solve its problems. The best recent example is what we did in Afghanistan, when our US friends asked us to help them make connections with the Afghans to find a peaceful solution to the war. We did it. Our country also plays an important role in the field of energy because we are a credible country in this sector. We are proud of the fact that we have always respected the agreements made over the past decades, including in the field of gas. We supply our gas to many countries in the world, from Argentina to Japan.
Qatar is a prosperous country today, but it has had its ups and downs in its history… What lessons have you learned?
That education is essential, especially in a country with natural resources. We have learned from our history. Until the 1930s, our country was a pearl fishing centre and a hub for the pearl trade. Japan then developed pearl farming, and our country was impoverished. Many Qataris had to go to work in neighbouring countries, and many of those who stayed went hungry. In the early 1940s, we discovered oil, which began to be exploited and exported after the Second World War. Again, the resource was not infinite. When we discovered gas in the 1970s, its market value was low because everyone wanted oil. We had to take risks, invest heavily in liquefaction facilities, go into debt. The lesson of all this is that resources are not eternal. Investment, especially through our sovereign wealth fund, can help, but it is not enough. Above all, we must invest in ourselves, in human capital.
Whether you are rich or poor, education is the key. We are developing our schools and universities; we have invited US and European universities and colleges to come here. We have started to diversify our economy by identifying 9 pillars including technology, health, science, tourism, etc. We are confident in our economy, which is strong, and hope to be prepared for all scenarios in the future.
Speaking of the vicissitudes of history… Qatar has witnessed the rise and fall of many empires in its history, Roman, Sassanid, Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottoman, Portuguese, British… Which empires, from your perspective, do you see rising and falling today?
Everyone is talking about the US and China, but I don’t think they can be compared to the empires of the past. Our era is different, power is now appreciated more in terms of education, economy but also culture. The US is a superpower not only in military terms but also in terms of economy, innovation, science… China, with its strong economy and large population, is a rising power for the future.
Are you worried about a cold war between the US and China?
We do not want to see the world polarised between two superpowers; that would be very dangerous. But honestly, I do not think that is the case at the moment and I hope that it won’t happen. Our country is a major ally of the US and the West in general, but our main importer of liquified natural gas (LNG) is China,. We can only note that there are great differences between them, but we hope that tensions can be resolved through diplomatic and peaceful means. Our world is already characterised by many divisions, and we do not wish to see new ones added.
Do you see the European Union as a relevant actor in the contemporary world?
Yes, of course! The European Union is very important. Our country has excellent relations with most European countries, they are allies. Our cooperation with them includes trade, culture, and military cooperation. We consider the European Union and its member states to be very important for global security.
Saudi Arabia organised a blockade against Qatar from 2017 to 2021. Since 1995, there have been two attempted coups, first against your father, then against you. How did you emerge from these crises?
Listen, I do not want to talk about the past. We want to look to the future. We have entered a new phase; things are moving in the right direction. We recognise that sometimes, we disagree. We are preparing for the future of this group of countries, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, which groups the six monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, editor’s note), which is essential for unlocking the potential of young people throughout the region. Being united and cooperative is vital for the rest of the world. The GCC is in the process of healing after a great shock and turmoil, but we are now on the right track.
But what is so irritating to your neighbours? Is it the path your country is taking? The succession model? The relationship with Iran? In 2017, the Saudis accused you of financing terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood…
Honestly, as I told you, I do not think it is useful to talk about the past. You mention Iran. Iran is very important to us. We have a historical relationship and, moreover, we share our main gas field with Iran. We encourage all GCC member states and Iran to talk to each other. Of course, there are differences, everyone has some, but we must sit down and talk about them, directly between us and the Iranians, without outside interference.
One of the recurring criticisms of your country is that it has links to the Muslim Brotherhood. What is the situation?
There are no such links. There are no active members of the Muslim Brotherhood or related organisations here in Qatar. We are an open country; many people with different opinions and ideas come and go. But we are a state, not a party. We deal with states and their legitimate governments, not with political organisations.
Why does your country play an intermediary role between Western countries and their adversaries, such as Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan?
This is part of our policy: bringing together actors with differences. Regarding the Taliban, we did so at the request of our US friends [Obama Administration]. The negotiations lasted for years, with ups and downs. What happened last year was unexpected. But overall, we worked closely with the US as well as with Europeans, including the French. As far as Iran is concerned, no one has officially approached us. But we are talking with our US allies, and we are talking with the Iranians, because Iran is our neighbour. It is in our duty and interest to do everything to bring the parties together and to encourage them in negotiating a peaceful settlement. We do not limit ourselves in the choice of our interlocutors, as long as they believe in peaceful coexistence. But we are not willing to talk to those who oppose it. Obviously, we are not willing to talk to terrorist and violent groups.
How do you see the energy market in the current context? And to what extent can Qatar replace Russian gas supplies to Europe?
Since the 1980s and 1990s, we have taken the risk of investing in gas. We knew that it would be an energy that would become very important in the future. And a few years ago, we did it again by increasing our LNG production, although the global trend at the time was to get rid of these energies and focus on those that were then considered “clean”, like solar and wind. But I can tell you that LNG is also clean energy. And gas is very important for the upcoming transition period. The war in Europe complicates the situation enormously, but the problem was there before. As for us, we supply our energy largely to Asia but also to Europe, through long-term agreements and also on the spot market. We want to help Europe and we will supply gas to Europe in the coming years. But it is not true that we can replace Russian gas. Russian gas is essential to the global market.
So, you believe that gas, particularly LNG, will continue to play a key role in the global energy mix…
Of course! It will be very important for the transition period, and in the longer term, in the energy mix. And it is clean: for example, we have invested a lot in technologies that allow for the reduction of flaring and carbon capture. And let us not forget, we are talking about our problems, but there are a billion people on the planet who still do not have access to electricity.
Were Europeans right to sanction Russian energy?
We must be careful about the types of sanctions that complicate things for the entire world. In this case, I cannot judge whether Europe was right or wrong. But we can only observe the problems that the lack of energy is creating in Europe now. The most important point is that we are all suffering from the situation, whether it is in terms of energy or food. That is why the war in Ukraine must end. We have to find a solution.
Emmanuel Macron was criticised in the West for his willingness to talk to both sides, including to Vladimir Putin. Was he right?
We often speak with President Macron, and I know his intention to end this war. Someone needs to talk to both sides to try to bring them together. We must encourage such talks. President Macron is right to do so. And Turkey, too, is trying to bring the two countries together.
Are you concerned that the rise of populism and the economic crisis could lead to a fragmentation of globalisation?
The COVID pandemic was not handled in an exemplary way. Rich countries were able to cope, but we were not able to ensure that the poor would also cope,. The lesson is that we need to cooperate to solve global problems. Because even if Qatar or France have the medicines and the proper health system to treat their population, a pandemic cannot be overcome until all countries can cope. We do not want to see restaurants, airports and train stations closed again. It’s the same with energy: we are not happy if the prices are too high, because it’s not fair for the consumer, but we are not happy when they are too low, because it’s not fair for the producer. If everyone is to benefit, there must be global cooperation. I do not want globalisation to stop, and I do not think it will. Some people say that turning back the clock would make life easier. It’s not true: talking and being in charge are not the same thing… It can’t work. The whole world is integrated. Since we are all interconnected, we must work together and solve our problems together.
Among the divisions you mention, there are those within the Islamic world. How do you see the future of Islam as a religion?
It is a very broad question. We are diverse, we have different cultures, ideas, and also ethnic groups. We take faith seriously, including in our education, but at the same time, we are very open to other cultures, other religions, other people. This is Islam. It is a religion of peace and as Muslims, we accept differences. We need to live together in a peaceful way. There have been tensions between religions, but it doesn’t help to talk about it or to try to pour oil on the fire. You mentioned these populist movements or media figures who talk about Islam and present things as if there is “us” and “them”, who exploit Islamophobia. It’s not fair, and it’s not like that in reality: we are interconnected, we do business together, we exchange. And you know, if you go to Europe, I do not think that people are really concerned about Islam, any more than people are concerned about Christianity in the Muslim world. There are actually many Christians and Jews and others who live in the Muslim world, who also see themselves as part of the Muslim culture. And there are also many Muslims who live in the West. There are many good things happening in the world today, in technology, business, science, commerce, culture as well. The difficulties are an exception.
So, you are optimistic about this question of relations between the West and the Muslim world, despite the current context, with, among other things, the assassination attempt against the writer Salman Rushdie this summer?
What I am saying is that some people exploit tensions from the past and differences for their own political gain, either domestically or to deflect problems to other countries. Politicians have a right to speak. But again, if you consult normal people, you will see that they are not concerned about the Islamic world or Christianity. We must avoid this kind of tension because it does not help. What does help is to talk about it together.
Is that why you authorized the opening of a church in Doha?
We built it a long time ago. Christians have been living here for several decades. They have the right to practice their religion. We welcomed them here and they helped us build this country. Before, they practised their religion privately. My father decided that they needed an open place. It is a complex of buildings that contains several churches, Western, Asian, African… Christians can pray there daily.
Are Muslim minorities properly treated in Western countries, in France or elsewhere?
Our position is clear: we reject discrimination against any minority, Muslim or not, in any country. We form one world. This should not be a problem, however Some politicians and media figures try to slander the subject. But as I always say: listen to normal people.
What is your personal conception of Islam? Do you consider yourself to be “liberal” when it comes to religion?
You know, it is funny, sometimes people talk about “modern” Islam, “conservative” or “liberal” Islam. Islam is a religion. We know it. But as a person, I can tell you that I am a faithful muslim, modern and welcoming, that our country and our people are also modern and welcoming. And we are at the same time very proud of our heritage and our religion.. and open to others but also a private people.
What is your vision of the role and place of women in society?
Firstly, in the eyes of God, we are all equal, men and women. The role of women is vital in our society. In Qatar, women outperform men at university. They make up 63% of students. In the workforce, it’s about 50/50. Within our government, we have three women ministers, they are doing a great job. We even have women pilots in our air force. We don’t see any difference with men. Of course, we are aware that they are discriminated against in the world, but we are totally against it.
Do you think freedom of expression is an essential value that must be protected, or sometimes limited?
I personally believe in freedom of expression. It should be protected. But if that expression intentionally leads to problems or conflicts in the cultural or religious field, is it really necessary to express it? I am not talking about someone criticising a minister or a senior official, I have no problem with that. But in areas where we know it will create problems, we must be very careful. Everyone has the right to express themselves, but whatever we say, we must avoid hurting people from different cultures, religions or backgrounds. In general, things should have limits. When you say that, sometimes people say you are against freedom of expression, but talking about limits is not the same. Of course, the subject has become very complex with social media.
How do you assess the Franco-Qatari relationship?
It is good, strong, historic, and very solid. Our mutual understanding with France is excellent and we are proud of it. We cooperate closely in trade, culture, sports, security, military affairs, foreign policy. When I became Crown Prince, the first country I visited outside the Middle East was France. And again, when I became Amir. We understand each other well and we are very proud of that.
What is your relationship with Emmanuel Macron?
We often talk to each other. We have met several times and we talk over the phone. We share many views on foreign policy. We try to cooperate very closely to promote peace, to play a stabilising role and to provide humanitarian aid where it is needed.
Do you feel that France is treating you fairly?
Yes, of course we sometimes have differences, but overall, I note that successive French presidencies are always determined to maintain good relations with Qatar.
TotalEnergies is an important partner of Qatar, what is the role of this company in the bilateral relationship?
Our relationship with France is broader than a specific industry like energy. Nevertheless, TotalEnergies is a very important company. When we invested in LNG, with ExxonMobil and Total, we took a risk, and these companies were there. They helped us develop our industry. They will continue to be our partners in the decades to come, including for projects outside Qatar.
Is it because they took a risk with you 30 years ago that you continue with them?
We deal with companies and sign contracts in a transparent way. But we also consider past relationships, the risks they have taken with us, the support they have provided us. We never forget the people, the companies and the countries that have stood by our side in difficult times and taken a risk with us. Some bigger countries forget. We do not.
Was PSG a good investment?
Of course! Sport is not a business like any other. If you want to invest in any sport, you must have a passion for it. Otherwise, you waste your money. But if you manage it properly, the value of the project grows. It is what happened with PSG. Qataris are proud of the decade spent with PSG. Sport is a key element of our DNA.
Is it a problem that Emmanuel Macron supports OM and not PSG?
(He laughs) We always joke about it, but it’s really not a problem. He loves sport and I look forward to talking to him about it. I attended the 2018 World Cup final between France and Croatia with the President and his wife, and I was able to witness their joy when France won.
Is the Rafale fighter also a good investment?
The Rafale is an exceptional aircraft, and we are delighted that our pilots can fly it. We have been buying military equipment from France for several decades – before the Rafale, there was the Mirage – and not just aircrafts. We also have Qatari cadets studying in France and we participate in joint military manoeuvres with the French armies, including the gendarmerie.
What qualities do you think are necessary to lead a country?
It is essential to listen, and also to never hesitate. Hesitation is a disaster. You do not have to be stubborn, but when you make a decision and you think it is the right one, especially after having listened to different opinions, then you must go ahead with it. And if you realise that it was wrong, you should not hesitate to reverse it either. When you hesitate, it will always be negative. I learned this from my father. But when it comes to leadership, you can learn from any leader, not only from heads of state. Business leaders also have to deal with difficulties. And even sports managers. I read a book on this subject by Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United. The question of leadership quality is about coping with problems. But my role is different: it is to protect my people.
The Queen Elizabeth II died after a long reign of 70 years. What souvenirs do you have from her, or what lessons have you learned from her life?
Her Majesty was someone for whom I had the deepest respect. I had the honour of meeting her on many occasions, most recently in Windsor earlier this year. She possessed the best qualities of leadership – honesty, integrity, resilience, and empathy to name a few. She was a great listener and had a wonderful sense of humour. She will forever be remembered as a woman of great strength and dignity, selflessly dedicated to her duty.
Which heads of state inspire you?
I can’t talk about the current heads of state, because many of them are friends. But I can tell you that my father (who reigned from 1995 to 2013, editor’s note) inspired me a lot. He is a great man, generous and courageous. And he is the first to admit when he is wrong. He gave me a lot of valuable advice. Another very interesting leader I enjoyed talking to was Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore. I had the chance to meet him several times, to sit down and talk with him. I would ask him about life, what he achieved, how he dealt with difficulties. I learned a lot from him. From his books too. He came to Qatar at the end of his life. He even rode a camel…
Lee Kuan Yew, who ran a small country neighbouring a large one, Malaysia, insisted on independence. Do you see parallels between Singapore and Qatar?
We are an independent country, that is essential. I do not want us to be seen as belonging to one side against another. We are a small country surrounded by big ones, we are a member of the GCC, we are proud of our Arab heritage. We do not accept anyone telling us what to do or interfering in our internal affairs. And at the same time, we maintain good relations with everyone, including our neighbours.
In the 1990s, we thought, following the US intellectual Francis Fukuyama, that the Western model of liberal democracy would spread throughout the world. Since then, we know that this has not really happened. How do you see this competition between models?
I say that we must take into account the culture of each country. Singapore, for example, has its own model of democracy, of governance. It is not a copy and paste of what can be done elsewhere. Singapore is an Asian country, with its own culture and way of life. And it works quite well: you can see that it is a very advanced country. Another example is the success of Rwanda, with President Paul Kagame.
Is this model, put in place by Lee Kuan Yew and which is sometimes called enlightened autocracy, an example for Qatar?
In Qatar, we have had our own model for over a century. We have improved it through reforms. For more than 50 years, we have had the Majlis al Shura, on which I depend a lot. Its role is to help us govern the country. It is very useful. Our system is unique, it works very well. But I will never hesitate to make reforms that would be useful for my country and my people, if I think they are necessary. Because my role is to protect my people, to protect my country, and to make sure that this country is able to face whatever challenges come its way.
What would you like the fans coming to Qatar for the World Cup in November to learn about your country?
We are the first Arab country to organise such a global event. It is very important for the youth, especially in the Arab world. Hundreds of thousands of people will come. Everyone, no matter who they are, no matter what their origin or culture, is welcome. We want these visitors to learn about the differences between cultures, to discover the culture of Qatar, and we hope they will want to come back.
What about the climate and air conditioning in World Cup stadiums?
I think every country should have the opportunity to host sporting events, but sometimes the climate can be an obstacle. We have used the latest technology to minimise water and energy consumption during the World Cup, to make it a more sustainable event. Education City stadium, for example, as well as Lusail stadium, which will host the final, and 974 Stadium, have received a five-star sustainability certification on the Global Sustainability Assessment System from the Gulf Organization for Research and Development.
How do you react to the criticism directed at your country, especially concerning the working conditions of migrant workers on World Cup construction sites?
There are two kinds of criticism. Most of the time, we see it as advice, or an alert, and we take it seriously. For example, we realised that we had a problem with work on construction sites, and we took strong measures in record time. We changed the law and punish anyone who mistreats an employee; we’ve opened our doors to NGOs, and we cooperate with them. We are proud of that. And then there is the second category of criticism, the one that continues no matter what we do. These are people who do not accept that an Arab Muslim country like Qatar is hosting the World Cup. They will find any excuse to denigrate us.
Do you find Western countries too arrogant towards Africa?
I would not use that term, it’s not pretty. But when you look at Africa.. you see that the balance in the relationship is changing, because Africa itself is changing. Public opinion has been formed, there are more and more people with a higher education, and governance is clearly improving. So yes, things are changing. But overall, when it comes to the way the West looks at all of us, the answer is also to take responsibility for ourselves. As far as we are concerned, in our region, we are sometimes seen in the West as a block, as Gulf countries, or Arabs. So, we have to solve our own problems. But yes, things are changing.
The Middle East is a turbulent region, does this sometimes prevent you from sleeping peacefully?
(He laughs) There are certainly many things that can prevent you from sleeping peacefully! But I am very proud of my people and all those who live in Qatar. We have emerged stronger from all the hardships we have faced, and we are always united when facing difficulties. It is true that we belong, unfortunately, to a troubled region. We want to support and give hope to the youth in the Middle East. We are doing everything in our power to bring peace to the region. We are far from it. The most important issue is the Israeli-Palestinian question. As long as it is not resolved, the region will unfortunately not be at peace. And there is also Syria, Libya, Yemen… This is why I am concerned for our youth.
Are you worried that events like those of the Arab Spring in 2011 could be repeated?
The deep roots of the Arab Spring are unfortunately still there! Poverty, unemployment, unemployed graduates… Have we solved these problems? No, on the contrary, they have worsened! If we don’t address them, the events that they caused may repeat themselves. In my opinion, the best way to prevent turbulence in the future is to implement reforms, gradually. We must give real hope to people, not just words. Qatar promised to educate 10 million out of school children and we have surpassed that promise. Soon we will reach 15 million primary school children. We also need to provide jobs, opportunities, but also let them express their opinions and differences. Qatar has established programmes to help train more than 2 million young people in the Arab world and provide them with job opportunities. For example, we have a unique experience in Tunisia where we help people start their own businesses. Tens of thousands of young people are benefiting from this project.
How do you see the fact that countries like Morocco, Bahrain or United Arab Emirates have established relations with Israel before the Palestinian question has been resolved?
Every country has the right to establish relations with the countries it wants. But what is normalization with Israel? Seriously, are things normal in Israel? No! There are still occupied Arab lands, refugees who have not been able to return to their homes for over 70 years, Muslims and Christians, living under siege in Gaza… At the time of the Oslo Accords (1993, editor’s note), we really thought that peace was going to happen. We opened official relations with Israel. There was an Israeli trade office here in Doha. Then, there was war after war in Gaza… We must find a peaceful settlement for the Palestinian people, we must give them hope, we must give them back their land. We talk with the Israelis, we bring aid to the people in Gaza and also in West Bank, I believe in a two-state solution. Palestinians and Israelis should live side by side in peace. Unfortunately, we are far from it.
Some Arab countries are re-engaging with Syria, what do you tell them?
As I told you, each country is free to establish relations with another. Nevertheless, when the Arab League took the decision to exclude Syria, it was for a reason and that reason is still there, it has not changed. For my part, I am ready to participate in talks if there is a peace process on the future of Syria and the demands of its people. But this is not the case at the moment. In Europe, many countries have been generous in accepting refugees. I understand that this has created problems. Why do we accept that a leader massacres his people and expels millions of refugees from his country? As human beings, is this acceptable? What’s more, when we know that these refugees are going to come to us and that this will create problems? Instead of waiting for the fire to reach my house, we must be serious and stop the problem where it starts, in Syria. And the same goes for Libya. If we are not careful, we will pay the consequences.
We’ve talked about many of the things you do in your job. But what do you do when you are not working?
In my job, I am mostly busy working, both in the office and at home. But I also find time to spend with my family, my children, and play sports. I also like to travel, although I don’t have much time to do so. Finally, I like to watch films, historical documentaries, read biographies or personal diaries. I am especially interested in history.
At “Le Point”, we usually ask a question about education, what we should teach our children. As far as you are concerned, your parents, you say, have taught you humility…
I am grateful to them for teaching me to be humble. When I was young, at the age of 13, my father sent me to Germany to find and pay for sports equipment. He could have asked anyone, but he asked me. I later realised that this was a way of teaching me to travel on my own and be independent. Before that, when I was 8, 9, 10 years old, he sent me for the summer to a family in Malmedy, Belgium, to learn French. Then I was sent to boarding school and when I was 17, I went to the military academy in Sandhurst in Britain. I learned a lot during that military year. I then spent several years in the Qatari special forces, before my father appointed me crown prince. Discipline and military service are important things. That is why we have compulsory conscription in Qatar. We are planning to extend such programmes to women as well. It is important to take young people out of their comfort zone, to teach them to work hard, to wake up early in the morning… But you know, education starts with simple things: making your bed in the morning, for example!