Qatar 'opposition' conference: a case of déjà vu

The controversial and much-heralded "Qatari opposition" conference due to be held in London on Thursday will be attended by "hundreds of world-renowned political figures, policy makers, academics, commentators and Qataris", according to a press release. However, the venue, conference programme and names of speakers are all a closely-guarded secret and the organisers say they will not be revealed until the day before the event.

The press release also says discussion at the conference will focus on "democracy, human rights, press freedom and counter-terrorism in Qatar" but there is reason to be doubtful about this.

First, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been actively promoting the conference – and neither country has shown much enthusiasm for democracy, human rights and free speech in the past. Normally they would be horrified by such stuff, not encouraging it.

Secondly, there is the context. For the last three months a ferocious war of words has been raging in the Gulf, aimed mainly at bringing Qatar's foreign policies more into line with those of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. The London conference can be seen as one way of stepping up pressure on Qatar's ruler to comply.

Thirdly, it's not a new tactic. The same thing happened during a very similar Gulf squabble with Qatar in 2014.

The public face of the London conference is Khalid al-Hail, a Qatari exile who is variously described as a businessman, philanthropist, reformist and "leader" of Qatar's political opposition.

Khalid al-Hail:

Hail previously announced himself as leader of the opposition in June 2014, surfacing in Cairo to launch the "Youth Movement for the Rescue of Qatar". Claiming it had 32,000 supporters in Qatar, he said its work would "not be restricted to holding press conferences". A few articles attacking Qatar later appeared on Hail's website but the organisation seems to have quickly fizzled out.

Hail's 2014 announcement was reported by Anadolu, Turkey's state-run news agency, which commented:

"Launching the new opposition movement from Cairo raised many questions, especially given the fact that few had ever heard about it before."

As with this week's "opposition" conference in London, Hail's "Rescue of Qatar" movement was born in the midst of a Gulf diplomatic crisis. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in a dispute that was partly about Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood. It wasn't until nine months later that the issue was resolved and the ambassadors returned. 

At the same time, relations between Egypt and Qatar had also reached a low ebb – particularly over the Muslim Brotherhood and the imprisonment of three al-Jazeera journalists – and this probably explains why Hail chose to launch his Qatari opposition movement in Egypt.

Ousting the emir?

Although themes of democracy and human rights have been prominent in the marketing of this week's London conference, its actual title is "Qatar, Global Security and Stability" – suggesting a focus that could be more to the liking of Gulf autocrats. 

In this context, though, "stability" seems to mean instability in Qatar. The conference website has a "publications" section containing only one document: a 27-page paper "exploring the possible outcomes of the Qatari leadership crisis".

Of the three possibilities it considers, one sees "economic and political repercussions" forcing Qatar to compromise with its neighbours. The other two envisage the emir being ousted – either by disgruntled members of his own family (with support from Qatar's armed forces), or as a result of military intervention by "regional states". 

All three scenarious imply that one way or another Qatar's foreign relations will shift in a Saudi/Emirati direction (it may not actually do so) but none of them suggest democratic reform inside Qatar is a likely result. 

The risk for the Saudis and Emiratis, having given the conference a big build-up, is that it could be a flop. Unless it can provide evidence of serious opposition to the emir within Qatar it's liable to be dismissed as just another episode in the Gulf's fantasy politics.

Meanwhile, Qatar's own actions have given the conference an accidental boost. Instead of trying to appear composed and unruffled by Hail's activities, it went on the attack.

The attack was channelled through the London Centre for Public Affairs (LCPA) – a strange and previously unheard-of organisation using a fake address and phone number. Though posing as a PR/consultancy firm, LCPA is clearly a propaganda arm of the Qatari government: al-Jazeera and other Qatar-related media have been quoting its statements seriously.

Last week, LCPA wrote to British members of parliament expressing "concern" about the conference and suggesting it could have a "negative" effect on Qatari investment in Britain.

It also sent a letter to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee demanding the suspension or expulsion of one of its members, Daniel Kawczynski, a notoriously pro-Saudi MP who had expressed support for the conference.

Aside from the comical nature of LCPA, the main effect of its crude lobbying tactics was to make people wonder why Qatar was so nervous about the conference.

  • Further to my blog post last week, LCPA has now removed the bogus "staff" photos from its website. LCPA initially claimed its London office was at Marble Arch Place, which turned out to be a construction site. The website now says Marble Arch Place was its "old address" but it doesn't say what the new one is.