Despite deteriorating diplomatic relations between Iran and Qatar, scholars from the two countries are working to strengthen cultural ties in a move some hope will help improve political relations in the region.
More than a dozen academics from Iran, Qatar and other GCC and Arab states met in Education City late last week for a conference. Hosted by Georgetown University’s Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) in Qatar, the meeting saw delegates discuss historical, religious, cultural, social and political ties between Iran and the GCC.
The event had been in the works for several months, but took on added importance in the aftermath of this month’s attacks on two Saudi diplomatic offices in Iran, sparked by the execution of Saudi Shia leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain broke off diplomatic ties with Iran almost immediately, a move that was followed by Qatar – as well as the UAE and Kuwait – recalling their ambassadors from Tehran.
With Iran and the GCC already failing to see eye-to-eye on several foreign policy issues, including backing opposing factions in Syria and Yemen, some of the participants in last week’s conference said they believed the meeting would lead to stronger connections between the two sides:
“Cultural affinity can help in solving political problems,” Mahdi Khaleghi Rad, cultural counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Qatar, told Doha News. “We are surpassing political problems with such conferences. Political and cultural connections between Iranians and Arabs should always exist.”
Rad downplayed the significance of Qatar recalling its ambassador from Tehran, suggesting he had been summoned to discuss the escalation in tensions and answer questions from government officials in Doha. Rad expressed confidence that the ambassador will be “going back.”
‘Growing and evolving relations’
Qatar’s Emir has publicly stated his desire to see Iran and the GCC states resolve their differences.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani noted that the Gulf states and Iran “will always remain neighbors” and said there is no inherent conflict between Doha and Tehran:
“Bilateral relations between Qatar and Iran are growing and evolving steadily on the basis of common interests and good neighborliness,” he told delegates.
Qatari citizens, however, haven’t always felt the same way. In 2011, a survey administered by Qatar University’s Social And Economic Survey Research Institute found that 57 percent of Qataris said they believed Iran posed the greatest threat to the GCC.
In contrast, the second most frequent answer was Israel, which received 14 percent of responses.
Organizers of last week’s conference said they hoped the face-to-face session would help the two countries understand and overcome their differences:
“In the political realm, seldom are people talking to each other,” CIRS director Mehran Kamrava told Doha News. “It’s important for disagreements to be discussed and see where there are commonalities that can be built upon.”
In addition to their cultural and historic ties, Qatar and Iran have strong economic bonds led by the shared North Dome/South Pars gas field.
A follow-up to last week’s conference is planned to be held in Tehran later this year.