The gulf factor

In the middle of January, H.E. President of the Republic of Slovenia, Borut Pahor, and accompanying delegation, paid an official visit to Qatar at the invitation of the Emir of the State of Qatar, H.H. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. bq speaks to the President upon his return.

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Slovenia president

H.E. President Pahor is a veteran of Slovenian political life and has been politically active since his high school days, coming a long way from the student section of Alliance of Socialist Youth of Slovenia, the autonomous branch of League of Communist of Yugoslavia, to becoming President of the Slovenia.

President Pahor was a longtime president of the Social Democrats party and has held the highest political positions in the country. He was chairman of the National Assembly and served as member of the European Parliament. Under his leadership, his Social Democratic party achieved victory in the parliamentary elections in 2008 and he was appointed as Prime Minister. In late 2012, he won the presidential elections running against incumbent President Dr. Danilo Turk.

During his visit to Doha, H.E. President Pahor attended the opening ceremony of the 24th Men’s Handball World Championship. On the fringes of this global event, Slovenia used the unique opportunity to present itself to the Qatari public through the Slovenian Centre, I feel Slovenia, whose honorary patron is President Pahor.

President Pahor also met with the chairman of the Qatari Businessmen Association, H.E. Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani and CEO of the Qatar Investment Authority, H.E. Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohamed bin Saud Al Thani, when he addressed participants at the event, ‘Opportunities in Qatar and Slovenia’, at the Slovenian Centre presenting Slovenia as an attractive investment destination. bq had the opportunity to interview H.E. President of the Republic of Slovenia upon his return to Slovenia.

Mr. President, in mid-January, you were on a working visit to Qatar. Since your visit coincided with the opening of the World Handball Championship, you had an opportunity to attend this event too. What are your impressions about Qatar and Doha?

Excellent! I am still very much under the impressions that were made, I can’t really explain why I am so overwhelmed. I accepted the Emir’s invitation to visit Qatar predominantly because those who know well both the political and economic situation pointed to me that the Emir, as well as those who look after the wellbeing of Qatar, appreciate a lot the consistency, tradition and long-lasting collaboration.

Slovenia began its collaboration with Qatar during the presidency of Danilo Turk who met the previous Emir on two occasions. Since we both wanted to renew this friendship, I accepted the invitation to visit Qatar. That was the first and the most important reason for this visit.

At the same time, during my stay in Qatar, an economic forum was held with our Qatari interlocutors and, in between all this, we also managed to squeeze in one nice event – the World Handball Championship. From my talks with the Emir I learned that it was very important for him that this championship gains as much publicity as possible, which is understandable, given that Qatar is preparing for a much bigger and important event – the World Cup. Anyway, I liked Qatar and Doha very much and was pleasantly surprised by everything there, much more than I initially expected. I am truly impressed by this visit.

This was a working visit to Qatar for you. You met the Emir as well.  What topics and issues did you discuss and were any concrete agreements reached? In short, are you satisfied with the results of this visit?

This was a working visit and our talks lasted longer than originally planned, since we laid some new foundations. The aim of the visit was to get personally introduced to each other and, with all due respect and confidence, tell each other everything that was needed.

I’m really glad that we discussed everything: politics, the economy, international relations. We concluded that we disagree on certain issues, which is only normal, but that this should not hinder the future close collaboration between our countries. In order to reach this, as the Emir pointed out, a lot needs to be invested in creating mutual confidence, particularly within Qatari business circles, who would only then decide to intensify their contacts with us.

As you know, commodity exchange between Slovenia and Qatar, currently the wealthiest country in the world, is rather scarce. There are numerous opportunities for increasing collaboration. However, the Emir said the following: “You Europeans think that only one visit is enough. With us, this is not so.”

I invited him to visit Slovenia and he accepted it. Since this was a working visit, we didn’t make any final conclusions since we didn’t have the mandate for that, but we decided that the Emir would use one of his next trips to this region for the first official working visit to Slovenia.

A ceremonial visit requires a lot of preparation and a single- or a two-day working visit to Slovenia, as a part of the Emir’s future European tour wouldn’t be any less important. Our talks were held in a friendly atmosphere and I truly enjoyed my sincere conversations with the Emir.

ljubljana

Your predecessor, President Danilo Turk, met twice with the then Emir H.H. Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (in 2010 and 2012) and on those occasions many interstate agreements were signed. Back then the Emir expressed the readiness to invest in long-term and strategic projects. It was also mentioned that a Slovenian-Qatari financial fund would be established in order to strengthen and improve the technological development of the Slovenian economy. Despite that, the commodity exchange between the two countries remained at a very low level and the investments in Slovenia did not take place. How do you explain this, why was there no improvement in collaboration and what were the obstacles? 

There are several reasons, Slovenians can actually learn from some of them. I can only say that I have well understood the message about the significance of the discretion, not in the sense of downgrading the transparency and clearness of political and economic agreements, but the discretion of your own views and interpretations.

It is obvious that the Qatari side is much more sensitive to this issue than we assumed. As both the Emir and I jointly concluded, the most important thing is the follow-up.  As he pointed out, and I also know this from my own experience, a visit of a president or a prime minister of a certain country, even though it includes a business delegation, would not have any significance nor any wanted effects, if it ends without follow-ups.

Therefore, we agreed (also after my talks with the H.E. Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani) to organize, in the very near future, a visit by a business delegation including top leaders of the Qatari business community, even if the Emir himself is not a part of that delegation. We also agreed to work on the follow-up.

Considering the fact that this was my working visit to Qatar, there were no ministers with me there who could make executive statements. After this visit, it was agreed that the Qatari side would visit Slovenia and discuss their investments in Slovenia on that occasion. Let me stress that they are interested in investing and Slovenia is attractive to them in many ways, but it will take some time for them to make the decision.

Some countries in the region, Serbia before all the rest, have established very close contacts with UAE and that collaboration has resulted in some concrete agreements and investments already showing results in different fields. In the period of only two years UAE have become a strategic partner, Croatia opened its embassy in Doha only last year and expects a lot from their collaboration in tourism. Slovenia seems to be lagging behind, progressing very slowly…

We are falling far behind and we are aware of that. All our actors who are involved in foreign policy agree with the fact that Slovenia is not present enough in the Middle East. Similarly to the situation in Africa where there is only one Slovenian embassy on the whole continent, the one in Cairo, and we all know the situation there.

Of course this is not enough, both, when it comes to Africa and even more so when it comes to the Gulf. It is clear that having non-residential ambassadors there is not enough. The decision on that depends on finances, but that is not the only criteria. According to my and the estimation of the majority of actors, the potential opening of the embassies in the Gulf or opening of business offices in some of the Gulf countries would significantly influence the investments and bring positive results.

What is it that Slovenia can offer to Qatar? Can Slovenia be competitive in the market and offer something more than the others?

During my talks with the Emir and Sheikh Faisal, I believe that the following facts attracted their interest. Contrary to Serbia, Slovenia is a member of the EU which has excellent relations with all countries of the Western Balkans.  This also applies to all the major players in the international community.

We have good friends in Washington, Moscow (even at this moment), Beijing, Arab countries and also in the rest of Muslim world. It is not a secret that I closed my visit to the Munich Conference on Security with a meeting with the minister of foreign affairs of Iran. There is also Turkey which is our strategic ally and I signed this alliance in 2010 as Prime Minister.

Qatar appreciates the fact that we are a country at the very heart of Europe, that we have good political, economic, cultural and other relations with all the countries in the region, that we are not indifferent to their problems and here I wish to stress particularly the Muslim community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Apart from this, they are interested in high technologies, in our knowledge, health tourism etc.

The Qataris are interested in our know-how in all these fields because they estimate that it would make the most sense for them to come to Slovenia, given its geopolitical position.

They have also expressed their interest in tourism and with it related transport communications and airline connections.

I wouldn’t underestimate their very keen interest in Slovenia, even though we are a very small country.

However, I need to stress once again that, in case another year passes without the continuation of our contacts, we will certainly miss the opportunity and the time.

Other countries have intense collaboration with Qatar, which I witnessed myself. When it comes to establishing contacts, it seems as if we are still living in the world of 20, 30 years ago.

If we are to widen the scope of this conversation to the European level, the impression is that there has been a certain duality in relations between the EU member countries and the Gulf countries on one side, and the EU as an institution on the other. The Western European countries, for example France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands etc. are literally competing in attracting investments from the Gulf and strengthening their collaboration. On the other hand, the EU institutions have quite a reserved standpoint in regard to building closer links with these countries…

I also discussed this topic with the Emir, who noticed that I was a European MP and also a member of the European Council. He wanted to know how he could understand these relations. I will tell you exactly what I told him: EU consists of 28 countries which agreed only with the Lisbon Treaty that they would have a joint High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

The EU relations in the field of foreign policy fall behind in comparison to the bilateral relations among member states. The countries that you’ve mentioned, including Slovenia, want to have excellent relations with Qatar. However, on an institutional level, EU relations fall behind, and this applies not only to Qatar and other Gulf countries, but also to China and the Russian Federation.

So, this is a phenomenon where, due to different circumstances, the intensity of relations at the EU level is constantly falling behind a step or two sometimes, in comparison to the bilateral relations between certain EU member countries.

Slovenia
Slovenia lies at the heart of Europe and is known as the “land on the sunny side of the Alps.” It is a member of the European Union and NATO. The country occupies an area of 20,273 sq. km which is about the size of Kuwait and has a population comparable to Qatar – 2.05 million.

The agreement on free trade between the EU and the GCC hasn’t been signed yet and negotiations on the agreement are currently suspended.  Will you support this agreement and push for its adoption?

In principle I would support the agreement and in principle I have supported it. Europe is not in the position as it used to be once when it could pretentiously choose its partners in the world. Today, we see that Europe is just one of the players and, by no means is it in the best position, even though it is united today, unlike the past. It is obvious that our biggest partners, such as the USA and the Russian Federation, are turning to another side, for example, the Pacific basin.

Europe will have to understand, and as soon as possible, that it is no longer the one who ultimately makes the decisions about this world, but that it is only one of the players who is not even the most powerful one, which means that it will have to adapt to the changing relations. Only 20 years ago, Qatar was not as important as it is today, and this goes for China as well. We have noticed some changes with some countries, but with others there are still no indications that they are moving from a standstill or that they are improving their relations and establishing new contacts.

Last fall, following the initiative of the United Left within the Slovenian Parliament, there was a debate on the recognition of the Palestinian state. Do you think that this recognition could open many doors for Slovenia in the Arab world?

I visited both the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the head of the Palestinian autonomous region. I had very sincere talks with both of them. The recognition of the Palestinian state I see as an attempt of the international community to initiate the process of reaching the final solution i.e. the solution by the two states that would release the tension throughout the region.

In my opinion, this release of the tension and a sincere cooperation between Palestine and Israel would become a true pillar of stability in the Middle East. Currently, it is still one of the burning issues in the world.

If and when Slovenia decides to recognize Palestine, it should be viewed as a sincere effort on the part of Slovenia to find a solution which would secure permanent peace and coexistence, while the Palestinians will have to become aware that the recognition means taking over the responsibility and commitment of controlling the use of force to a much greater extent than this is the case now.

The autonomous authorities cannot say that they have no control over Hamas and, at the same time, expect international recognition. The situation is complicated, but, in principal, it is the right way to think about it. A few years ago I was not fond of this idea, but in the meanwhile no solution was found. Precisely because of this fact, one should think in this direction.

Is there something that Slovenia can learn from Qatar?

Slovenia, of course, doesn’t have such natural resources as Qatar. But everything I saw there was fascinating. That entrepreneurial thinking, modern conception, the very development of Doha as a city – all this creates a feeling like you have just entered the future. We, the Slovenians, as well as the Europeans – we are very traditional in our mentality.

That traditionalism we tend to attribute to this part of the Arab world, but when faced with this world (on the ground) you realise that it is far more innovative than ours. In these traditional conditions as one might expect, they unexpectedly think in an innovative manner. This is why I was so stunned. Here and there, of course, you find some signs of traditional life, but when talking to the leading men, when you see what they have made and built – you remain speechless and realise that not everything is connected to oil and gas, but also to the mentality and forward thinking.

However, except for oil and gas, Qatar has very limited resources…

That is correct. And Qatar is deeply aware of that fact. It is aware that, in the future, the development, especially sustainable development, will depend less and less on fossil fuels and energy sources and those fossil fuels will not be as significant as they are today.

Therefore, the profit that is created today is redirected into other economic sectors which are not connected to the exploitation of fossil fuels. This reinvesting in other sectors is what particularly impressed me about Qatar. If Qatar was to invest only in the energy sector, it would be able to develop and live only as long as gas is competitive on the market.

It seems that the Europeans have become prisoners of the neoliberal concept in the sense that they understand privatization as a remedy for their social problems. In the Gulf, the exact reverse process is taking place, because the state funds i.e. the funds led by the state are constantly increasing their assets both in the country and abroad. Some criticise these processes for their lack of transparency, even though this is improved every year, and managing state property is very successful in the economic sense. Is there anything in this area that we can learn from Qatar and other Gulf countries?

The first thought that comes to my mind in this regard is the fact that they are definitely more efficient and that they better manage state property than we do with the corporate management of the state property. Although I did not delve deeper into this matter, it is obvious that Qatar seeks and applies best practices in the corporate management of their fund that is sui generis.

What is most important, with this kind of management, is that the fund generates incomes, not losses. It is not always so in Slovenia. When it comes to this, we have certain prejudices and you are right about that. Other Gulf countries also have their funds, and there is also a Norwegian fund, as well as Chinese funds.

There are numerous examples today showing that managing property is equally important as the property itself. This is exactly what I pointed out in my speech to diplomats at the beginning of the year and it is obvious that we will have to take this into account in the future.

Will Slovenia, similar to some other countries, take the step forward and facilitate the influx of Qatari investments by eliminating potential bureaucratic obstacles, if any?

Given the fact that this was a working visit with the aim of just meeting the Emir, the visit should be viewed in light of the sincere efforts by both parties to enhance collaboration. From this point on, all those who are responsible must take a step forward and do their part of the work. But what is accomplished is not small. I am very pleased to have had this opportunity and will do my best so that it is not wasted. It is with great hope that I look at the future relations between Slovenia and Qatar.

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