Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced his regret last week that some prominent Americans refuse to acknowledge how China is “detaining and abusing more than one million Uighur Muslims in internment camps.” Fortunately, some foreign governments have moved in the opposite direction, such as Qatar, which withdrew in August from a letter signed by 37 governments denying that China has subjected Uyghur Muslims to mass incarceration and frequent torture. The Qatari withdrawal indicates that Doha may be prepared to work with the U.S. to publicize such abuses.
The letter denying China’s human rights violations came in response to a statement from 22 democratic governments that called upon China to stop the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other minorities. Along with Qatar, signatories to the response letter included the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Russia, Pakistan, Cuba, and North Korea. The contents of the letter stood clearly at odds with reporting by the State Department and U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In their letter, Qatar and its fellow signatories praised China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights” and claimed that “religious extremism” has caused “enormous damage to people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.” The letter also cited “China’s commitment to openness and transparency” while employing Beijing preferred euphemism for the detention camps, calling them “vocational education and training centers.” The signatories concluded that the people of the Uyghur region of Xinjiang now “enjoy a stronger sense of happiness, fulfillment and security.”
In Doha’s request to withdraw its signature from the letter, Qatari Ambassador to the UN Ali al-Mansouri stated that “co-authorizing the aforementioned letter would compromise our foreign policy key priorities.” “We wish to maintain a neutral stance and we offer our mediation and facilitation services,” Mansouri noted.
Doha’s withdrawal of its signature represents a welcome first step, even though it has yet to condemn or acknowledge Beijing’s abuses. Nonetheless, Qatar has become the first Arab country to hint at reservations about China’s Uyghur policy, providing a sharp contrast to its Saudi and Emirati rivals. During his February trip to Beijing, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman defended China on state television, claiming that “China has the right” to conduct “anti-terrorism and de-extremisation work for its national security.” On an official state visit to Abu Dhabi, Chinese President Xi Jinping thanked the UAE for its “valuable support” on the Uyghur issue.
While Qatar’s human rights record is far from spotless – particularly regarding its treatment of foreign laborers – in this instance it may be prepared to work with the U.S. toward a shared objective. Even then, caution is in order, since Qatar has funded a slew of extremist organizations throughout the Middle East, demonstrated little will to crack down on terror financiers within its borders, and deepened ties with Iran in the face of President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. Yet China’s treatment of the Uyghurs is so repugnant that the U.S. should laud cooperation from almost any quarter.
Washington should thus welcome Doha’s move and encourage it to issue a clear condemnation of Beijing’s abuses, while mobilizing others in the Arab world to do the same. Moreover, the U.S. should push other Gulf states to follow suit in withdrawing their endorsement of Beijing. With China’s repression steadily worsening, Washington’s Gulf allies have an opportunity to demonstrate real solidarity with fellow Muslims. Finally, the secretary of state should encourage the president himself to speak out on this issue, so Beijing understands that the U.S. government stands united against these grave violations.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she focuses on the Gulf. Follow her on Twitter @varshakoduvayur. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.