By Igor Slavinsky
The President of Belarus has met Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar — an Arab state situated on the bank of the Persian (or Arabian, as it’s called locally) Gulf. Afterwards, in Doha, a package of agreements was signed between our governments and companies, with talks conducted in a warm and friendly atmosphere — although the temperature outside was above 45 degrees Celsius. Our two states share interests in the fields of petro-chemistry, gas industry, potash fertiliser production, investments into property and military-technical collaboration — among others. Belarus is keen to raise its co-operation with Qatar into a strategic partnership, making the most of every opportunity.
Four thousand kilometres divide Minsk and Doha but no time difference is observed, as our two states share a single time zone. This is naturally an advantage but is not the major reason for our states enjoying such active and fruitful business links. Belarus boasts good relations with all states in the Persian Gulf but Qatar stands out against this generally positive background.
This was Mr. Lukashenko’s second trip to Qatar, after a ten year break, and he admitted that he was much impressed with the changes which are evident. The Emir of Qatar — whom the President called his great personal friend — visited Minsk two years ago. As any Arabist can confirm, rare foreign voyages by Persian monarchs testify to the greatest favour and interest.
In fact, Belarus is the only state in the CIS and Eastern Europe from where citizens can fly to Doha directly by Qatar Airways, obtaining visas at the airport. Similar privileges are only granted to the citizens of the USA, Western Europe, Japan and Australia. In turn, Minsk has also demonstrated flexibility, backtracking from its principle of diplomatic reciprocity to lift visas for Qatari citizens. This sets an example for co-operation with other countries regarding this delicate issue…
Since 2009, Belarus has been visited by numerous governmental and business delegations from Qatar, who have toured our oil refineries and potash facilities, construction sites in Minsk and others which seem attractive from the point of view of international business.
When the world’s financial-economic crisis broke, a lack of capital was registered. However, this did not affect wealthy Qatar. This small state (just 11,500 square kilometres, with a 1.5m population) has great deposits of oil and, especially, gas, ensuring its financial stability. Its money is now being invested all over the globe.
The Qatar Investment Authority is estimated to hold in excess of $60bn of assets, owning a part of shares of the London Stock Exchange. It also owns part of Volkswagen, Paris Saint-Germain football club, the most famous London department store — Harrods, and numerous property objects in the UK (worth hundreds of millions of Dollars). Specialists are convinced that investments will continue growing, respectively to Qatar’s profits. Moreover, the state enjoys the highest GDP per capita worldwide.
Of course, Qatar’s special position is grounded in its energy resources. This small state is ranked third globally for volumes of natural gas. Having learnt how to liquefy it and ship by tanker, Qatar is proving a worthy rival to Gazprom and other similar corporations. Qatar is now building terminals to liquefy gas, along the whole perimeter of the European Union. It’s a sphere of great interest to Belarus, where energy independence is vital.
Belarus-Qatar direct trade has never been a priority and is unlikely to become so, since the Qatari market is modest in size and is focused on the UK (from which it gained independence only 40 years ago) and the USA (with whom it enjoys close relations). Our prospects rely on investment co-operation.
Several major projects are being negotiated between Belarus and Qatar, including the production of complex fertilisers in Qatar (worth $1.7bn). The construction of a hotel-sports complex in Minsk for the 2014 IIHF World Championship (worth approximately $100m) is also on the agenda. Qatar is a true pundit in this field. It may look like an endless desert from a bird’s eye view, but it will be hosting the 2022 Football World Cup. Fans even joke that local stadiums will be equipped with air conditioning. Belarus plans to attract investments from Qatari companies into the mining of mineral resources, property and tourism. Among other documents signed during Mr. Lukashenko’s visit was an intergovernmental memorandum on mutual understanding in the field of prospecting, mining and processing of mineral resources.
The President’s second day in Qatar was devoted to informal talks. Mr. Lukashenko again met Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, at the invitation of the Qatari ruler, meeting not in the business-like atmosphere of the Emir’s residence but at the fashionable Four Seasons Hotel, where the Belarusian delegation stayed. According to the President, our two countries can efficiently interact in the fields of energy, petro-chemistry, transport, communications, construction, food production and manufacturing of construction materials and industrial products. Belarus believes that attraction of Qatari investments into these branches would generate the greatest profit. In turn, Minsk guarantees to promptly settle all issues. This was well demonstrated when a land lot was allocated in Minsk for the construction of a hotel-sports complex for the 2014 IIHF World Championship.
Summing up the results of his visit, Mr. Lukashenko noted that the sphere of our two states’ collaboration has been extended. “Belarus boasts unique opportunities while Qatar possesses huge financial resources. Their lack of possibilities and our lack of finances form the foundation of our mutual relations. The Emir wants to inject money into profitable projects, to enhance the welfare of his people, so we’ve proposed various ventures,” he said, speaking in detail about these projects.
At the Emir’s request, the setting up of a powerful financial centre in Belarus is being studied. Qatar has extensive, successful experience of accomplishing such projects, and is also interested in logistics. Belarus has proposed establishing two centres: near Orsha and Brest. Additionally, Doha is interested in the creation of a powerful industrial zone in the Republic: Qatari Island in Europe. Qatar has asked Belarus to allocate land for this and some other construction sites, since a range of projects are being discussed, including the building of a Belarusian residence for the Emir.
Qatar is showing interest in raising its presence in Belarus. Mr. Lukashenko’s visit was much covered by the local printed media, while a local TV channel endlessly broadcast the visit. Two English language newspapers — The Gulf Times and Peninsula — printed photos of the Doha Belarusian-Qatari talks for several days in a row.
Members of the Belarusian state delegation well represented the range of interests in this small Persian Gulf state. The President was accompanied by the First Deputy Prime Minister — Vladimir Semashko, the Foreign Minister — Sergei Martynov, the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Minister — Vladimir Tsalko, the Aid to the President for National Security Affairs — Viktor Lukashenko, Belneftekhim Chairman — Igor Zhilin, and others. Talks were held with Qatari partners, discussing the mining of fertilisers, potassium and other mineral deposits.
It’s amazing how Qatar has managed to create a dynamically developing economy under such tough climatic conditions (the temperature of the Persian Gulf’s waters is the same as the temperature of the human body while the air is much hotter). Its GDP demonstrates 20 percent growth annually, but oil generated Dollars must be used wisely, which Qatar is succeeding in doing. The monarchy is not an isolated regime; it’s open to the world — attracting the best workers and guarding its image carefully. One of the best airlines in the world is Qatari, while Doha hosts the famous tennis tournament for women. The largest American and European universities have opened branches in the local educational town.
Meanwhile, the Qatari capital is seeking interesting projects in other countries; its attention to Belarus indicates the attractiveness of our economy. The President has many times said that no closed topics exist with Qatar. To learn more about one another, Minsk and Doha have agreed to exchange Days of Culture.
Military co-operation — which is not our major priority at present — is also worth mentioning. It’s known that the Qatari army is focused on liaising with Western states; the Emir even studied at the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.
Moreover, Qatar participates in NATO operations in Libya. Nevertheless, Doha and Minsk have established closed contacts in the military sphere. In October 2008, a Belarusian delegation — headed by the Defence Minister — took part in ‘Ferocious Falcon’ international military exercises in Qatar. Later, in 2010, our observers went to the Persian Gulf region, where Arab, American and European military forces were polishing their mastery.
The Emir’s nationals appreciate the professionalism of the Belarusian military and often come to Minsk to enhance their qualifications (overseen by the Interior Ministry, the President’s Security Service and the Defence Ministry). A year ago, newspapers wrote about nine Qatari military men who completed a six month course at Kolodishchi Dog Breeding Centre. In turn, our servicemen have studied Arabic in Doha.
This is how reciprocity works, covering all spheres of our bilateral collaboration. To strengthen this co-operation and start realising projects, Minsk and Doha will exchange visits by business circles in the near future. Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani has promised to come to Minsk this winter.