Time brings countries closer
[b]New possibilities for Belarus in Persian Gulf region [/b] Over the past fifty years, the Persian Gulf has turned from a global periphery area to a key region, attracting attention from major countries. It seems not long ago — in the early 20th century — that pearl divers were the main builders of its wealth; of course, the local desert was full of other treasures. In just a few decades, the largest oil and gas deposits have made the Persian Gulf nations the most prosperous on the planet; their GDP per capita is higher than that of Western Europe. However, the Arab elite are no longer satisfied with merely pumping ‘black gold’; it prefers to invest oil-related dollars in domestic and international development. While the economic crisis was accompanied by a lack of resources, Doha, Dubai and Abu-Dhabi witnessed an advantageous position, becoming new global financial centres.
Over the past fifty years, the Persian Gulf has turned from a global periphery area to a key region, attracting attention from major countries. It seems not long ago — in the early 20th century — that pearl divers were the main builders of its wealth; of course, the local desert was full of other treasures.
In just a few decades, the largest oil and gas deposits have made the Persian Gulf nations the most prosperous on the planet; their GDP per capita is higher than that of Western Europe. However, the Arab elite are no longer satisfied with merely pumping ‘black gold’; it prefers to invest oil-related dollars in domestic and international development. While the economic crisis was accompanied by a lack of resources, Doha, Dubai and Abu-Dhabi witnessed an advantageous position, becoming new global financial centres.
Minsk long ago began developing its eastern avenue of foreign policy (a far-sighted decision, as proven today) and is keen to work with the Persian Gulf states. Belarus — with its huge industrial potential which needs investments and modernisation — is a promising partner for the Gulf states.
In mid-August, Alexander Lukashenko visited one of the most influential states in the region — Qatar. As the President has promised, the concrete results of his trip should be evident by the end of the year. Meanwhile, experts are already characterising the trip as a success, calling it a real breakthrough. The major, and most elaborated, bilateral project envisages the construction of a facility near Doha, producing multiple nutrient fertilisers (with an annual capacity of 2mln. tonnes).
Doha in focus
Qatar’s huge 400 hectare man-made island is called the Pearl-Qatar — being a true paradise for travellers and honouring their original pearl wealth. Of course, oil and gas now form half of its GDP, accounting for the lion’s share of its exports.
Its reserves of gas are second only to those of Russia and Iran and it is an active market player. In the mid-1990s, Qatar began to liquefy natural gas, shipping it abroad. It now leads in liquefied fuel, producing over 100bn cubic metres a year. It is building terminals to liquefy gas along the whole perimeter of the European Union, which is of great interest to Belarus — being keen to diversify its energy dependence. No concrete decisions on the issue were made in Doha but it will surely be a topic for discussion in future.
Despite 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) Qatar has managed to create a dynamically developing and diversified economy. Its GDP demonstrates 20 percent growth annually. However, Doha now wants to shift from a hydrocarbon mono-economy to ‘polyphony’. Oil-generated dollars must be used wisely, and Qatar is succeeding in it.
The monarchy is not an isolated regime, being open to the world. It attracts the best workers, taking on the experience of liberal Western economies and guarding its image carefully. One of the best airlines in the world is Qatari, while Doha hosts the famous tennis tournament for women. Meanwhile, the largest American and European universities have opened branches in the local educational town.
While the Middle East is experiencing a dramatic shake-up and even some of the Persian Gulf’s richest countries are feeling tremors, this small peninsula remains ‘an island of stability’. This is largely due to the fact that the absolute monarchy is among the most liberal in the region. Qatar follows a policy which meets its interests, while supporting equal relations with the East and the West and remaining independent. Its Al Jazeera TV channel — launched and financed by Qatar’s Emir — is watched by a bigger audience locally than CNN or the BBC, featuring open reports which quite often irritate the major capitals of the Muslim world. Interestingly, the state joined the Libya Contact Group when Muammar Gaddafi’s conflict with the rebels began.
Four thousand kilometres divide Minsk and Doha but there’s no time difference, as our two states share a single time zone. It’s naturally an advantage but is not the major reason for our states enjoying such active and fruitful business links. Our economies perfectly complement each other: Belarus boasts technologies, industry and a profitable geographical position at the centre of Europe, while Qatar possesses financial resources to spare.
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. They lack possibilities while we lack finances, forming 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 explains.
Belarus boasts good relations with all the states in the Persian Gulf but Qatar stands out against this generally positive background. This was Mr. Lukashenko’s second trip to Doha, after a ten year break, and he admitted that he was much impressed by the evident changes. The Emir of Qatar — whom the President calls his great personal friend — visited Minsk two years ago. As any Arabist can confirm, rare foreign trips 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, obtaining visas at the airport. Similar privileges are only granted to citizens of the USA, Western Europe, Japan and Australia. In turn, Minsk has demonstrated flexibility, backtracking from its principle of diplomatic reciprocity to lift visas for Qatari citizens. Of course, if Belarus is truly interested in accepting foreign guests, tourists and businessmen, then our Foreign Ministry should take these steps. Our visa relations with Qatar must set 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 for investment.
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) is now actively involved in foreign property, investing in promising sites all over the globe: in the UK, Germany and the USA. As the famous Arab proverb says: ‘It’s better to keep your son at the market than money in a trunk’.
The Qatar Investment Authority is estimated to hold in excess of $60bn in assets, owing a part of shares of the London Stock Exchange. It owns part of Volkswagen, Paris Saint-Germain football club, the most famous London department store — Harrods, and numerous properties in the UK (worth hundreds of millions of dollars). Specialists are convinced that investments will continue growing, respectively to Qatar’s profits. Moreover, this state — rather than Switzerland or Monaco — enjoys the highest GDP per capita worldwide.
The fact that Belarus has joined the company of the most developed states (Qatar’s major partners) is a good indicator. Having huge financial resources, this monarchy injects exclusively into advanced technologies and can afford to employ the best specialists. We can only guess how many billionaires are eager to meet the heads of Qatar’s companies. Meanwhile, Belarusian companies have gained the opportunity, overcoming the ‘fence’ of transnational corporations.
Salt of the matter
During Mr. Lukashenko’s meeting with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, several agreements were signed and a range of major projects were outlined; if these are realised, our countries will enjoy multi-million dollar profits.
First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko and Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov have announced the details of the Doha agreements. A joint fertiliser venture could lie ahead as Belarus is one of the largest global producers of potash fertilisers while Qatar — which processes gas and oil in huge volumes — has unlimited possibilities for the production of nitrogen fertilisers. Moreover, a large deposit of raw materials for the production of phosphate fertilisers is situated nearby. An engagement agreeement was signed in Doha, indicating that serious plans are afoot; the technical specifications are being presented to the Qataris and, by the end of the year, a detailed business plan will be ready. A decision will then be made on when to commence construction works.
It’s well known that multiple nutrient fertilisers cost much more than their individual components. With this in mind, Belarus is eager to set up a facility in Qatar (to supply Asian markets) while doing the same domestically — to satisfy the needs of Europe and the CIS. Minsk has suggested that Doha might like to take part in this project.
At present, various variants for Belaruskali’s co-operation with Qatari are being studied, with the company actively searching for foreign partners. “Selling some shares is possible,” confirms Mr. Semashko, while Mr. Martynov adds, “There is also the option of Qatar purchasing rights of access to Belarusian potassium deposits. This could take the form of a joint facility or a concession for the development of a new deposit.”
Simultaneously, Belarus is inviting Qatari businesses to develop iron ore and brown coal in its territory. An intergovernmental memorandum of understanding in the field of prospecting, mining and processing of mineral resources has been signed, among others.
Investments into the future
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.
Belarus believes that the attraction of Qatari investments should generate a powerful effect and, it seems, Qatar understands this. During Mr. Lukashenko’s visit, he twice met the Emir, while our delegation members held numerous talks. Qatar is showing interest in raising its presence in Belarus. Indirect proofs include the coverage of the visit by the Qatari printed media. There were no reports on Al Jazeera that I noticed but local TV channels endlessly broadcast the visit. Meanwhile, two English language newspapers — The Gulf Times and Peninsula — printed photos of the Doha Belarusian-Qatar talks for several days in a row.
Minsk is guaranteeing the prompt settlement of all issues, as demonstrated by a prestigious land lot being allocated in Minsk’s Pobediteley Avenue for the construction of a hotel-sports complex for the 2014 IIHF World Championship — worth $100m. Qatar is, in fact, a true pundit in this field. It may look like an endless desert from above, but it will be hosting the 2022 Football World Cup. Fans even joke that local stadiums will be equipped with air conditioning.
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. 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.
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.
To lift the last obstacles on the path of communication between our two states’ citizens, Minsk and Doha plan to launch a direct flight in the coming months.
By Igor Kolchenko