Qatar’s architect of a new life for Gazans

Qatar’s architect of a new life for Gazans
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The Gulf state of Qatar is often accused of providing the cement that the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas uses to build attack tunnels in the Gaza Strip against Israel. The Qatari businessman who runs his country’s humanitarian support operation for Palestinians is straightforward in his response to the accusation: “This is b*******.”

Sitting in his rather rundown office in the headquarters of his construction company on a ring road in Doha, Mohammed Al Emadi initially is reluctant to speak to me, fearing that I shall twist his words, an experience he says he has suffered when meeting journalists. After a short interrogation he allows me to take notes in the hour-long conversation.

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From his point of view, Ambassador Al Emadi has a good story to tell. The diplomatic title comes from his days in the Qatari foreign service. He started his career in 1983 as an architect in the projects department of the Doha municipality, but shifted to the foreign ministry when his boss — the now-retired policy meister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, known simply as HBJ — became foreign minister.

Al Emadi left in the 1990s to become head of Qatar Telecoms for more than two years but then joined the contracting group established by his father 50 years ago. Since 2012, he has combined running the family construction company with spending more than $700 million of Qatar’s huge natural gas revenues on Gaza reconstruction.

He reels off the statistics: 110 projects, 4,800 apartments, roads (including a 28-km highway between Rafah, on the border with Egypt, and Gaza City), a hospital. He is particularly proud of Hamad City (named for the former emir of Qatar, the father of the current ruler, Emir Tamim). It has 2,300 housing units, each 120 square meters, each costing $48,000, including infrastructure. Al Emadi says his costs are 30 percent less than anyone else’s and the quality is 70 percent better. Glossy official reports of the Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs Gaza Reconstruction Committee back up his claims.

How did he do it? Al Emadi is a natural raconteur and an inveterate name-dropper. Every two or three months he has flown to the Jordanian capital, Amman, and then driven into Israel. He stays in hotels in Gaza, Tel Aviv, Herzliya or Jerusalem. The Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem is “the best.” An old friend is “General Mordechai,” the former Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). He speaks of the trust he has built with Israeli officials. But he also is trusted by the Palestinians, who are open with him. When Al Emadi set up an office in Gaza, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile in Qatar, told him not to employ Hamas people (“They only know how to fight”).

His view of the politics of Gaza is candid: Hamas is not popular; it is doing nothing for the people. Only 35 percent support Hamas. Another 35 percent support Fatah, the more secular rival Palestinian group led by President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

He avoided any negative comments about Israel or its politicians. The Qatari-Israel relationship dates to the 1990s and is complicated. An Israeli team wearing Israeli insignia competed along with 77 other countries at the 48th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships held in Doha last week, but the world’s media concentrated its coverage on the judo competition in Abu Dhabi, the capital of Qatar’s regional rival, the United Arab Emirates, where Israel won two gold medals.

Qatar’s construction work in the Gaza Strip ended last year. The money being spent now is for “quietness” — $60 million for fuel for the power plant, other money for salaries. Gaza needs 550 MW of electricity. Its own power plant produces 50 MW; 120 MW comes from Israel, and 28 MW from Egypt, although the latter is not dependable, he says. The net result is that no one in Gaza gets more than eight hours a day. By increasing the number of turbines in the power plant, he hopes to double that.

Last Friday, three days after our interview, no violent clashes were reported on the border even though, a week earlier, full-scale war had been in prospect. A ceasefire deal, perhaps brokered by Egypt, is being mooted. I asked Al Emadi what his prescription was, reminding him that as an architect he was trained to find solutions. He smiled and said he had an idea that he discussed with “Jared” — Kushner, that is, President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally MORE’s son-in-law — who was “in my house here in Doha.” And he met Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special representative for international negotiations. 

And what is his idea? He smiled, but refused to say. Whatever it is, it is sorely needed by Gazans and the region.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.