Last year, human rights organizations and western governments voiced outrage after reports published information about the Chinese government’s “pacification drive” in Xinjiang. The detention of approximately one million Muslims—mainly Uighurs—under the guise of countering radicalization, extremism, and terrorism within China’s Muslim communities shocked many in the West. President Xi Jinping’s agenda of “Sinicizing” Islam in his country has entailed prohibiting the Adhan (the Islamic call to prayer), razing mosque domes and minarets, prohibiting food products from coming with halal certifications, and wiping out Arabic writing. 

Virtually all of the governments of Muslim-majority countries have said next to nothing to push back against China and its policies concerning the Uighurs.

One could be forgiven for assuming that governments in the Arab/Islamic world would speak up in defense of the rights of Muslims in Xinjiang. Yet, at least officially, virtually all of the governments of Muslim-majority countries have said next to nothing to push back against China and its policies concerning the Uighurs while many have even come to Beijing’s defense with respect to its human rights record in Xinjiang. 

Largely attributable to China’s strong economic relations with most countries across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, these governments have had much incentive to avoid condemning human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Doing so could jeopardize their deepening ties with Beijing in an increasingly multipolar world in which China is an ascendant power. Moreover, Saudi and Egyptian officials have taken steps such as extraditing Uighurs to China as well as issuing statements to show support for Beijing’s “anti-extremism” campaign in Xinjiang. 

In response to a letter to the UN Human Rights Council signed on July 8 by 22 democratically-elected governments, which condemned the Chinese authorities for detaining a large number of its Muslim citizens in “re-education” and “rehabilitation” camps, 37 governments (including all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members) signed an alternative letter on July 12. The second letter was also sent to the UN Human Rights Council, and it voiced strong support for Beijing on this issue. Framing the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang as a domestic matter for China, these 37 states demonstrated their commitment to refraining from issuing even mild criticism or condemnation of Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs. 

The letter defending Beijing read almost like a Chinese government press release.

Put simply, the letter defending Beijing read almost like a Chinese government press release with the following language: “We commend China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights by adhering to the people-centered development philosophy and protecting and promoting human rights through development.”

Yet as Bloomberg reported in August, Qatar decided to reverse its position by removing itself from the July 12 letter. “Taking into account our focus on compromise and mediation, we believe that co-authorizing the aforementioned letter would compromise our foreign policy key priorities,” said Qatar’s permanent representative to the UN. “We wish to maintain a neutral stance, and we offer our mediation and facilitation services.” 

Although the leadership in Doha has refrained from explicitly criticizing China on the Xinjiang file, Qatar’s decision to take its name off the declaration in support of Beijing was itself a statement. It was also a decision that earned Doha much praise from Uighur activists as well as human rights organizations in the West following their strong criticism of governments of Muslim-majority countries for maintaining muted responses to China’s “pacification drive” in Xinjiang, if not outright defenses of it. 

As James Dorsey wrote, “The divergence says much about the almost decade-long fundamentally different approaches by Qatar and its main detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, towards an emerging more illiberal new world order in which minority rights are trampled upon.” Indeed, this reversal on Doha’s part was illustrative of the extent to which Qatar has become even less of a ”normal GCC member” and how the emirate is increasingly confident as it places its foreign policy even further away from Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical orbit. For the Qataris, removing themselves from the letter signed by 36 other countries was about making Doha’s narrative regarding rights and social justice more bullet-proof. 

By removing itself from a letter which expressed support for the Chinese government’s record on human rights, Qatar sent a message that it talks the talk and walks the walk . . . and that certain values, ideas, and norms shape Doha’s foreign policy.

While under a blockade imposed by Qatar’s immediate Arabian neighbors and Egypt, officials in Doha have framed the feud as an outcome of Qatari foreign policy promoting openness, pluralism, and inclusivity in the wider Middle East. Thus, by removing itself from this letter which expressed support for the Chinese government’s record on human rights, Qatar was essentially sending a message that it talks the talk and walks the walk with respect to such issues and that certain values, ideas, and norms shape Doha’s foreign policy.

How far Qatar will go to challenge China on the plight of Uighur Muslims remains to be seen. Unquestionably, there is a balance that Qatar has to strike between catering to Western governments that found the letter signed on July 12 as a disturbing sign of authoritarian regimes expressing solidarity with each other, and Doha’s interests in enhancing partnerships with non-western governments in countries such as China, Russia, India, and others. Yet such close economic relations, with China being Qatar’s third-largest trading partner last year, did not prevent the emirate from making its point by withdrawing its signature from the letter defending China’s “re-education camps” in Xinjiang.

Ultimately, there are many open questions about Qatar’s true motivations for switching its stance on China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Some analysts suspect that the purpose was to further strengthen its ties with global Islamic and/or Islamist movements. Nonetheless, Qatar’s decision bought the emirate more good will in the West and may ultimately serve to put pressure on Beijing to reconsider its policies, especially if other governments in the Islamic world believe (for whatever reason) that the time has come to abandon their defense of the Chinese government’s efforts to “Sinicize” Islam.