On Monday, President Donald Trump made good on his promise that America will sever ties with the World Health Organization (WHO) because “China has total control” over the United Nations agency. It is unfortunate that his administration is refusing to foster international solidarity as the world copes with the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Instead of working with China and the WHO to fight the pathogen, Trump has embraced a non-strategic “Blame China First” strategy that will negatively impact Washington-Beijing relations for many years—if not decades—to come.
Most Arab states, however, have strong partnerships with China and have chosen to work with Beijing to demonstrate how global cooperation is the best way to face this health crisis. Qatar is a case point.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Qatar has joined other Gulf states such as the UAE in terms of practicing “virus diplomacy.”
From the Qatari perspective, showing global solidarity amid the pandemic is critical. Setting aside political problems and working with diverse countries—including both the US and China—are necessary to cope with COVID-19, which has resulted in more than 100,000 cases and 133 deaths in Qatar as of July 6. Along with the US and China, Afghanistan, Australia, Belgium, France, Gaza, Germany, Kuwait, India, Iran, Italy, Lebanon, Spain, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Yemen have received aid from Doha. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Qatar has joined other Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in terms of practicing “virus diplomacy,” as they see the pandemic as an opportunity to boost humanitarian credentials while bolstering their “soft power” influence in virtually all corners of the world.
Helping One Another
Earlier this year, when some countries were watching the dire situation in China with foreboding and suspicion, Qatar was providing China with assistance. As early as February, the Qataris sent roughly 300 tons of medical supplies to Beijing.
Doha also used its position as a global transport hub to assist China with free air cargo transportation. As the Chief Executive of Qatar Airways Akbar Al Baker stated, “When this crisis began, we knew we had to contribute to support our friends in China.” He emphasized that “[Qatar Airways is] in a unique position where [they] are able to provide immediate humanitarian support through the provision of aircraft and donating medical supplies as well as coordinating logistical arrangements.”
Once COVID-19 hit Qatar itself, Beijing decided to reciprocate. In early April, China’s Ambassador to Qatar Zhou Jian asserted, “China and Qatar are strategic partners, who have joined hands in the face of adversity, and are supporting each other and fighting side by side the novel coronavirus disease outbreak.” Beijing’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, also called Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, to coordinate efforts aimed at containing the virus’ spread. As Jonathan Fulton, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, explained, both Chinese and Qatari officials are cooperating on a bilateral basis in ways that underscore their countries’ mutual understanding that they are both in this pandemic together.
It’s not just about rhetoric. Beijing has sent significant amounts of aid to the Arabian Peninsula country throughout the crisis. Chinese firms from Shanghai as well as China Southern Airline, gathered protective supplies which they provided to Qatar Airways. In addition, the Chinese have helped Qatar in terms of training health professionals, sharing experiences in coping with the pathogen, and opening a knowledge center online.
Thanks to China, the Qataris have received 4 million medical masks and 640,000 bottles of disinfectant.
Thanks to China, the Qataris have received 4 million medical masks and 640,000 bottles of disinfectant. Qatar Charity, a Doha-based humanitarian organization, received 90,000 pairs of medical gloves and 7,500 protective suits from the Bank of China QFC branch. President of the Bank of China QFC, Lin Shengqiang, spoke at a ceremony for the aid delivery and stated: “Given our prior experiences aiding hospitals in China, we are well aware of the needs of personal protective equipment in the fight against the pandemic. Working with the Qatar Charity and the local hospital, we hope that our joint efforts can ease the pressure on medical professionals and provide assistance to those in need.”
While it is popular in the US for officials across the political spectrum to blame China for COVID-19, governments in the Gulf region have refrained from doing so. To the contrary, there is widespread appreciation for Beijing’s help. Rather than pointing fingers at the Chinese, the Qataris and others in the Gulf are engaged in serious dialogue with Beijing about enhancing Sino-Arab cooperation in the struggle against the coronavirus. The Gulf Arabs seem to be focused on ways to learn from the Chinese and their experiences in Wuhan. As Jasper Hamann, Editor at Arabia Policy, has pointed out, the Qataris have embraced certain Chinese tactics for coping with the pathogen such as isolation methods, construction of hospitals solely dedicated to coronavirus patients, testing, joint prevention and control, and treatment regimens.
Lessons for an International Audience
Amid this current COVID-19 crisis, governments and societies across the globe should look to Sino-Qatari solidarity as a model for cooperation between different peoples from different regions of the world. Rather than stoking nationalist sentiments while rallying against the Chinese, the Qataris have maturely decided to work closely with Beijing in the interest of their own citizens and, by extension, all people worldwide. This is not to say that China, which was initially irresponsible in failing to identify and report the crisis, is blameless.
A one-way blame game targeting Beijing can prevent the world from successfully coping with the pathogen.
Furthermore, China’s government covering up the coronavirus outbreak and silencing those who were critical gives critics validity when arguing that the rest of the world has hardly any reason to believe that Chinese authorities will be transparent and forthcoming when it comes to investigating the pandemic’s origins. Nonetheless, a one-way blame game targeting Beijing can prevent the world from successfully coping with the pathogen.
Looking ahead, we know that COVID-19 will not be the last global health crisis which humanity must face. Many future viruses will fuel major problems that put global solidarity to test. Although coronavirus originated in China, the next pathogen could start anywhere. This particular coronavirus crisis should thus prompt the international community to better understand that working together is the only viable path for dealing not only with COVID-19, but also addressing other transregional issues such as climate change, environmental refugee flows, and poverty.