Switzerland is preparing to open an embassy in Qatar, a country it sees as an increasingly important player in the region.
Ambassador Martin Aeschbacher tells swissinfo.ch that the small Gulf kingdom “is on the rise” economically.
Aeschbacher says relations with Gulf states are growing in importance. Qatar in particular plays a mediator role in the region, something he will be following “close-hand”.
The new embassy opening comes against the backdrop of closures of various Swiss embassies worldwide as part of restructuring of the Swiss diplomatic network. The foreign ministry announced earlier that it intended to use some of the freed-up resources for the new embassy in Doha.
Aeschbacher is an expert in Arab affairs who has served in posts in Baghdad, Tripoli and Damascus. He has presented his credentials to the Qatari foreign ministry and is due to be received by the emir of the country.
swissinfo.ch: Why open a Swiss embassy in Qatar now?
Martin Aeschbacher: Switzerland is a country that tries to be universal in its diplomatic relations with a large number of countries. We have had relations with Qatar since its independence [from being a British protectorate] but these were directed from [the Swiss embassy in] Kuwait. Today Qatar is playing a more dynamic role in this region. That coincided with Qatar’s wish for us to open an embassy in Doha and for Qatar to do so in Bern.
For the moment I’m an ambassador without an embassy but eventually there will be a complete embassy.
swissinfo.ch: What motivated this decision?
M.A.: Qatar is a country that is on the rise. Of course it’s a small country when you consider its land size and population, but the progress achieved has been impressive. It’s also a rich country, like Switzerland. It is very ambitious. Its enormous projects interest our companies, which incidentally are well regarded here.
But there’s not only the economic aspect. Politically this country plays a prominent role, not only in the region but also within a wider spectrum stretching from Sudan to Lebanon and from Yemen to Libya.
Sports-wise, Qatar is preparing to host major international events, including the 2022 football World Cup, as well as numerous conferences which the country is hosting in the fields of science, culture, education, etc. So, it’s in Switzerland’s interests to be fully represented in this country.
swissinfo.ch: Can we say then that Switzerland is moving towards a political emphasis at its Riyadh and Doha embassies, compared with the more economic approach at its embassies in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait?
M.A.: Not at all. Our relations with all countries cover all domains. Each embassy deals with political issues as well as in economic relations, consular affairs, cultural and educational cooperation.
That said, it is true that according to the specifics of a country, one area can dominate. Following this logic, it may be that the political dimension is particularly important in Qatar. In my opinion we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there has been a shift in the traditional axis of power towards the Asia-Pacific zone.
On the multilateral side, these new emerging powers are claiming political stature and decision-making power according to their increased economic status.
That’s why Switzerland is in the middle of reorienting itself in a proactive way. Relations with the Gulf states, which play a growing political role on the international scene and are significant economic partners with Switzerland, which has made big investments, are equally gaining in importance.
swissinfo.ch: Qataris have shown a lot of tact in the negotiations they led to resolve conflicts and to ease tensions between warring sides, such as in Yemen, Somalia and Lebanon. Do you see similarities with Switzerland’s role? Do you foresee any collaboration or at least an exchange of ideas between the two countries in this regard?
M.A.: It’s true that we have a lot in common with Qatar, including in mediation matters: we are both small, rich countries surrounded by larger neighbours. We are maintaining good relations with each other and are active in mediation. There I see a parallel between Switzerland and Qatar and my presence here will no doubt allow me to follow close-hand Qatar’s initiatives and diplomatic efforts.
swissinfo.ch: The Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne is preparing to open a branch in Abu Dhabi following in the footsteps of American universities and the Sorbonne that are already in Dubai. Is there a wish to expand Switzerland’s cultural and educational presence in this region?
M.A.: Switzerland is a liberal country where the state plays a lesser role than elsewhere. Those who decide are in the first instance the institutions involved, in this case economic and educational organisations, faculties… Accordingly, the role of the state is not to decide for them, but to support them, accompany them and perhaps to suggest ideas and projects.
It’s clear that this would depend on the investment allocated to such projects and the possibilities for cooperation. I’ll have the chance to visit the famous “education city”, Doha, which, it is worth remembering, already has faculties belonging to four of the most prestigious American universities. I will look for possibilities for cooperation with Switzerland, of which there should be many.
swissinfo.ch: How do you see the future?
M.A.: What I do now is exciting. I have to say I’ve been here barely two weeks. I am informing myself and learning, but I am already impressed by the projects that have been completed and are being planned. I was also struck by the multiculturalism of the country, by the relaxed atmosphere, the greenery, the need to do things well and make life easier.
Trade has progressed steadily in recent years (despite a dip in 2010-2011), according to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco). The increase is due to the fact the country was investing the proceeds of petrol and gas sales in development projects and in diversifying the economy.
In the first ten months of 2011 (latest figures available), Swiss exports to Qatar were SFr330 million ($322 million), compared with SFr130 million of imports from Qatar. Jewellery, stone and precious metal, watches and machines occupied the lion’s share of exports. Imports from Switzerland to Qatar are predominately (85%) stone and precious metals, as well as jewellery.
(Source: Seco)end of infobox
Switzerland established diplomatic ties with Qatar shortly after the country gained independence in 1973. Until now Swiss interests in Qatar have been represented by the Swiss embassy in Kuwait. Currently around 60 Swiss live in Qatar.
Bilateral relations have been strengthened in recent years, according to the Swiss foreign ministry. Switzerland signed a bilateral accord with Qatar on air transport in 1995.
An accord on the protection of investments entered into force in 2004. The same year, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in the field of science and education.
(Source: Swiss foreign ministry)end of infobox
Martin Aeschbacher was born in Bern in 1954. Between 1975-1982 he followed Islamic studies in Bern and Syria.
He started working at the foreign ministry in 1985 and has served in posts in Moscow and Cairo. On returning to Bern in 1992, he became responsible for relations between Switzerland and North Africa.
From 2003-2006 he was put in charge of the Swiss office in Baghdad. He was then dispatched to Tripoli, and had served in Damascus from the end of 2007. As a result of the Syrian crisis he was recalled to Bern for talks in August 2011, before being recalled permanently. He was appointed ambassador to Doha on February 21.
He is married to the writer Elisabeth Horem and has two children.end of infobox
(Translated from French by Jessica Dacey), swissinfo.ch