Director of Qatar’s Government Communications Office: “Sticking to your principles is most important”

November 18, 2017

In a public interview at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q), the director of Qatar’s Government Communication Office (GCO), His Excellency Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed Al Thani, called for principled communications, greater government transparency, and willingness to cope with external scrutiny.

Sheikh Saif has headed the GCO since it was created by Emiri Decree in 2015 to encourage the flow of information between Qatar’s ministries and other agencies with the citizenry internally and the world outside. The office heralded Qatar’s effort to craft a modern strategy for communication based on the free flow of information, but respecting local values and traditions.

Commenting on the blockade of Qatar in the context of the country’s longstanding commitment to international outreach, he argued that continued dialogue– at home, in the Middle East, and globally – is a central pillar of Qatar’s communication strategy. 

Sheikh Saif said the GCO’s focus has remained constant in which, “Sticking to our principles is most important to us,” he said. “Put simply, the GCO’s role is to coordinate communication strategies across each ministry, and communicate the facts and engage externally, whether in Qatar or elsewhere.”

In his opening remarks, Everette E. Dennis, NU-Q dean and CEO, who moderated the session   commended the Sheikh for developing an office that departs from more controlling ministries of communication, common in some states that “most often constrain, rather than enhance public understanding.” He noted that several NU-Q graduates serve in positions with GCO, and have been on the ground floor in helping develop “this new and imaginative agency.” 

Since the blockade, Sheikh Saif said it has become clear that engagement and dialogue are the most constructive way forward. He said that the GCO and other ministries “continue to intensively engage with media,” before adding, “we remain clear that we do not fear the boycott, and we are willing to sit at the table and build a dialogue.”

Speaking to an audience of students, faculty, and staff, he was asked by the dean about Qatar’s attitudes towards freedom of speech, and said that the media has been important to Qatar’s evolution. “Whether that’s regarding labor practices or foreign affairs, scrutiny has helped to shape policy. If we disagree with a piece of coverage, we may not get a correction, but it’s important that we remain tenacious in speaking to the media and presenting the facts,” he said.

When asked to assess the quality of media reporting around the globe, Sheikh Saif pointed to coverage in the U.S. and European media where he said journalists “report both sides.”  International media coverage, he said, has been robust as it has follow the path of the blockade. Similarly, he said, local media in Qatar have been fulsome in their coverage, while media of the blockading countries has been more one-sided and sometimes a purveyor of fake news. 

Dean Dennis observed a greater public commitment to freedom of expression since the blockade began and asked whether remarks by His Highness the Emir and the foreign minister respectively on CBS 60 Minutes and at London’s Chatham House would hold after the blockade.  Sheikh Saif agreed that coverage of the blockade had highlighted trends that were already underway. 

On social media, he said that Qatar does not censor social media. “People in Qatar now use social media in both Arabic and English to share views. Social media helps us understand opinions and improve governance. We try to interact with comments from people locally and to share these with appropriate ministries for consideration. We are not very sensitive, regarding various issues, whether the World Cup or foreign policy,” he said. NU-Q conducts an annual study of media use in Qatar and the larger Middle East that confirms heavy use of social media in the country.

As for Qatar’s diplomatic agenda after the blockade, he said, “Unlike some countries who have different strategies. We don’t hire lobbyists to do our bidding. Qataris and government officials will continue to engage, whether that’s with Congress, think tanks, universities, or other people in the society who have issues. We do it through ensuring we have a constant stream of visits with media outlets and others every few months and ongoing activities which allow us to directly engage with public opinion. We do it as a government, not as an office.”

During the hour-long conversation, Sheikh Saif offered a behind the scenes view of how the GCO operates and a reflection on its development since 2015 while the dean noted that the office was fortuitously for Qatar up and running when the blockade occurred. 

Some in the audience were students and faculty in NU-Q’s extensive strategic communication program.