Qatar Above Reproach?
You know that bad kid in the neighborhood? The one who shoplifts, loiters and sells your kid pot but who you can never rat out because his mom is your boss’s sister? The US government sure does and they’re now in the awkward process of trying to delicately deliver a smackdown to a citizen of a nation they’d rather not piss off.
The “bad kid” in question here is of course Mohammad al-Madadi, the Qatari diplomat who made the boneheaded decision to take a smoke in an airplane lav yesterday and then crack a terrorist joke when caught. Not so funny, least of all to the flight’s 162 other passengers who experienced the distinct terror of having two F-16 fighters intercept the Denver-bound flight. All told, the incident was a scary shock, just three months after the attempted Christmas day bombing, and cost taxpayers an easy $1 mil.
Censure, you ask? Not for diplomats. While an ordinary citizen would face steep consequences for such cavalier comments (not to mention the federal crime of in-flight smoking) al-Madadi is protected under the archaic provision known as diplomatic immunity:
Under international protocol — the 1961 Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations — diplomats in foreign countries enjoy broad immunity from prosecution. That immunity can only be waived by a diplomat’s home government, something that is rarely requested and even more rarely granted.
This rule is familiar to most diplomats as the “park anytime, anywhere for however long,” pass and is typically more of a nuisance than a threat. One would think however, that in the case of truly-egregious flaunting of US law, officials would take action. Not necessarily.
But even without charges being pressed against him and without such a waiver, the U.S. could have moved to declare Al-Madidi “persona non grata” and expel him from the country. However, officials said they would not pursue this, given the close nature of U.S.-Qatari ties and the importance the country plays in the Middle East.
Had al-Madadi been so unfortunate as to hail from Yemen, Kyrgyzstan or maybe Mauritius he very likely would have been on the first plane home. But Qatar is different. Not only does the tiny Persian Gulf country lay claim to the world’s largest reserve of Liquified Natural Gas (or LNG, a form of energy considered environmentally-superior to oil fuel or coal), they boast a $65 billion Sovereign Wealth Fund and a burgeoning stock market that’s skirted the region’s financial slump thanks to its leaders’ slow-and-steady approach to economic development. And did I mention they are peaceful, pretty darn liberal (for the Gulf) and have embraced freedom of the speech more genuinely than arguably any other country in the region?
So yes, as a rare, stable ally in a contentious part of the world, Qatar is absolutely getting special treatment. It’s not fair but it is strategic and probably wise. Al-Madadi’s biggest crime here is arrogance. And although it might win favor with a certain hardcore subset of self-dubbed “Patriots” to send him packing, insulting Qatar is not worth the political price. If Qatar wants to compensate us for the time and trouble of a military jet entourage, we should take it. Gas, cash and priceless works of art accepted.