Will this duplicitous nation cut off terrorist financing, or coordinate with the Pentagon, or both?
For a brief moment it looked like President Donald Trump had done it.
He got the leaders of six Gulf nations to sign a communique pledging to eradicate the financing of extremists. The timing happened to coincide with the completion of a new center in Saudi Arabia to combat extremism. It was a powerful signal that America’s traditional allies were united against Iran and extremists.
That lasted a couple of days. By Tuesday however tension started with a quotation attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, which Qatar’s official news agency quoted him telling a graduating class of national service recruits that it was important to calm tensions with Iran, that Hamas and Hezbollah were legitimate resistance movements, and that his country has every right to host Muslim Brotherhood leaders. That last organization is banned in most Gulf countries as well as Egypt.
The speech prompted outrage from Qatar’s Arab neighbors. Al-Jazeera, the broadcaster funded in part by the Qatari government, was banned in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates following the sheikh’s reported remarks. (The Qataris have said that the official news agency was hacked and that the remarks were never delivered.) Nonetheless, official newspapers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have slammed the Qataris for the past week, accusing the small nation in the words of one columnist of being a “disobedient son.”
This kind of thing is to be expected in the region. But the conflict also played out in Washington. The setting was a wonky policy conference on Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
Normally the politics of the Middle East don’t really intrude on such affairs. But the US ambassador to Qatar, Dana Shell Smith, contacted many of the panelists in the days before the conference last week to make the case that Qatar’s new sheikh, who came into power in 2013, is committed to reforming his country’s notoriously lax attitude toward extremists, thus, he signed the communique on terror financing earlier this month.
There are some pieces of evidence about Qatar’s recent turnaround, but this tiny country has a long history of playing both sides. On the one hand Qatar hosts one of America’s most important military facilities in the region, the Al-Udeid Air Base. And yet at the same time, its neighbors accuse Qatar of running an influence campaign against the US and its allies.
Consider Abdul Rahman Omeir al-Naimi. He was a respected Qatari history professor and the founder of the AlKarama foundation, a human rights organization that focuses on political prisoners in the Islamic world. Then at the end of 2013, the Treasury Department designated him as a financier of al Qaeda. Nonetheless, nearly a year later, the “Daily Mail” reported that he continued to live openly in Qatar’s capital, Doha.
More recently the Qataris have been a host to Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Palestinian group, and when Hamas leaders unveiled a new set of principles this month, they made the announcement from a hotel in Doha.
At last week’s conference in Washington, former secretary of defense Robert Gates talked about how he traveled to Qatar for the George W. Bush administration to make the case to the Qataris to stop tolerating terror groups inside their country. “There was a good deal of nodding and explanation, but we didn’t see much change,” he said. Gates concluded: “So we have had a peculiar relationship. There have continued to be political issues with Qatar even as we have been strategic military allies.”
That peculiar relationship will now be tested. As Muslim leaders gathered in Saudi Arabia this month, one of the first tests of this new policy will be whether Qatar shows initiative in rooting out the terror supporters inside its own kingdom. It’s less clear how Qatar will respond when the rest of the world isn’t watching.