In the aftermath of the terrorist atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush drew a line in the sand. “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make,” he announced. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Since then, disappointingly if not surprisingly, more than a few nations have straddled that line, providing support to America and America’s enemies alike.
Is that because they sympathize with the goals of the terrorists or because they’re afraid of the terrorists, or is there some other explanation? It’s not clear. What is: No nation has hedged its bets more egregiously than Qatar.
Occupying a peninsula smaller than Connecticut jutting from eastern Arabia, Qatar’s 313,000 citizens are the wealthiest people in the world thanks to abundant natural gas reserves. Some 2.3 million foreigners — including Indians, Nepalis, Bangladeshi and Filipinos — do the work Qataris don’t want to do.
What makes Qatar America’s leading “frenemy”? On the one hand, the ruling Al Thani family hosts the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East. On the other, it extends its hospitality to the Taliban, provides refuge to Hamas leaders, takes a tolerant attitude toward al Qaeda financiers, enjoys cordial relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, supports the Muslim Brotherhood and, via Al Jazeera, its media outlet, spreads Islamist propaganda.
Recently, Qatar has doubled down on this double dealing. In April, according to sources cited by the Financial Times, Qatar paid as much as $1 billion to Iran and al Qaeda, ostensibly to secure the release of members of the royal family and their companions who were kidnapped while hunting in Iraq. In May, the Saudi press reported that Qatar’s foreign minister met with Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top terrorist master.
For these and other reasons, Qatar ought to be the subject of extensive media and scholarly scrutiny. That’s not been the case. Have its generous donations to a number of influential Washington think tanks, American universities and the Clinton Foundation been a factor? Have some of Washington’s elite lobbyists and public relations professionals been especially effective?
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), the nonpartisan policy institute I helped establish following the Sept. 11 attacks — an organization that has never accepted any foreign government funding for any purpose — began to seriously study Qatar’s activities half a decade ago. Last month, in association with the Hudson Institute and George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, FDD held a conference under the title: “Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Global Affiliates: A New U.S. Administration Considers New Policies.”
Keynote speaker Robert Gates, who served under eight U.S. presidents, notably as secretary of Defense and director of Central Intelligence, candidly discussed the regime’s support for nefarious actors and pointedly noted that the military base in Qatar is not “irreplaceable.” Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added that if behaviors don’t change, “there would absolutely be a willingness to look at other options for basing.”
Jake Sullivan, former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and former top national security adviser to Hillary Clinton, said that “the status quo of terror financing emanating from the Gulf, including from Qatar, is not sustainable we need to do more than we are presently doing to lock it down.”
FDD Senior Fellow David Weinberg, who has long studied illicit finance involving Qatar and other Gulf countries, noted that lack of transparency has made it impossible to verify claims by Qatari officials that they have undertaken meaningful reforms. No defender of the Saudis, he nevertheless offered this comparison: “The Saudis have prosecuted for terror finance hundreds of people, and they share the data, and they report on it. The Qataris do not.”
Hours after the conference, events took a strange course: A report carried by the official Qatari news agency quoted the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, criticizing President Trump, counseling friendship with Iran, praising Hamas and noting “good” relations with Israel. Qatari officials were soon claiming that the report was fake news — the result of a cyberhack. If so, who’s responsible? Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Russia have all been mentioned as suspects.
A few days later, emails to and from Yousef al Otaiba, the high-profile ambassador of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Washington, were stolen and released — by whom, again, we can only speculate. The emails were cherry-picked and given to tendentious media outlets in an attempt to embarrass the ambassador and critics of Qatar.
Abruptly, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic relations, travel and trade with Qatar and issued an ultimatum to the emir: Prove you’re with us, not against us.
Since then, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has attempted to calm Gulf waters. Mr. Trump has been less diplomatic, emphatically agreeing with the Saudis that Qatar must stop funding terrorism.
Some of the released emails were between Ambassador Otaiba and FDD experts. Al Jazeera ran pieces alleging “back-channel cooperation” as well as “clear collaboration” on a “campaign to downgrade the image and importance of Qatar.” For the record: There has been no collaboration. We’re involved in no conspiracy. And by the way: If email exchanges are “back-channel,” what constitutes front channel?
Qatar has now reached a fork in the road. The emir can support the Arab/Sunni bloc committed to fighting terrorism — Sunni and Shia alike — announced during Mr. Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. Or he can throw in with Iran and Russia, once-great empires with neo-imperialist ambitions. But his license to play both ends against the middle appears to have expired.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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