The Rift between Qatar and the GCC Could Threaten Trump's Foreign Policy
The United States should not pick sides in the conflict, but instead bring the parties to the negotiating table.
In light of the persistent diplomatic onslaught against Qatar, Doha now considers Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular to be hostile entities. Within the context of Qatar’s irreversible relationship with Saudi Arabia, even if a solution to the GCC crisis ultimately is brokered, Doha has made a strategic decision to utilize its F-15 acquisition primarily for homeland security as opposed to continuing to develop and strengthen its expeditionary forces.
Qatar’s National Service Authority will similarly focus its new national service program on strengthening its security forces as part of a strategic effort to boost homeland defense.
The national service program will also partner with the Qatar Foundation’s Education City, which covers fourteen square kilometers and houses educational facilities from school age to research level and branch campuses of some of the world's premier universities.
On Doha’s growing fear of its neighbors, it is widely understood that if the United States withdraws from either Al-Udeid or from its second military facility in that country, Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar would invite Russia to establish a military presence in the country.
Hamas and Israel
Critics of Qatar’s foreign policy frequently point out that Hamas, the Taliban and Muslim Brotherhood representatives, along with well-known extremists such as Egyptian hate preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, all continue to enjoy sanctuary in Doha. What is less understood is that Condoleezza Rice requested Doha’s assistance to host Hamas following its 2006 election victory in Gaza in order to help facilitate the peace processes between Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Prior to the Gaza election of 2006, Qatari officials repeatedly warned Washington against holding the election as Hamas would be the likely winner.
Over the ensuing decade, Washington has not once requested the expulsion of Hamas from Qatar as the United States apparently prefers the group to be located in Doha as opposed to in Tehran, where it has no influence.
All Hamas officials residing in Doha are under constant surveillance and considered a liability to Qatar, given the potential international scrutiny if an incident occurred.
While American diplomats in Qatar have never interacted with Hamas, Qatari officials have passed on U.S. messages to the group.
The Obama administration similarly requested in 2012 that Doha host representatives from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which had become a major political forces in Egypt during the initial phases of the post Arab Spring environment.
With allegations surfacing in Washington that Doha is supporting terrorism by hosting the Taliban and Hamas, David Petraeus came to Qatar’s defense on July 3 when he told the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche ,“Our partners should remember that Qatar—at our request—welcomed delegations from the Taliban and Hamas, and that Qatar is now home to our military headquarters for our operations throughout the Middle East.”
In addition to hosting Hamas officials in Doha, Qatar remains the only GCC country to maintain formal diplomatic ties with Israel. Since the Israel-Hamas war of 2014, Qatar has been responsible for financing and coordinating the reconstruction of the Gaza strip with the United Nations and Israel. Because of the enforced blockade of Gaza, all goods into the enclave have to go through Israel’s Erez Crossing once it has been supervised by Israeli authorities. The coordination of the Gaza reconstruction is overseen by Qatar’s ambassador to Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, and Israel’s Major General Yoav Mordechai, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).
During the 2014 Gaza war, John Kerry relied heavily on both Qatar and Turkey as he sought to draw on their respective relationships with Hamas to put pressure on the group to end the conflict. As part of that effort, Kerry called his Qatari counterpart seventy-five times; they met in Paris, along with then Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, to help negotiate an end to the conflict. While these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, Egypt once again mediated a truce between Israel and Hamas, the third of its kind since 2009.
Qatar’s support for Gaza reconstruction is recognized by Israeli government as paramount to prevent a new conflict between Hamas and Israel from erupting, and Israeli officials have even requested additional Qatari involvement to help finance education and build an industrial park in Gaza.
Qatar and the Taliban
Doha maintains that it is hosting the Taliban at the request of the U.S. government as part of its open-door policy to facilitate talks between Washington, the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. While peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban collapsed shortly after the Taliban’s office opened in 2013, and numerous efforts to revitalize the Afghan peace process have since collapsed, an estimated 100 Taliban officials and their relatives continue to live comfortably in Doha at Qatari state expense, according to the New York Times. In a separate New York Times article, it was report that the UAE and Qatar competed to host the Taliban office.
In 2014, Qatar facilitated the high-profile prisoner exchange of U.S. Army soldier Robert Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in exchange for five Taliban fighters held at Guantanamo Bay. The negotiations between Qatar and the Taliban were facilitated by German intelligence services at the request of the U.S. government.
Under the U.S.-Qatar agreement pertaining to the prisoners’ exchange, Doha’s obligation was to host the five former Guantanamo Bay detainees for one year. However, following an Afghan government request, which was supported by Washington, Qatar was asked to retain the five former Guantanamo Bay detainees indefinitely as they were considered too dangerous for the prospect of returning to the battlefield.
Just like Hamas, the Taliban officials remain under constant Qatari surveillance. But unlike Hamas, U.S. diplomats in Qatar have interacted with the Taliban officials residing in Doha.
Combating Terror Financing
In 2017, the Qatari government sentenced twenty-five ISIS sympathizers, of whom the vast majority are Qatari citizens, to life in prison (twenty-five year terms). No additional details have been provided.
Four Qatari citizens, all Al Qaeda sympathizers, have also faced prosecution. Two were convicted and the remaining two acquitted. During the lengthy trial of the four men, U.S. diplomats were present for the entire proceedings.
Ibrahim Issa al-Bakr, who is accused of terror financing on behalf of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, was convicted in abstention and is believed to be either living in Syria or dead.
Abd al-Latif Bin Abdullah Salih Muhammad al-Kawari, who is accused of terror financing on behalf of Al Qaeda, is appealing his conviction.
The two others, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Nuaimi, who was accused of terror financing on behalf of ISIS, and Sa’d bin Sa’d Muhammad Shariyan Al Ka’bi, who was accused of terror financing on behalf of Al Qaeda as well as the as for the Al-Nusra Front, were both acquitted because of lack of evidence. The apparent reasons for their respective acquittals were tied to the Qatari intelligence services inability to present the necessary evidence to a court without compromising its intelligence gathering capabilities.
However, under the recent U.S.-Qatar antiterrorism MoU, it seeks to, among other issues, strengthen capacity building for Qatari prosecutors and judges to help train them on terrorism related cases.
A fifth Qatari Al Qaeda sympathizer, Khalifa Muhammad Turki al-Subaiy, who is accused of terror financing on behalf of Al Qaeda, is facing trial and Qatar has requested U.S. assistance.
Uncertainty in Washington over what conditions the five Qatari Al Qaeda sympathizers, all of whom remain on both the U.S. and UN terrorism lists, are held have contributed to a U.S. narrative that Qatar has not taken adequate steps against terror financiers.
From a Qatari perspective, however, details about the conviction of the twenty-five ISIS fighters—a landmark case in the small country of 300,000 citizens—along with the prosecution of the five Al Qaeda members have been shared with Washington through diplomatic channels.
Qatar’s cultural reluctance to take more public action against citizens pertaining to terror financing has hurt its international standing, especially in Washington. Qatar’s foreign policy has become a lightning rod for a host of issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It can be argued that Qatar finds itself at the crosshairs of changing U.S. policy, from the Obama administration’s outreach to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to embracing regional Islamist movements and hosting the Taliban at its request. Doha has been unable to adapt to the Trump administration’s wholesale rejection of its predecessor’s regional agenda. This has in turn provided the Saudi-led quartet with an opportunity to use terror financing allegations to take on Doha over its long-standing grievances in foreign policy.
This, a widely held misperception that Hamas and Taliban officials operate out of Doha, and allegations that the Qatari government has not done enough to crack down on terror financing has confused the American public at large and impacted the public debate in particular.
Given these dynamics, Tillerson arguably sought to remove allegations once and for all that Qatar has failed to crack down on terror financing by signing a U.S.-Qatari Memorandum of Understanding on fighting terror financing. During the MoU signing, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani declared, “Qatar is the first country to sign a memorandum of agreement with the US.” For his part, Tillerson “praised Qatar for signing the deal, and for committing to the effort ‘to track down and disable terror financing.’”