Washington Needs a New Approach to Qatar

Washington Needs a New Approach to Qatar

This week's atrocities in Israel should force the United States to press its Gulf partner toward defunding terror.


The Hamas slaughter of civilians on October 7 puts the Gulf state of Qatar, which hosts and funds Hamas leadership, under new scrutiny. There is a way out for Qatar, but first, let’s understand how Qatar got to this uncomfortable situation.   

...We in Qatar are a very small country and our survival depends on being open to everyone. We host the largest American military base in the region, and we share the world’s largest offshore gas field with Iran. We have no choice but to coordinate with Iran. We support the Palestinians and we were among the first Arab countries to open an Israeli government office during the Oslo peace process of the 1990s. We are devout Muslims and we are happy to have Christian churches in Doha. Being open to all is both our strategy and our culture as a trading nation.


So Muhammad al-Kawari, Qatar’s ambassador in Washington, explained to me over a series of lunches some years ago when I worked at the State Department. At the time, I oversaw a grab-bag portfolio of Middle East regional issues that included international air flight negotiations; al-Kawari was interested in the prospects for Qatar Air. He also attended the Jerusalem funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 as deputy head of Qatar’s cabinet.

Qatar’s vision of itself—an international entrepôt open to all—is shared to some extent by all six Arab states of the Gulf. In a general way, U.S. policy towards these states has been to encourage such openness both on human rights grounds and as a way of diversifying their economies away from total reliance on raw resource exports.  

There is a dark side to Doha’s policy, however, and that is allowing the political arms of terror organizations to reside and flourish on its own soil. For years, America and the West have not objected to this aspect of Qatar’s policy. Sometimes, it was seen as useful. For instance, Qatar became the channel for American talks with the Taliban throughout the American presence in Afghanistan and continues today. Qatar hosted the Afghan Taliban after they were removed from power in Kabul.   

But Qatar’s hosting of Hamas is now another matter. Hamas’ barbaric murders last weekend will change some things, to put it lightly, in the Middle East. And one of them must be Qatar’s—and the Gulf’s—funding of fundamentalist terror organizations. Specifically, Qatar should get ahead of what is coming by deporting the political leadership of Hamas, stopping all official financing of Hamas, and freezing accounts of terror organizations in its banking system.  

Now, this kind of 180-degree policy shift is easier said than done. The United States and Israel must start by admitting their failures to comprehend and react to the clear and present danger that Hamas poses. American and Israeli officials—not just Qataris—acted on the belief that Hamas was normalizing over time as the government of the Gaza Strip.   

There is plenty of policy failure to go around when it comes to Hamas and the other Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen and affiliates, from Sadiq al-Mahdi in Sudan in the 1960s and 1980s through Tariq Ramadan in Europe in the 1990s, Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Egypt and Qatar until very recently, and, in the United States, Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has called on Muslims to support Hamas in the immediate aftermath of the massacres.

I used to meet regularly with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Cairo as a U.S. Embassy political officer from 1997–2000. Some of their leaders are sophisticated and educated. They all hide a totalitarian, supremacist, and violent version of Islam that only emerges when they gain power, as they did in Gaza in 2006. In Egypt in 2013, they were just beginning to change the governing system before the military cast them out of power in a coup d’état.

The world has changed after October 7. Qatar’s open society itself could be threatened by the Islamist poison of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Qatari ruling elite apparently believes it can control the Muslim Brotherhood and sees it as a tool for expanding Qatari influence. However, the movement could easily turn on the ruling House of al-Thani after swinging enough Qataris to their worldview. The good news is this: despite all of our collective failures to date, now the world has jolted awake to this danger. Qatar, as a smart and nimble player on the world stage, should act sooner rather than later. 

In every policy discussion of Qatar, the “elephant in the room” is the al-Udeid airbase, the most extensive U.S. military base in the Middle East, which the Qataris built and maintain to American specifications at their cost. It is an essential aspect of U.S. power projection throughout the Middle East and beyond, alongside the U.S. Sixth Fleet headquartered in Bahrain and the U.S. Army base in Kuwait. The Washington consensus posits that there are no readily available alternatives to al-Udeid, and thus, U.S. policy has become hostage to whatever Qatar wants to do. According to many in Washington, this fact would make encouraging Qatar to deport Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and freeze his bank accounts rather difficult.

Yet, the Washington consensus may be wrong about Qatar in the post-10/7 world. 

First, I believe Qatar’s rulers, especially Emir Tamim ibn Hamad al-Thani, are pragmatic realists, not ideologues or Muslim Brotherhood adherents. The emir showed his pragmatism regarding Qatar’s relationship with another terrorist group—Lebanon’s Hezbollah. After the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Qatar helped fund Hezbollah as part of its effort to reconstruct Lebanon. Hezbollah, so the feeling went at the time, could be normalized through engagement. That optimistic view of Hezbollah turned out to be wrong, and the current emir reversed policy and cut funding to Hezbollah. 

Qatar showed its pragmatism again this week, according to news reports, by agreeing informally with the U.S. Treasury not to release any of the $6 billion of Iranian oil revenue held by Qatar. 

Second, in the post-10/7 world, Hamas has just murdered not only hundreds of Israelis but also twenty-seven Americans while holding others hostage. Its political leaders broadcast threats from Qatar, and its former leader now calls for attacks on Americans. 

America is not the only beneficiary of the al-Udeid base. Qatar gets a significant U.S. military presence/effective security blanket from this base. The United States doesn’t have to initiate a withdrawal from al-Udeid right away. But as a planning measure, it should initiate talks with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of whom, during their recent embargo of Qatar, offered to host the U.S. Air Force instead of al-Udeid. Those offers may have been idle talk. But basing talks are run out of the State Department, not the Pentagon, which helps ensure good foreign policy and military policy coordination. We should let new airbase talks start and see where they lead while we raise the Hamas requests of Qatar.  

With Secretary of State Antony Blinken visiting Qatar this week to discuss the release of Hamas’ hostages, we should remember that persuading our allies and security partners to do hard things in mutual interest is the essence of good diplomacy. While the war with Hamas is fresh, I believe that we should act now to cut off its foreign sources of support while Israel does the hard work on the ground in Gaza. 

Qatar has been a U.S. security partner in the Gulf for decades. It certainly doesn’t want to become a state sponsor of terrorism. Qatar’s supporters in Washington realize this and are urging it to eliminate the now toxic Hamas presence. Changing policy on Hamas is the right thing for Qatar and the world.    

Robert Silverman, a former senior U.S. diplomat and President of the American Foreign Service Association, is a lecturer at Shalem College, executive editor of The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, and founder of the Inter-Jewish Muslim Alliance.

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