After days of shuttle diplomacy Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s most recent attempt at breaking the deadlock between Qatar and its neighbors in the Gulf was unsuccessful. The most important overriding factor for the U.S. is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s unity in the face of the threats from Iran and terrorism.
The longer this crisis drags out the worse it is for America’s interests in the region. Publicly, the U.S. has to take a neutral position to preserve its mediating status, but privately the State Department and the White House need to start pressuring Qatar to come to an agreement with its neighbors.
The breakdown in relations last month between Qatar and its neighbors Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt was the boiling point for a situation which has been simmering for years. Regional countries are tired of Qatar’s continued support for Muslim Brotherhood groups across the Middle East and North Africa. In addition, Qatar has backed very questionable Islamist factions in Syria and Libya, and Doha has often been seen as being too close for comfort with Iran—a major adversary of Sunni Arab states in the Gulf.
There is no way to sugar coat this. Yes, Qatar has been a useful ally to the U.S., especially hosting al-Udeid airbase. But the sum of Doha’s recent actions equals a foreign policy inimical to both the interests of its Arab neighbors – and to the United States. Qatar’s inability to bend on these issues has left the responsibility of this latest diplomatic crisis at its feet.
I saw first-hand Qatar’s willingness to back some questionable groups during the Libya campaign in 2011. At the time I was working as a senior aid to the British Defense Secretary. During the NATO-led air campaign we received countless reports about Qatar backing some of the more extremist groups fighting Muammar Gaddafi— even providing these groups with advanced anti-tank weapons in violation of the UN arms embargo in place at the time. During the war ousting Gaddafi hundreds of Qatari troops were deployed to Libya to back these groups, including scores of their Special Forces.
Doha was determined to get rid of Gaddafi, and it was clear they didn’t care how or by whom this was accomplished. One of these groups, Rafallah al-Sehati, had extremists in its ranks which later broke away to form Ansar al-Shariah—the group which played a role in the murder of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in 2012.
Today in Libya, Qatar is still backing Islamist-linked groups like the Benghazi Defense Brigade, while the UAE and Egypt are backing a secularist: General Khalifa Haftar in the east of the country. Indeed, General Haftar is a controversial figure himself, but he has committed to fighting the Islamist threat in Libya. Qatar is backing Islamist groups in Syria too. Making this situation even worse is the fact that Qatar-based very wealthy private individuals are funding extremist groups in Syria and the Qatari government has failed to adequately crackdown on this practice. Even the U.S. Department of Treasury stated as recently has February that “designated terrorist financier continue to operate openly in Qatar”.
Perhaps the biggest source of ire across the Arab world in Doha’s seemingly blind support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked movements across the region. As opposition groups aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood began to appear on the scene in 2011 during the early stages of the so-called Arab Spring, Qatar took a completely different track from its neighbors and started backing them. This made the other Gulf monarchies nervous, if not alarmed.
For Doha, backing Muslim Brotherhood groups made perfect sense. The then-emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was close friends with one of the main spiritual leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian-born theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi. In fact, Qaradawi has lived in Qatar since 1961. During this time Doha has been repeatedly accused of providing a platform, mainly through the Arabic version of Al-Jazeera, for the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology and believes.
Because of Qatar’s traditional support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Al-Thani family felt that it was immune from the threat the group posed to other royal families in the region. But Qatar’s neighbors didn’t share this same view. With all the instability sweeping the region during 2011 the last thing many Gulf States wanted was a firebrand version of political Islam undermining the ruling monarchies.
The longer this crisis drags out the worse it is for America’s interests in the region. Publicly, the U.S. has to take a neutral position to preserve its mediating status, but privately the State Department and the White House need to start pressuring Qatar to come to an agreement with its neighbors. support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement. The emir and his foreign minister promised to cease and desist, but reneged on their promise. Hence the ire of the neighbors. Then it took eight months to resolve, before relations were fully restored. It seems that Qatar learned nothing from this experience, and it sure will take longer to improve the relations this time.
It is too soon to say how these diplomatic moves will affect the United States’ relationship with Qatar. U.S. military relationships in the region have been known for their flexibility and pragmatism. In a perfect world Qatar and its neighbors will find a mutually agreeable solution to this crisis. What the Middle-East needs is stability—especially after the bloodshed and chaos which followed the so-called Arab Spring.
We should not kid ourselves in thinking that Doha has been acting in America’s interest over the past few years. Yes, Qatar has been an ally for the U.S. in the region, even while hosting terror financiers. But if things do not work out, and Al-Udeid airbase has to be moved, there are many other places which would happily host a major American base which are more aligned with U.S. interests in the region, like the United Arab Emirates.
It is not too late for Doha. Qatar needs to get in line and find a compromise with its neighbors that will unlock this impasse. The sooner it does this the better for everyone.