4 December 2017

Can Qatar become a better neighbour?

By Kyle Orton

The decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to impose a boycott on Qatar this summer was an out-of-character development for the Gulf, where all too much politics is conducted behind closed doors between the ruling families and elites. To go public, the schism between Qatar and the so-called Quartet must have been very serious.

It was the end-point of a dispute that began in the 1990s about Qatar’s foreign policy, which at that point became independent of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and indeed actively competitive with Saudi interests. Doha wanted to alter the Saudi-oriented status quo and did so by empowering groups — almost invariably Islamists — in its cause. Those Islamists not only had agendas running counter to the other Gulf states’ conception of regional order, but which the Quartet regarded as threatening to their internal security.

Immediately after the boycott was announced, a lot of early analysis framed it in terms of Saudi-Iran relations. It is true that Riyadh accused Doha of having an over-warm relationship with Tehran, and demanded the expulsion of members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the wing of the Iranian government charged by the constitution with exporting the Islamist revolution. But other GCC states like Oman retain commercial and diplomatic relations with Iran, and this is not considered a disqualification in the alliance. Qatar shares a gas field with Iran, so has to engage the Islamic Republic, and everyone accepts this.

The crux of the accusations by the Quartet against Qatar was that it was sponsoring terrorism and destabilising radicals around the region, sheltering wanted extremists under the cover of hosting dissidents from neighbouring dictatorships, and allowing these extremists access to media platforms to disseminate their ideology and foment instability inside the Quartet states.

Examining these charges in a recent paper for The Henry Jackson Society, I could find no evidence for some of them, such as the claim of Qatari support for Shia militants that also serve as Iranian proxies in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. That said, thanks to a series of leaked telephone calls, there is clear evidence of contact between Qatar and Bahraini opposition elements that are now living under the protection of the IRGC’s Lebanese branch, Hezbollah. Doha claims that it made these calls at Bahrain’s behest, and it is unclear who is telling the truth. In the case of Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s emir was heard to say that his government had “connections with all the opposition”, and was helping foster an “axis” of groups inside the Kingdom to accede to power when the House of Saud inevitably falls. This is not good neighbourliness.

The bête noire of the Quartet is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric close to the Muslim Brotherhood, who has been resident in Qatar for many years and has close relations with the ruling House. Al-Qaradawi has featured prominently on Al-Jazeera, the Qatari state-funded multinational satellite network. He has been said to be the nearest thing Sunni Islam has to a pope, a status abetted by the coverage given on Al-Jazeera. On a number of matters, such as al-Qaradawi opposition to female genital mutilation and ruling that democracy was compatible with Islam, this is less troubling. But as an Islamist, al-Qaradawi mixes radical politics with his generally fairly moderate religious decrees.

So it was that, in 2001, al-Qaradawi licensed suicide bombing, and expanded this to Syria in 2014. The former fatwa was withdrawn in 2016 and the latter was modified to allow only suicide-attacks done as part of a group, rather than as an individual action. But it did not halt the tide unleashed when al-Qaradawi punctured the traditional ban on suicide and framed the Syrian fatwa in the most starkly sectarian terms. Now, suicide bombers afflict all the world, Muslims most of all, and al-Qaradawi is a key part of the explanation for this becoming so widespread.

Then there is Wajdi Ghonaim, another Egyptian preacher, a man banned from the US for his activism on behalf of Hamas. Ghonaim found haven in Qatar, where he regularly incited against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, including on Al-Jazeera, excusing attacks on their churches by the Islamic State on grounds that they supported the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, while denouncing “criminal America” for killing the “heroic” Osama bin Ladin. Ghonaim was forced out of Qatar in 2014 and recently arrested in Turkey for promoting extremism.

There are dozens of other such cases.

Most serious is a web of donors operating in Qatar that fund the (now former) al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Possibly the best-known figure involved is Abdurrahman al-Nuaymi, a former president of the Qatar Football Association and a founding member of one of the largest charities in the Middle East named for the Qatari emir. There are at least a dozen other important individuals involved, as the report lays out in detail, and many others who operate out of sight.

Al-Qaeda’s financiers and facilitators in Qatar are a key channel by which al-Qaeda gets resources from its headquarters in Pakistan, through the “core facilitation pipeline” that the Iranian government allows al-Qaeda to operate on its territory, to the jihadist group’s branches in the Arab world. And the Qatari government’s facilitation of ransom payments for hostages taken by jihadists in Syria might have provided up to $200 million in the last couple of years, the kind of money that makes a real difference to a group seeking to co-opt a popular rebellion.

It is true, as scholars like David Weinberg at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies have documented, that Qatar is not the only Gulf state with a terror finance problem. Kuwait is the other outstanding case, and indeed the network centred on Qatar has branches in Kuwait.

It is also true that some of the extremists hosted by Qatar, such as Tarek al-Zumar, an Egyptian who now heads the Construction and Development Party, the political wing of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, a US-registered terrorist organisation, can legitimately claim to have been made a refugee, with a well-founded fear of persecution, as a result of the imposition of the Quartet’s counterrevolutionary vision. There are questions for all sides here.

For Britain, Qatar is an important economic and security partner. Getting in the middle of this spat and taking sides with the Quartet in public serves no British purpose and is likely to only harden Qatar’s own position. By contrast, Qatar has proven amenable to approaches in private, and as an ally it is entitled to such courtesies before things escalate to a public dispute. The key problems are Qatar’s policies on terror finance and the dissemination of extremism.

The arrest or expulsion of designated individuals — or an explanation for why this cannot be done — is the least that should be expected, and so far the Qataris have been distinctly opaque and appear to be dragging their feet. In terms of cracking down on private finance, Qatar has, since the boycott began, opened its treasury system to outside experts, for the sake of both transparency and capacity, and changed its laws to allow evidence from foreign sources. These are positive steps, but the US State Department reports that there is still work to do. Curbing hate speech and incitement in the media runs into the thorny question of free expression, yet Al-Jazeera’s use as an instrument of Qatar’s foreign policy makes this an unavoidable issue and some kind of regulation seems appropriate.

Trying to press for improvements on these aspects of Qatar’s policy dovetails with what has to be Britain’s central aim, to reconcile its allies. The Quartet thought they could foster unity by forcing the Qataris in line, and instead the boycott has widened the divides. This is especially unfortunate at this time when a united front is needed to oppose revolutionary Iran’s regional rampage. There is, however, no end in sight for the Gulf dispute, in which both sides have dug in for the long haul.

Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst and Research Fellow with the Henry Jackson Society. He is the author of 'Qatar and the Gulf crisis'.