Friend or foe? Qatar hosts critical US base while funding extremists
Washington - “Qatar wants to have it both ways — have a US base and fund the Muslim Brotherhood,” former US Ambassador Dennis Ross wrote in USA Today. Over the past 25 years, Ross has advised three US presidents on US Middle East policy. He currently is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Despite Qatar hosting a huge US airbase and paying some of the costs associated with its operation, Ross concludes that “Qatar is most definitely not an ally.” The reason: “Few countries have done more to promote the Muslim Brotherhood,” Ross claims.
He is not referring simply to the fact that Qatar provides a safe haven for Islamist leaders and preachers but to tangible support, as well, in the form of money and arms to radical Islamists in Syria and Libya.
“When I was in the Obama administration in 2011 and we sought to get the Qataris to coordinate with us and to be transparent about where and to whom they were sending arms in Libya, we rarely got straight answers,” Ross wrote. “Consistently, we found that they sent weapons to the Islamist forces, the very militias we were opposed to getting arms. The same pattern has been followed in Syria.”
Ross spoke about the positions expressed in his column and how US policymakers should respond in light of US President Donald Trump’s trip to Riyadh during which he tried to rally Arab regimes to join in fighting extremist groups in the region.
“It is not clear at this point how focused [the Trump administration] is on the Qataris and their approach to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists,” Ross said.
Trump met with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during the Arab summit hosted by Saudi Arabia but it is not known if he raised the issue of Qatari support for extremist groups. After the meeting, Trump described Qatar as a “strategic partner” in the war against terrorism.
For years, many have argued that Qatar can be useful as an intermediary between Islamist groups and Arab governments and could serve to moderate the extremists’ views. Ross does not buy this argument.
“I have seen precious little evidence of the Qataris influencing the behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas,” Ross said. “The argument that they have provided a useful back channel to the Muslim Brotherhood was never one that would have appealed to this administration.”
The issue of the US airbase in Qatar poses a problem for US policymakers. Al Udeid Airbase houses thousands of US military personnel and operates under a 1991 bilateral defence cooperation agreement that was expanded and renewed in 2013. In 2003, the US Combat Air Operations Centre for the Middle East was relocated to Al Udeid from Saudi Arabia.
Al Udeid is the logistics, command and basing hub for the US Central Command — CENTCOM — and US and coalition air operations from Afghanistan to Syria are conducted out of the base.
Ross acknowledged the importance of Al Udeid, calling it “a critical base for protecting our national security interests in the Middle East,” but he said the benefits gained from the base should not blind US policymakers to Qatar’s less supportive actions in the region.
“Qatar needs to know it cannot have it both ways, supporting those who challenge our interests and our friends but effectively buying us off with basing rights,” Ross said.
Alternatives to Al Udeid do exist, including in the United Arab Emirates, although Ross admitted that a move would be expensive. Qatar paid much of the costs of building the base and subsidises its operations.
The answer may be for Trump to do what he claims to do best: Make a deal. The Qataris certainly do not want the United States to withdraw from Al Udeid. After all, Qatar is a tiny, rich country with powerful neighbours. Its royal family must sleep more soundly at night knowing that the world’s superpower is present. A threat to move the base may be enough to alter Qatari behaviour.
At a minimum, Ross and others say the subject of Qatar’s relationship with the United States should be on the agenda in Washington.