Qatar faces threat of punitive legislation as US officials decry Brotherhood ties
Washington - Qatar, a key ally of the United States in the Middle East, is facing accusations in Washington that it has been playing a double game: Showing a friendly face to the United States while supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and radical offshoots of the Islamist movement, such as Hamas.
“There are many countries in the Middle East that are engaging in double-dealing but I think the Qataris are really exceptional at it,” Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a think-tank in Washington, said May 23 during a panel discussion organised by the institution. “They take it to an art form and this is ultimately the problem.”
Schanzer and others decried what they see as an effort by Qatar to remain on good terms with the United States while continuing to help Brotherhood-affiliated groups.
US President Donald Trump’s administration looked into declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation but experts warned against such a step. Several US allies in the Middle East, including Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have outlawed the Brotherhood, which has millions of followers and whose ideology is considered a threat to Middle East monarchies.
In 2014, Qatar’s alleged support for the Brotherhood led to a crisis in diplomatic relations between Doha and other Gulf Arab countries.
The rift continues. Qatar’s official news agency reported that Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani expressed understanding for Hezbollah and Hamas. The government in Doha claimed the story was a hoax created by hackers who gained access to the news agency but state-run media in several other Gulf countries, including Qatar TV, ran the story anyway.
Many in Washington are convinced that the Brotherhood remains a source of a dangerous militant ideology, even if several groups spawned by the movement have become part of the non-violent mainstream.
Robert Gates, a former US defence secretary and CIA director, told the FDD panel the Brotherhood’s main aim was to “re-establish the caliphate and practise sharia law. That is not what I would call a modest set of goals.”
Gates spoke of a “long history” of Qatar welcoming the Muslim Brotherhood. He said other countries in the region also “played both sides of the street” by publicly professing a determination to move against the Brotherhood and groups linked to the movement, without doing so in practice. Those countries, however, changed their stance once they were hit by terrorist attacks. He said Qatar should make a similar change, adding: “That’s what we need to see from Qatar.”
Gates said there were strategic considerations behind the stance of the government in Doha. “Qatar wants an important place on the world stage and [it wants] an important place in the region,” he said. That led to an effort to be on good terms with all players, from Iran and Syria to the other Gulf states and the United States.
“They want to have a relationship with everybody so that they can manoeuvre and, I think, play this role on the world stage that is in contrast dramatically with the size of their country,” he said.
That position was seen by the royal family in Doha as the best way to guarantee the long-term survival of the regime, Gates said.
Experts and officials at the FDD conference voiced frustration with what they see as a tendency by Qatar to promise to clamp down on radical groups but then ignoring those pledges.
“Qatar hosts Hamas and helps support it, as it does other Muslim Brotherhood organisations throughout the Middle East,” said FDD President Clifford May. Qatar denies that it is assisting the Muslim Brotherhood, despite its hosting of leaders affiliated with the Brotherhood and the International Federation of Muslim Scholars, an organisation widely believed to oversee the worldwide activities of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mary Beth Long, a former US assistant secretary of defence, said US officials in Qatar and regional executives had told her there appeared to be “really substantial progress” in Qatar’s response to US concerns about financing terrorist groups. She cited changes in Qatar’s banking bureaucracy and arrests that had been made. Her interlocutors had praised “initial but substantive progress made by the Qataris.”
Long added she agreed with Gates that the United States should keep up the pressure on the Doha government.
The progress cited by Long does not convince all Washington officials. Ed Royce, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House of Representatives, used the FDD panel to announce draft legislation that would put Qatar at risk of coming under US sanctions because of the alleged support for the Brotherhood and organisations such as Hamas.
“It is a country that is… from which financiers have helped finance al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and other similar organisations, including the Taliban,” he said about Qatar. “I can’t for the life of me figure out why Qatar wants to give a platform to the Taliban.”
Royce said Congress was ready to consider moving an important US military base in Qatar elsewhere in the Middle East if Doha did not change its ways.
“I think if behaviours didn’t change there would absolutely be a willingness to look at other options for basing,” he said.
Gates warned that moving a key base, such as the one in Qatar, with about 10,000 US soldiers would not be easy. The Al Udeid base south of Doha is home to a forward headquarters of the US Central Command, an ultra-modern command centre that oversees operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, including air strikes in Syria and other places.
Gates conceded that using an airbase in Qatar while the Qatari government was being accused of helping organisations that were being attacked by US jets deployed from that very base was a strange situation.
“We know that we’re using an air base that again is targeting groups that the host country is supporting,” he said. Gates also pointed out that Qatar was the only country in the region that allowed the United States to deploy strategic B-52 bombers. Washington’s problem with Qatar, he insisted, was “outside the military relationship.” Talking to Mark Dubowitz FDD CEO Mark Dubowitz, on the sidelines of the conference, said he welcomed Royce’s draft measure threatening sanctions against Qatar.
“I think it’s always important that there be legislation to make it very clear that there are profound consequences” of a behaviour like the one displayed by Qatar and other countries with regards to the alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood, he said. “It is a wake-up call to Qatar and Turkey and other countries. We hold their feet to the fire,” Dubowitz said.
He stressed that the United States had made numerous appeals to Qatar to cut its help for the Brotherhood and other groups but that the support had been continuing. “At some point, you have to stop démarching and start operationalising,” Dubowitz said.
With the Trump administration and politicians in Congress expressing “frustration” after fruitless efforts to make Qatar change its ways, the time to act had come. “There need to be sanctions to effect change,” Dubowitz said. “The administration will be in favour and will use the new legislation as leverage” to pressure the government in Doha.”