US President Donald Trump and Qatar’s Emir Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: For a brief moment it looked like President Donald Trump had done it.

He got the leaders of six Gulf nations to sign a communique pledging to eradicate the financing of terrorists. The timing happened to coincide with the completion of a new centre in Saudi Arabia to combat extremism. It was a powerful signal that America’s traditional allies were united against Iran and Islamist militants.

That lasted a couple of days. By Tuesday, however, it was not that hard to call Doha’s bluff. It started with a quotation attributed to Qatar’s Emir Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. Qatar’s official news agency quoted him telling a graduating class of national service recruits that it was important to calm tensions with Iran, that Hamas and Hezbollah were legitimate resistance movements, and that his country has every right to host Muslim Brotherhood leaders. That last organisation is banned in most Gulf countries as well as Egypt.

The speech prompted outrage from Qatar’s Arab neighbours. Al Jazeera, the broadcaster funded in part by the Qatari government, was banned in Saudi Arabia and the UAE following Shaikh Tamim’s reported remarks. (The Qataris have said that the official news agency was hacked and that the remarks were never delivered.) Nonetheless, official newspapers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have slammed the Qataris for the past week, accusing the small nation in the words of one columnist of being a “disobedient son.”

Qatar has a long history of playing both sides. On the one hand, Qatar hosts one of America’s most important military facilities in the region, Al Udeid Air Base. And yet at the same time, its neighbours accuse Qatar of running an influence campaign against the US and its allies.

Consider Abdul Rahman Omeir Al Naimi. He was a respected Qatari history professor and the founder of Al Karama foundation, a human rights organisation that focuses on political prisoners in the Islamic world. Then, at the end of 2013, the Treasury Department designated him as a financier of Al Qaida. Nonetheless, nearly a year later, the Daily Mail reported that he continued to live openly in Doha.

More recently the Qataris have been a host to Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Palestinian group that has built tunnels and positioned rockets to attack Israel from Gaza, the territory it has controlled for a decade.

When Hamas leaders unveiled a new set of principles this month, they made the announcement from a hotel in Doha.

At last week’s conference in Washington, former secretary of defence Robert Gates talked about how he travelled to Qatar for the George W. Bush administration to make the case to the Qataris to stop tolerating terror groups inside their country.

“There was a good deal of nodding and explanation, but we didn’t see much change,” he said.

Gates concluded: “So we have had a peculiar relationship. There have continued to be political issues with Qatar even as we have been strategic military allies.”

That peculiar relationship will now be tested. As Muslim leaders gathered in Saudi Arabia this month to meet with Trump, he put the onus on their countries to drive out extremists. One of the first tests of this new policy will be whether Qatar shows initiative in rooting out the terror supporters inside its own borders. So far the Qataris have been responsive to outside pressure, whether it be from the US or Egypt. It’s less clear how Qatar will respond when the rest of the world isn’t watching.

Gulf states are 'fed up' with Qatar's double standards

Dubai: Analysts in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have attributed the strong angry reaction to Qatar’s attitudes recently to the fact they are fed up with its double standards, creepy mirror games and cloak-and-dagger secrecy.

“We have the distinct feeling that Qatar is not sincere in dealing with the other countries in the Gulf and with Arabs in general,” Mohammad Jaber, an analyst, said.

“Whenever we want to move past differences and problems, we are drawn back into a crisis that makes us feel bitter because there is no real reason for it. We do feel angry when we see that Qatar is acting like the agent of Iran in the region that attempts to undermine agreements reached by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders.”

Jaber said that Bahrain, for instance, had to put up with “cascades of lies and allegations from Al Jazeera English against Bahrain under various excuses”.

“We are shocked by the relentless onslaught by some Qatari media or their satellite outlets that use the smallest of incidents to depict a dramatic situation of violence and viciousness in the kingdom.”

Fahd Bin Rasheed, in Saudi Arabia, said that everybody was bewildered by the Qatari behaviour.

“We have been putting up with their eccentric and ominous attitudes for 20 years, and it is about time it ended,” he said.

“When the media serves as a link with terror groups and extremists, we have a grave issue. There is definitely a virus, but we do not know which type. Is it the terror virus, the Muslim Brotherhood virus, the Persian virus? The only solution is to cure it and for good.”

Social media users joined the chorus of anger against Doha’s attitudes and displayed on various online platforms secret conversations recorded in the late 1990s that exposed Qatar’s cloak-and-dagger behaviour and intent to weaken Saudi Arabia in a strategy that sought to combine groundless revenge with far-fetched ambition.

The conversations between Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi, Qatar’s former Emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani and former Prime Minister Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasem Al Thani reveal plans to divide Saudi Arabia into three countries within 13 years.

Hamad Bin Jasem told Gaddafi that Qatar signed an agreement with Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defence at the time, in order to confront Saudi Arabia.

“The agreement that I signed is for a centre in Qatar for their (American) operations in east Asia and the Middle East. They are in Florida, so they moved some of their staff to Qatar to be close to the area such as Pakistan, Korea or any other regions.

“We agreed to the plan because Saudi Arabia conspired with Egypt and other countries against us and plotted a coup that almost succeeded, but failed because we stood firm. It was a matter of life or death for us. The Americans assisted us and presented an official warning to Saudi Arabia to leave us alone. Saudi Arabia is stronger than we are. Afterwards, we did not feel at ease and felt that we needed a force that would deter them (Saudis).”

The Qatari leaders explained how they went on gaining force in order to deal with their more powerful neighbour.

“We had relations with Israel because whenever there is pressure [by the Saudis] on the Americans, the Israelis are the ones to ease it up, thanks to our relations with them.

“The region is about to witness volcanic changes. A revolution is bound to happen in Saudi Arabia soon, whether we like it or not,” they said.

“The Americans have a strategy and they are thinking that Saudi Arabia must be divided into three small countries.”

To achieve this plan, the Qataris started recruitment parties that could support them.

“We can work on recruiting people from the second ranks by establishing personal relations with them. We will deal with people who tend to travel to Europe. We will work on them softly with the assistance of our embassies,” they said.

On Wednesday, the Saudi daily Okaz wrote: “Rather than trying to repair GCC relations, Qatar’s political deficiency and inferiority complex moved it towards confrontation with the GCC by challenging Saudi Arabia for the title of the leader of the Arab nations.”


Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.