If one were to believe a recent spate of headlines spanning both sides of the Atlantic, the small Gulf nation of Qatar is singlehandedly responsible for the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as well as the region’s general instability. Over the last few weeks, dozens of articles published in rapid succession by The Telegraph have alleged that Qatari citizens could be responsible for financing Islamic extremists, including ISIL. A 20-page Foreign Policy article written by Elizabeth Dickinson, a former correspondent for UAE-funded news organization The National, also alleges that Qatar has “pumped tens of millions of dollars […] to hard-line Syrian rebels and extremist Salafists”. And Eli Lake, senior national-security correspondent for The Daily Beast has been active both online and on television declaring that this small Gulf state is no ally of the United States.
However, this new crusade reeks at best of Western hypocrisy and at worst of the shadowy forces of political lobbying.
First, blaming Qatari support of the Syrian opposition for ISIL is ironic when it is the United States that has consistently funneled money and arms to questionable anti-Assad groups. Few know exactly where this money has ended up. Also, let us not forget that most of the weapons ISIL is currently using to slaughter civilians, hostages and POWs are American-made.
Second, there is general agreement that, if ISIL was able to so quickly stride into Iraq, it is first and foremost because of the United States’ misguided war against Saddam Hussein under Presidents Bush II and Obama. Bush’s de-Baathification order, aimed at destroying the system and ideology that had allowed Hussein to reign over Iraq for so long, is now widely regarded to have hollowed out the country’s infrastructure and military. Crucially, the process drove many Baathists underground instead of granting them a role in a more democratic, inclusive system. As political organizer and writer Robert Creamer states, “It is no accident that two of the top commanders of today’s ISIL are former commanders in the Saddam-era Iraqi military.”
De-Baathification exacerbated sectarian tensions, notably between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, and Nouri al-Maliki’s 8-year tenure as Prime Minister only succeeded in driving the former towards tacit or direct support of extremist groups like ISIL.
Both The Telegraph and Eli Lake strongly supported the Iraq war back in the day, but now have the gall to heap the blame for the de-stabilization on other countries, from Iran to Qatar. Glenn Greenwald, the legendary Guardian reporter who brought us the Snowden revelations, unearthed a more troubling possible reason for the sudden demonization of Qatar in his investigation into UAE lobbyists. According to public documents, the United Arab Emirates, upset at Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, retained the Washington-based lobbying firm The Camstoll Group in order to set up meetings with and persuade hawkish pro-Israel reporters to speak critically of Doha. (Israel is also upset at Qatar over their support of Palestine and Hamas.)
A self-defeating strategy
Beyond dissecting the possible motivations of the writers that have ganged up on Qatar, however, it is crucial to mention how counterproductive these measures are. While criticizing Qatar may allow Israel and the UAE to score political points in Washington and London, it will not help the West to build allies in the Middle East. And this is in the interest of everyone who wants a stable Arab region free from incessant drone attacks and Western intervention. The more neoconservatives in the U.S. and elsewhere damage relations between Washington and potential Middle East allies, the more the U.S. will feel that military intervention is the only possible course of action.
The truth is that there are many reasons for developing a closer relationship with Qatar, and the fact that they are culturally distinct from the West’s Judeo-Christian majority should be seen as an asset to building bridges with much of the world.
Indeed, Qatar has often played the role of mediator in international affairs, brokering peace agreements between competing factions in southern Lebanon and Darfur. How did the small Gulf State achieve peaceful outcomes between warring groups? Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, invited all parties to the negotiating table in Doha to voice their respective concerns and find a compromise, a much more democratic solution than using the weight of the U.S. Air Force to bomb “strategic targets”. It was also Qatar that managed to act as a middleman between U.S. officials and the Taliban in June, securing the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Moreover, Qatar has often been a key source of humanitarian aid for countries that the West has neglected either for political reasons or for lack of understanding. In October, Qatar pledged $1 billion towards reconstruction efforts in Gaza following the Strip’s largely one-sided conflict with Israel last summer. Doha has also donated $10 million to Norway’s initiative to gather relief for South Sudan, and promised $60 million to relieve the current suffering of Syrian refugees (more than 3 million refugees have been registered and many more internally displaced).
Qatar is by no means a perfect country in its internal or external affairs. Could Qatar do more to combat terrorism? Perhaps. But for the West to blame this small Gulf State for the Middle East’s turmoil after two disastrous wars and a series of poor foreign policy decisions following the Arab Spring is unwarranted and hypocritical. Worse, the negative media blitz might just cost them just the ally they need.