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 jihadis. The timing happened to coincide with the completion of a new center in Saudi Arabia to combat extremism. It was a powerful signal that America's traditional allies were united against Iran and Sunni extremists.
That lasted a couple of days. By Tuesday however the uneasy alliance of Gulf states started to come apart. It started with a quotation attributed to Qatar's emir, Sheikh 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 organization is banned in most Gulf countries as well as Egypt.
The speech prompted outrage from Qatar's Arab neighbors. Al-Jazeera, the broadcaster funded in part by the Qatari government, was banned in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates following the sheikh'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 United Arab Emirates have slammed the Qataris for the past week, accusing the small nation in the words of one columnist of being a "disobedient son."
This kind of thing is to be expected in the region. But the conflict also played out in Washington. The setting was a wonky policy conference on Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
Normally the politics of the Middle East don't really intrude on such affairs. But the U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Dana Shell Smith, contacted many of the panelists in the days before the conference last week to make the case that Qatar was doing a much better job these days when it came to financing terrorism. Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the foundation, described this as a pressure campaign. One of that foundation's experts on terror financing, David Weinberg, asked the audience last week how many of his fellow panelists received a call from the U.S. Embassy in Qatar.
Smith declined to speak on the record about the matter. But other U.S. officials familiar with the phone calls told me that she provided a version of the briefing she gives to visiting American experts, officials and lawmakers — outlining Qatar's recent progress in prosecuting terror financiers.
Smith's main point is that Qatar's new sheikh, who came into power in 2013, is committed to reforming his country's notoriously lax attitude toward jihadis. He signed the communique on terror financing earlier this month. In 2014, he signed another one, known as the Jeddah Communique, committing the Gulf states to similar vigilance against private citizens sending funds to groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Islamic State. What's more, the Qatari government has in recent months responded to requests from countries like Egypt to expel Muslim Brotherhood leaders. And in 2015, Qatar reached an agreement with the Taliban and the U.S., under which the U.S. released five senior Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and sent them to house arrest in Qatar, and the Taliban freed U.S. Army Private Bowe Bergdahl.
Those are some pieces of evidence about Qatar's recent turnaround. But this tiny country 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, the Al-Udeid Air Base. And yet at the same time, its neighbors accuse Qatar of running an influence campaign against the U.S. and its allies.
Consider Abdul Rahman Omeir al-Naimi. He was a respected Qatari history professor and the founder of the AlKarama foundation, a human rights organization 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 Qaeda. Nonetheless, nearly a year later, the Daily Mail reported that he continued to live openly in Qatar's capital, Doha.
More recently the Qataris have been a host to Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Palestinian group that has built tunnels and 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 defense Robert Gates talked about how he traveled 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 the extremists who have too often enjoyed safe haven and financing from the Gulf kingdoms. One of the first tests of this new policy will be whether Qatar shows initiative in rooting out the terror supporters inside its own kingdom. So far the Qataris have been responsive to outside pressure, whether it be from the U.S. or Egypt. It's less clear how Qatar will respond when the rest of the world isn't watching.
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. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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