Standing on the flight line in the hot sun at Al Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. airbase outside the United States, contemplating the truly awesome firepower of a line of B-52 bombers, it is hard to give much credence to charges that Qatar is anything but a valued ally in the war on Mideastern terrorism.
This small country with fewer than 300,000 citizens not only hosts the base but contributed more than $8 billion to its construction. Without this base just outside Doha, Qatar’s modern bustling capitol, it would be virtually impossible for U.S. airpower to play any meaningful role in the ongoing struggles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
But few Americans know much about Qatar and much of what they do know is wrong. Many are convinced from media reports generated by its adversaries that the little Middle Eastern kingdom is a prime sponsor of terrorism in the region. Since last June, Qatar has been living under a “blockade” initiated primarily by the tiny nation’s chief regional adversaries, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, supposedly designed to force Qatar to stop supporting terrorism.
Among the many claims leveled with a straight face by Saudi Arabia, a nation that has itself directly and indirectly been harboring and financing Muslim extremists for decades and the leader of the anti-Qatar pack, is that Qatar supports both Hamas and the Taliban, and has paid millions to support terrorists in Syria and Iraq while cozying up to the Muslim Brotherhood.
While terrorists have ties within all the nations of the region, the veracity of all these charges have been challenged by Qatar and by our own State Department but have become a part of the anti-Qatar narrative even though evidence in support of them is sketchy at best and depends on one’s view of the credibility of those leveling the charges.
Thus, for example, while no one really claims Qatar is providing financial support to either Hamas or the Taliban, both maintain offices in Qatar; offices provided at the request of the United States to maintain Doha as a sort of neutral venue where it is possible to maintain informal communications with warring factions in the region.
The Qataris complied with the U.S. request to help rather than hinder the war on terror and because wisely or not their biggest ally asked. Qatar’s rulers seem to see their nation as a sort of island of tranquility in the troubled region and just want to get along, survive and prosper. The fact that they are sitting on top of the world’s largest natural gas reserves has made it easy enough to prosper; on a per-capita basis, Qatar is the wealthiest nation on earth.
That wealth has allowed them to build a beautiful city in the midst of an inhospitable desert, attract branches of U.S. universities as diverse as Cornell, Georgetown, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth while contributing billions to humanitarian causes the world over.
Getting along with its neighbors has proved far more difficult as the real motive behind both the current blockade and attempts to bring Doha to heel several times over the years stem from the fact that it is, well, way too big for its britches. Riyadh’s rulers obviously think it pretty cheeky of a little country on their border to refuse to simply take its lead from its betters.
Qatar’s willingness to spend money to gain favor and its emergence as regional presence as visible as its bigger neighbor rankles. The existence and customer ratings of Qatar Airlines, the most watched news outlet in the region Al Jazeera, complete the circle of envy. Qatar’s presence on the world stage will grow as Doha its bid to host the 2022 World Cup, expected to bring a million and a half soccer fans for 28 days into to Qatar with tens of millions more around the world following the action on television.
When its neighbors instituted the blockade last year in the name of opposing terrorism, they issued a series of demands that Qatar rejected out of hand while working with the United States to beef up its ability to track and apprehend those who might try to channel funds to terrorist organizations through its banking center.
None of this satisfied the Saudis or the UAE and for a while it seemed there might be no way out of the impasse, but last week the UAE came up with a “solution” that says more about the motives of Qatar’s adversaries than their stated claim that Doha is soft on terrorism. Give up the idea of hosting the 2022 World Cup, a UAE official told Doha, and we will consider ending the blockade. Acquiescing wouldn’t do much to fight terrorism, but it would sure put the pesky little country in its place and that would satisfy and even delight its neighbors.