When Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani argued in the New York Times on Tuesday for the necessity of holding authoritarian leaders to account, he probably wasn’t talking about himself.
In Washington for an Oval Office meeting Tuesday afternoon with President Barack Obama, Thani previewed the message he would deliver to his American counterpart with this whopper:
Addressing the root causes of terrorism will require a deeper, longer-term, and more strategic approach to the problem. It will require political leaders to have the courage to negotiate pluralistic, inclusive, power-sharing solutions to regional disputes. And it will require that tyrants be held to account.
This from a man who was handed his country’s throne by his father. A hereditary monarchy, Qatar has managed to avoid the storm winds of the Arab Spring by holding to the basic bargain of the Thani family’s rule: Acquiescence to authoritarian power in exchange for vast wealth.
So when Thani writes of holding tyrants to account, it’s with no small measure of unintended irony given the human rights abuses his government has condoned in preparing for the 2022 World Cup, the bid for which has been dogged by allegations of bribery.
The country has relied heavily on migrant labor to build stadiums and related infrastructure, and human rights advocates have described their labor conditions as a form of modern-day slavery. Moreover, Nepalese migrant workers are reported to have died while working on these projects at a rate of one every two days. While precise figures are hard to come by, hundreds of migrant workers have likely lost their lives on the job in Qatar.
But this, of course, is small potatoes, as Qatar and the United States work hand-in-hand to “to negotiate pluralistic, inclusive, power-sharing solutions to regional disputes,” as Thani put it in the Times. Following their Oval Office meeting, Obama and Thani pledged solidarity in the fight against the Islamic State militant group. “We are both committed to making sure that ISIL is defeated,” Obama said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State.
In recent years, Qatar has carved out a powerful role for itself as a broker between the United States and the Middle East’s many Islamist movements. It was Qatar that brokered the release of the American writer Peter Theo Curtis and negotiated the prisoner swap with the Taliban that secured the freedom of Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Moreover, Qatar played a key role as an intermediary in ending fighting in the Gaza Strip last summer. The country also plays host to a significant American air base.
At the same time, Qatar has used its oil wealth to finance the activities of Islamist groups in the region. Some American intelligence officials believe that Qatar’s patronages has included financing terrorist groups — or at the very least turning a blind eye to Qatari financiers backing organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
Qatar vehemently denies these accusations and argues that it plays a necessary role in helping to free Western hostages and creating what the country’s foreign minister has described as “platforms for dialogue.”
That position as a go-between has helped insulate Qatar from criticisms of its human rights record. Indeed, reading Thani’s op-ed in the Times one could be forgiven for getting the impression that he arrives in Washington as a reformist democrat, and not a major player in the autocratic politics of the Middle East.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images