Trump Will Regret Changing His Mind About Qatar
The United States has the leverage needed to prevent Qatar from cozying up to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood—if it’s willing to use it.
So far, the effects of U.S. President Donald Trump’s unpredictability in the Middle East have been relatively contained. But that may be changing. His administration’s recent flip-flop on Qatar, which is in the middle of a faceoff with the United States’ main Arab allies, has increased the chances of conflict in the Middle East.
A year ago, Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies—Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates—imposed an economic and diplomatic blockade against Qatar and issued a number of demands, including that the country deport to Egypt Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas. Qatar was also expected to end all financial and political support of the Brotherhood, its affiliated movements, and terrorist groups across the Arab world, including Hamas in Palestine and al Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, and cease all military and strategic ties with Iran.
The blockade was only the latest in a series of confrontations between the countries. The first crisis occurred in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring (Egypt withdrew its envoy separately). The standoff ended when the Qataris agreed to a document drafted by the late Saudi King Abdullah stating that Qatar would stop supporting the Brotherhood and that group’s affiliates across the region. At the time, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama stayed neutral, as it did throughout the rest of the president’s tenure.
Unlike his predecessor, Trump initially opted to support Saudi, Egyptian, Emirati, and Bahraini pressure on Qatar, calling Doha a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.” The Saudi coalition’s demand that Qatar end its close ties with Iran was likely particularly appealing for Trump; after all, he has sought to make reversing his predecessor’s engagement with Tehran one of the hallmarks of his tenure.
Yet despite his previous support, the president has now come full circle. Earlier this spring, Trump hosted Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at the White House and called him a “friend of mine” and a “very big advocate” in the war on terror. Likewise, in a visit to Riyadh in April, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly told the Saudi-led coalition to end the embargo and concentrate on more important matters, such as achieving stability in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; carrying out operations against the Islamic State and al Qaeda; and containing Iran. Nevertheless, sanctions against Qatar still stand.
The Trump administration is making a strategic mistake, and perhaps a very grave one. For one, it is true that Qatar has become somewhat closer to Iran, particularly after a joint effort to get kidnapped Qataris back from Iraq. The kidnappers were from the Iranian-created Shia militia terrorist group, Kataib Hezbollah, and the Qataris swayed the Iranians by paying them and their associates a ransom of close to $1 billion. But beyond its ties to Iran, Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is at least as troubling, if not more so. Since 2011, Brotherhood-linked groups have sown chaos from Egypt to Libya to Syria. For example, Brotherhood-linked terrorists are believed to have been behind the 2015 murder of Egyptian Public Prosecutor Hisham Barakat, who referred many Muslim Brotherhood leaders to trial. There have been countless other such attacks in recent years.
The group is also seen by some as being close to al Qaeda and the Islamic State. A few months ago, for example, the al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared in a recording in which he defended the Muslim Brotherhood against accusations of terrorism. He has also extensively praised one of its ideological founders, Sayyid Qutb, for “igniting the Islamic revolution against the enemies of Islam.” Al Qaeda’s former leader, Osama bin Laden, was likewise an acolyte and admirer of the Brotherhood, as documents seized from his Pakistani compound after his death revealed. In a recent interview with the Guardian, bin Laden’s mother described how a college-age Osama met Abdullah Azzam, one of the Brotherhood’s most prominent Palestinian theologists and a co-founder of al Qaeda, and became radicalized by him.
The Muslim Brotherhood may have a connection to the Islamic State as well. In a 2013 interview, Qaradawi, currently the most important cleric in the Brotherhood’s global community, whom the Qatari leadership has long backed, revealed that Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a member of the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood as a young man. He went on to say that “ISIS leaders lured him after being released from prison,” and that “young people from Qatar and other countries joined this group.”
With such dangerous ideological bedfellows, it might seem odd that the Muslim Brotherhood has found a strong supporter in Qatar, with which it has had ties for six decades. The close relationship is a legacy of Qatar’s previous emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. According to a former French ambassador in Doha, Hamad believed that the key to Arab countries’ future success was strong leaders with deep Islamist conservative roots. The Brotherhood, he thought, was the only group organized enough and in tune enough with young Arab populaces to be capable of enabling such leaders. Today, Qatar’s social and political scene—its schools, media, financial endowments, and especially foreign policy—are all aligned to varying degrees with the Brotherhood’s ideology.
Take foreign policy. In 2012, for example, Qatar pledged $250 million to Hamas, five years after the Brotherhood-inspired group took control of the Gaza Strip. Assistance to such groups has continued and expanded since the late-2010 turmoil in Tunisia. Between 2012 and 2013, the Qataris sent billions of dollars and free natural gas to the Egyptian government in order to secure and then sustain the victory for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, who won the 2012 election but was eventually ousted by the army in July 2013. According to a former Jordanian ambassador in Cairo, some of these funds were eventually diverted and used to help create Brotherhood-affiliated brigades, such as the Hasm Movement and Louwaa al-Thawra, which conducted numerous assassinations targeting senior judges, generals, and security officers in Cairo and Alexandria during and after Morsi’s brief rule.
Like the Muslim Brotherhood itself, Qatar has also funded and supplied Islamist extremists in Syria and Libya. In Syria, it has directly financed the Nusra Front. In addition, the country has hosted several major Libyan Islamists and funded Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda’s now-disbanded affiliate in that country.
Qatar’s engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood goes beyond the Middle East. In recent years, it has been accused of giving more than $175 million to Brotherhood-linked groups in Denmark, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
At home, Qatar’s media is also permeated by influence from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Al Jazeera network, based in Qatar and owned and run by its government, has long provided a global platform for Brotherhood leaders and terrorist supporters like Qaradawi. During the Iraq War, the network repeatedly aired videos of al Qaeda leaders calling for violence against the United States. Last year, the network broadcast a eulogy for Omar Abdel-Rahman, aka “the blind sheikh,” who was a leader of Gamaa al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian terrorist group responsible for hundreds of deaths, including the 1997 massacre at Luxor.
The Muslim Brotherhood presents a threat to the region and the United States. As the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John Jenkins, wrote in 2017, “for the Saudis, the MB has come to represent a profound ideological threat to the basis of their state. For them, it is a secretive, partisan and divisive organization dedicated to a self-defined renewal of Islam and the establishment of a transnational Islamic state through incremental but ultimately revolutionary political activism, using tactical violence if necessary.”
For the United States, too, such “revolutionary political activism” represents a profound danger. If the Brotherhood’s long-term objective really were to build a fundamentalist Islamic society free of Western influence, that would be devastating to the United States’ strategic posture and standing in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.
It is therefore important to get Qatar to end its support of the Brotherhood—perhaps even more important than getting the country to distance itself from Iran. Yet this cannot be done without credible pressure from the country’s neighbors, of the kind meted out in the recent Saudi-led embargo. By having apparently thrown its weight behind Qatar, though, the Trump administration has hurt the standing of its main Arab friends, weakened the seriousness of their threats, and damaged their chances at persuading Qatar to choose another route.
The United States has a long-established strategic relationship with Qatar. Al Udeid, a U.S. joint airbase, sits outside Doha and serves as the command center for U.S. air operations over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. It is also the ultimate guarantor of Qatari security. In short, the United States has the tools to help put Qatar back on the right path, but only if Trump reverses his reversal and joins the Saudi-led coalition in applying pressure.