Donald Trump praises Shiekh Al Thani for Qatar terror funding fight

April 11, 2018

CAIRO It was nine months ago that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain launched a surprise diplomatic strike against Qatar, a Persian Gulf state with a land mass the size of Connecticut and the world’s third-largest reserve of natural gas and oil, accusing Doha’s leaders of supporting Islamist terrorist groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Despite the best efforts of the United States, the isolation campaign and embargo have split families, raised prices for food and medicine and revealed to the Qataris how much their small but proud nation is reliant on the good graces of others.

“Our worlds were shaken after neighboring countries announced the embargo,” said Farah Abel, a trainee at the World Innovation Summit for Education, a nonprofit funded by the Qatar Foundation. “We felt under attack, and our sister countries made us question food security, militaristic intervention, travel bans and even family ties.”

The blockading Gulf states said the measure was necessary to stop Qatar from funneling funds to groups destabilizing the region. They took the step immediately after President Trump’s trip to Riyadh.

“Qatar gives members of the Muslim Brotherhood a haven in Doha and allows them through [Qatari-funded television network] Al Jazeera to incite for the overthrow of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi,” said Nevine Mossaad a Cairo University political scientist. “Nothing has motivated Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to stop this support for terrorism.”

The feud has proved a major headache for the Trump White House and the Pentagon. After initially siding strongly with the Saudis and its allies, Mr. Trump has tried to steer a more middle course in recognition of Qatar’s strategic value as host to the leading U.S. military base in the region.

There were no visible signs of division in Mr. Trump’s Oval Office meeting Tuesday with Shiekh Al Thani, whether it was on the need to confront Syria or the charges that Doha has funded terrorist groups.

“We’re working on unity in that part of the Middle East, and I think it’s working out very well,” Mr. Trump told reporters in a brief public session. “We’re making sure that terrorism funding is stopped in the countries we are really related to.”

Turning to the emir, Mr. Trump said, “You’ve now become a very big advocate, and we appreciate that.”

“We do not, and we will not, tolerate with people who fund terrorism,” Mr. Al Thani replied.

Lingering ill will

But there are few signs that America’s Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf are willing to forget about the matter.

Cairo has explicitly pointed the finger at Qatar for financing Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked groups operating in the Sinai, the Nile Valley, and the desert borderlands with neighboring Libya. Other Gulf states point to money flows to al Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebel groups and Shiite militias in Iraq.

“He even extended this sabotage to his neighbors, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates,” said Mr. Mossaad, echoing the views of the Arab leaders who submitted a list of 13 security and political demands to Qatar on June 22 that included closing the U.S. air base in Qatar. “The Qatari role is one of the main sources of instability, turmoil and violence in the Arab region, and especially so in Egypt.”

Al Udeid Air Base in the southwestern part of the country is the largest operations center for the U.S. military in the Middle East and houses almost 10,000 American military and intelligence personnel.

Qatari officials have rejected the accusations even during talks. Before he was fired, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson took the lead in U.S. efforts to heal the divisions, with little evident success. Few believe an upcoming meeting between Qatar and the other Arab states this month will lead to a quick resolution.

The meeting was held shortly after Mr. Trump greeted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the start of the crown prince’s marathon tour of the U.S. The de facto leader of another Qatari opponent, the UAE, will soon visit the White House.

Saudi media outlets even reported this week on a proposal to dig a maritime canal along the kingdom’s closed border with Qatar, turning the peninsula-nation into an island. The Associated Press reported that the preliminary project, to be funded by Saudi and Emirati investors and carried out by Egyptian developers, would construct a new military base and nuclear waste dump site on the Qatari border.

The animosity is taking its toll.

“After nine months of not even being able to send text messages to family members in the boycotting countries, the Qataris themselves have become more nationalistic and have rallied to [Mr. Al Thani,] who has come to be seen as a real leader,” said Harry Verhoeven, a professor of government at Georgetown University’s Doha campus. “It’s actually going to become more difficult for him now to give into the humiliating demands of [UAE President] Sheikh Khalifa and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”

Still, Qatari nationals who constitute a little over 14 percent of a population of 2.6 million that includes large numbers of foreign workers say the embargo is hurting their pocketbooks and their relationships.

“This is bigger than a certain brand of juice not being available at the supermarket,” said Nasser Al-Rayes, 24, a basketball player for Al Sadd Sports Club. “My cousin is married to an Emirati woman, and he can longer see her because of this blockade. In his case, matters are even more complicated since she has ties to the ruling family of Abu Dhabi.”

Saudi Arabia closed the Salwa border crossing in June, blocking Qatar’s only land connection with the outside world and prompting Qatari businessman Moutaz Al Khayyat to fly 4,000 cows to the Doha airport to supply fresh milk that was formerly trucked in from the kingdom next door.

All of Qatar’s cargo now must pass through the Doha’s sea or airport. The cost of air transit has soared as carriers scrambled to reroute flights away from the blockading countries.

“The flights’ cost and duration has increased and may also force them to pass over unsafe zones in other countries, such as Iraq, adding to both the price of fuel and insurance,” said Ali Saleh, an economist at Future Research, a think tank in Abu Dhabi.

Qatar Airways lost revenue on more than 50 routes to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. Qataris and the foreigners living there take circuitous routes to visit loved ones or to conduct business.

“I had to change planes in Oman and Beirut and pay about [$600] more than usual in order to get back to Cairo for my sister’s wedding,” said Hassan Abdel Meguid, a 29-year-old Egyptian engineer who works for a Qatari construction firm.

“The other issue is transferring money to my family back home because there is now a daily limit, which just means I waste more time going to the local bank and Western Union.”

Worker exodus

More worrisome to Abdel Meguid and the other foreign workers in Qatar is the exit of hundreds of construction companies in the country, where architects and builders had found a bonanza of projects driven largely by preparations for the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament.

In February, Saudi Arabia demanded that the global soccer association FIFA strip Qatar of its right to host the 2022 competition, not over concerns about support for terrorists but rather of vote-buying to secure the rights to host the event in the 2010 nomination process.

The demand to pull the tournament has gathered steam in Europe, where German publications have published details of the suspected bribes, and in Britain, where members of the ruling Conservative Party have called for an inquiry.

“The decision to award the World Cup to Qatar has to be reviewed,” said Damian Collins, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport committee in the House of Commons.

Despite what feels like unfair bullying by kindred nations, Qataris say they support their leaders and have developed an inner resilience to the blockade. They are also thankful that their leaders have deep pockets of resources on reserve. The nation’s sovereign wealth fund boasts some $338 billion in assets.

“My real concern lies in the relations between the people of all these countries,” said Aliya Fakhroo, a 24-year-old student in Doha. “Will the hatred that’s been spurred go away?