To believe the Saudi al-Arabiya or the Emirati Gulf News, Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is facing tough questions over his country’s links to “terrorism” as he visits London to meet with PM Theresa May and discuss trade, investment and sporting ties between Britain and Qatar. Strangely enough, and in sharp contrast to the actual protests and Parliamentary critiques that met Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to the UK earlier this year, few others seem to see the visit in the same dramatic terms.
Qatar’s emir is probably used to this by now. For the past year, Qatar’s larger and more powerful neighbours have telling just about anyone that will listen – and most especially the American president Donald Trump – that tiny Qatar is financing terrorist groups operating across the Middle East.
To punish their devious cousins in Doha for serving as a terrorist equivalent to the City of London, this “quartet” of nations – a grouping that includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE but also Egypt and Bahrain – has done their level best to isolate the peninsular nation both physically and diplomatically from the outside world.
Not that they’ve done a very good job of it. Qatar quickly found both maritime and aeronautical workarounds for the blockades, and Qatari leaders were at centre stage in Moscow in the build-up to their own 2022 World Cup.
The UK, for what it’s worth, is an enthusiastic partner to Qatar in putting on the next tournament. A British group, Impactt, is even serving as the official compliance monitor for the World Cup preparations.
If Qatar is in such close cahoots with terrorist groups, why hasn’t the international community taken the quartet’s warnings more seriously? Why is Theresa May meeting with Sheikh al-Thani in London?
The answer to these questions is that the “Qatar sponsors terrorism” trope is, to put it in the kindest terms possible, a blatantly transparent bit of Saudi and Emirati propaganda.
The best bit of evidence the anti-Qatar grouping has presented for its accusations harkens back to a 2015 alleged ransom payment for 28 Qatari hostages held by a Shia militia group in Iraq. Qatar argues that the money actually went to the Iraqi government, and Iraq’s prime minister held a news conference at the start of the Gulf crisis to specify the funds were still sitting in Iraq’s central bank.
The controversy surrounding that payment recently intensified after the BBC published internal communications involving Qatar’s foreign minister from the time of the negotiations. The Qataris claim the messages were selectively edited to embarrass their government. The BBC itself makes quite clear that a government “hostile to Qatar” provided it with the materials. Considering the entire standoff began with “fake news” quotes planted on a Qatari website at the behest of the Emirati government, Qatar’s protestations aren’t exactly a stretch.
Beyond that, the Saudis and their allies have drawn up menacing-sounding blacklists of “terrorists” and terrorist backers supposedly acting with impunity on Qatari soil. In reality, these lists have just piled together many of the Qatar-based Islamist dissidents the regimes in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo don’t care for.
The names on those lists help explain why Saudi Arabia and the UAE (and several of the countries they prop up) are so single-mindedly obsessed with cutting Qatar down to size. Mohammad bin Salman and his allies know perfectly well that Saudi Arabia is far more directly responsible for the spread of jihadist ideology than Qatar, or any other government in the Muslim world for that matter.
Last year, the Henry Jackson Society fingered Saudi Arabia as the single largest source of foreign funding for extremism in the UK. The Home Office, led at that point by Amber Rudd, conducted a similar study – which it then refused to publish.
What truly upsets Riyadh is that the Qataris have refused to bend the knee to Saudi foreign policy in the same way Gulf countries such as Bahrain have. From the start of the Arab Spring, Qatar and the Doha-based al-Jazeera television network have supported popular uprisings in countries like Egypt. Qatar’s Gulf neighbours instead took it upon themselves to fund the forces of authoritarian counterrevolution.
A year on from the start of the blockade, the quartet hasn’t shown many signs of dialling back their campaign and re-engaging with their Qatari neighbours. Until they do, the British government has decided it’s best to take a classically British approach to the whole dispute: smile, nod and get on with the business of diplomacy as best as possible.