SPECIAL REPORT: the Qatar conundrum

SPECIAL REPORT: the Qatar conundrum

Emir of Qatar visit to UK
Prime Minister David Cameron greets the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani inside 10 Downing Street

The Emir of Qatar’s recent state visit to London highlighted the ambiguities of a regime that courts the friendship of the West while, its critics say, funding terrorist groups, Raine Marcus reports.

Last month’s visit by the Emir of Qatar to London, his favourite city for billion-pound investments, was profitable for the ruler of the tiny Gulf state. But Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani’s first official visit was not without opposition from Israeli and Jewish grassroots organisations, which made their presence known by staging flash mob protests. 

The Alliance of Israelis in Great Britain (AGIV) was joined by the Board of Deputies’ grassroots division and NILI14 in its third protest against Qatar for its bankrolling of Hamas and other terrorist organisations. “If we put enough pressure on the British people – and government – perhaps Qatar will eventually be pressured into ceasing its funding of Hamas,” says Tamir Milo of AGIV.

Sandhurst-educated, the Emir is continuing his family’s legacy of a long standing and mutual friendship with Britain. “Qataris love London; they’re anglophiles and have had strong links to the UK since the 70s,” says David Roberts, director of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in Qatar. “It’s convenient and fundamentally they’re buying into the capitalist model.” flash2

Such investments are encouraged by the UK, which has supplied Qatar with £23m worth of weapons since 2008. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund recently acquired the global HSBC Canary Wharf headquarters for £1.1billion. It has also acquired a stake in the landmark Savoy Hotel, after Lloyds Bank divested 50 percent of its ownership.

These investments are the latest in a planned £30bn portfolio, which includes Harrods, The Shard, Chelsea Barracks and Barclays Bank.

But during his visit, the 34-year-old Emir, who inherited the reign of the richest country in the world after his father abdicated in 2013, faced tough questions from Prime Minister David Cameron, Home Secretary Theresa May and outgoing MI6 chief Sir John Sawers after widespread reports of the state’s funding of extremist terror groups.

Following the visit, the UK signed a pact with Qatar to share intelligence and combat terrorism and cyber crime. Although the Emir openly admits his support of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, with leaders Khaled Mashaal and Yusuf al-Qaradawi welcome guests in Doha, he has denied links to Islamic State (IS), despite reports suggesting that wealthy Qataris are its financiers. “Qatar used its influence again and again to make sure that ceasefire agreements of this summer’s conflict in Gaza did not stick,” says Stephen Jaffe of the BOD. “It is important to show that Qatar is playing a double game.”

Experts say Qatar is not the only Gulf state to help terrorist groups, but that it is attracting disproportionate attention. “There have been issues about private individuals financing extreme jihadists, but we have also seen this with Saudi Arabia,” says Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House. “Qatar does have odd relationships in the Middle East – no one knows the exact ins and outs. It had surprisingly good relations with Iran. It even opened a trade office in Israel for a while. It has seen the invasion of Kuwait. Qatar is a small country surrounded by large neighbours, so it does all it can to court allies.”

qatar1Qatar has indeed made itself indispensable to the US and UK: to the US because of its military bases there and to the UK because of its supply of 80 percent of the country’s liquefied natural gas – and its phenomenal investments. “There have been concerns in the UK about official Qatari funds going to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra,” says Kinninmont. “But perhaps Western allies believe it is better for these organisations to receive money from Qatar rather than Iran. Qatar deals with the groups others won’t deal with.”

Over the past nine months, on three separate occasions, Qatar facilitated the release of US journalist Peter Theo Curtis, 45 Fijian soldiers, 13 nuns and their maids after they were kidnapped by Jabhat al Nusra. So how to explain relations with the more extremist jihadi organisations? “People and weapons have flowed from other countries to extremist groups,” explains Michael Stephens, research fellow at RUSI.

“But there are serious questions to be asked about its (Qatar) connections in Libya and Syria.” Qatar’s shady and ambiguous connections have also made it a valuable ally for Western intelligence agencies. Its joining the coalition to fight IS with air strikes was “very symbolic” says Kinninmont, and made a statement in response to Western criticism. It has also hired an international PR agency to help improve its image. “For us as Israelis and Jews, it’s important to show we can go on the offensive and not just be in a defensive mode,” sums up Milo. “It’s good that this time the focus was on Qatar.”

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