One of the more alarming features of the recent violence that has erupted throughout the Middle East is that, wherever hardline Islamist factions are involved, the small Gulf state of Qatar inevitably turns out to be their paymaster.
Whether it is militants fighting for the self-styled Islamic State in northern Iraq, or Hamas extremists lobbing missiles at Israel, the one common denominator is that they rely heavily on the funding they receive from Qatar to pursue their fundamentalist goals.
Many will find this surprising for, on paper at least, Qatar is also supposed to be a close ally of the Western powers, many of whom, particularly in Europe, rely heavily on the Emirate for their energy supplies. It was only three years ago, remember, that Qatar’s armed forces fought side-by-side with Nato in the military campaign to overthrow the Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
And yet now the Qataris find themselves backing violent Islamist groups in northern Iraq whose murderous assault on the country’s Yazidi and Christian communities has forced the Obama administration to re-intervene militarily in Iraq in order to avoid further bloodshed. Qatar’s financial backing for Hamas, meanwhile, has enabled Palestinian militants to construct the elaborate tunnel network that precipitated the latest round of hostilities with Israel.
All of which must put Qatar’s youthful new Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in something of a quandary. For when the Sandhurst-trained Sheikh Tamim replaced his father as the Emirate’s new ruler in June last year, there was a widespread expectation, both in the Gulf and the rest of the world, that the 34-year-old Emir would undertake a more constructive approach to Doha’s dealings with the outside world.
During the two decades of rule by Sheikh Tamim’s father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Qataris acquired something of a reputation as regional troublemakers, not least because of the activities of Qatar’s flagship broadcaster, al-Jazeera.
The Arabic television station was initially founded as a vehicle to antagonise Saudi Arabia’s conservative rulers, but quickly developed into an entity that provoked the ire of the West as well, especially when it appeared to side with Islamist terror groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Sheikh Hamad shrewdly calculated that, despite its provocative conduct, Qatar could avoid a more serious breach with the West for two key reasons: its vast energy reserves, and the importance of its strategic location for the US military, both as a staging post for operations in Afghanistan and monitoring the activities of the Iran’s ayatollahs on the other side of the Gulf. Indeed Qatar’s successful courtship of the West while at the same time supporting militant Islamist groups resulted in the Emirate making a successful bid to stage the 2022 World Cup.
But to judge by recent events in the region, any hope that Sheikh Tamim’s accession last year would result in Qatar pursuing a less problematic foreign policy has proved stillborn. It is true that, as soon as he took office, Sheikh Tamim pledged to undertake a number of long overdue political reforms that would help to empower Qatar’s youthful population.
More recently, the Emir has sought to strengthen Qatar’s longstanding relationship with Washington by signing a $11 billion arms package, whereby the US will supply the Gulf state with a range of equipment including Patriot missiles, Apache helicopters and anti-tank missiles. In return Qatar will continue to allow the US access to the giant al-Udeid air base.
Apart from helping to support air operations over Afghanistan, al-Udeid is also used by the US Air Force to patrol other parts of the Middle East, including Iraq. And after President Barack Obama authorised American air strikes against Islamist militants terrorising large swathes of northern Iraq, the irony will not have been lost on American military planners that the sudden emergence of ISIS terrorists as a formidable fighting force owes a great deal to the financial support the movement has received from Qatar.
Indeed, Qatar’s support for a wide array of Islamist groups throughout the region means that it is unlikely that Sheikh Tamim will be able to maintain his dangerous balancing act for much longer. For if Qatar truly wants to be a valued ally of the West, then how can it justify its continued support for Islamist extremists in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Gaza and Iraq, to name but a few?
Sheikh Tamim might argue that, with many of the conflicts in the region being defined by the deepening hostility between Sunni and Shia Islam, his support for Sunni groups fighting those that enjoy the backing of Iraq is vital for protecting Western interests in the region. But that argument now has a hollow tone given that, thanks to the new Emir’s policies, Western warplanes have once again been forced into action to curb the barbarity of Qatari-backed Islamist insurgents.