By Jonathan Schanzer
23rd June 2017
A nasty internecine conflict has erupted in the Arabian Gulf. Led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a gaggle of Arab states have singled out the tiny emirate of Qatar for backing a wide range of terrorist groups and fomenting regional unrest through its sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s opponents have severed diplomatic ties and neighbouring states even took the extraordinary measure of cutting off air, land and maritime routes to Qatar.
Both sides have now lawyered-up, and they’re taking their battle to Washington. It’s the clash of the Gulf cash.
Qatar is undeniably a problem. The country is a haven for Hamas, the Taliban, Syrian jihadists and more. But the entire affair is an odd spectacle. The other Gulf states have not exactly tackled their own terrorism finance problems with gusto. Saudi Arabia, for example, remains the top exporter of the extremist Wahhabi ideology, and it’s particularly rich that Kuwait, a country that terrorism finance officials have routinely singled out, is acting as mediator.
But the Gulf spat also shines a bright light on another major problem: Washington’s permissive and promiscuous approach to foreign policy-making in the Gulf.
For one, there is simply too much Gulf money sloshing around in Washington. The Qataris have invested untold millions in think tanks and universities, not to mention lobbyists and other influencers, and they are not the only ones. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others are also major players in this game. The end result is that those who feed from this trough are unable to engage in an honest conversation about the policies and behaviors of their benefactors — even when they fly in the face of U.S. interests.
For years, my think tank, the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD), has tracked Qatar’s tacit and open backing of terrorist groups — as well as Saudi and Kuwaiti deficiencies. We have found it challenging to publish our analysis, or even to merely have a debate, often because the topic is a liability (politically or financially) for certain publications and other shops around town.
When we held a major conference on May 23 in Washington to address the Qatari challenge, it was met with howls of disapproval from some of our contemporaries, because it singled out Qatar (to our surprise, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Doha was among them). I can’t recall a similar response to conferences that single out other countries (Israel immediately comes to mind), especially when American interests are clear.
Days after our conference, the UAE ambassador to Washington had his emails hacked, by whom we can only speculate. Remarkably, it was only a handful of email exchanges between two of my FDD colleagues and the ambassador that certain media outlets determined to be newsworthy. The implication was the FDD was somehow colluding with the UAE, or even taking funds from the country.
I must note here that we are among the few foreign policy think tanks in D.C. that does not take funds from any foreign government. The fact that Qatari-owned al-Jazeera was peddling this false narrative was particularly dishonest, given that the Qataris have so many in Washington on their payroll.
This wholesale purchase of opinion-makers in Washington has led to an even greater challenge: the acceptance of an unsustainable status quo.
As Gulf money pours in, policymakers have all but given up on the human rights violations, democracy deficits and terrorism finance challenges associated with this troubled region. Nowhere is that more glaring than with Qatar.
The fact that Qatar hosts a major American airbase that is a short drive from Hamas or Taliban headquarters is simply unsustainable. Our arrangement with Qatar undermines the very ideological war we are waging from al-Udeid.
Proponents of Qatar — both those on the payroll and those who are not — insist that terrorist operatives are in Qatar by design, so that American diplomats can benefit from an unofficial communication channel. I have yet to see an analysis produced by the U.S. government to convince me of the benefits. If anything, our tolerance of this dynamic only serves to legitimize these terrorist groups. I believe this is Qatar’s objective.
In the meantime, personnel from the embassy in Doha, even while defending this dangerous dynamic, cannot manage to produce a list of individuals designated by the Treasury for terrorism that have been arrested or otherwise brought to justice by the Qatari government.
President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have both weighed in on the Gulf spat, vowing to engineer a soft landing whereby both the blockade of Qatar is eased and the problem of Qatari terror sponsorship is addressed. This would be a welcomed resolution, particularly in light of the desire of Russia and Iran to exploit the chaos.
But at a political moment where “draining the swamp” in Washington is a popular refrain, there is also an opportunity for the White House and Congress to take a hard look at how Gulf state funds are influencing our foreign policy in dangerous ways. The clash of the Gulf cash continues, and nothing is swampier than that.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a policy institute focused on national security and foreign policy.