More than a month after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed an embargo on Qatar over its support for terrorism, the tiny Gulf state is lonelier, but just as wealthy as ever. Central bank Governor Sheikh Abdullah bin Saoud Al Thani boasted last Monday that Qatar is doing just fine, with $40 billion in cash reserves, gold, and other assets—more than enough to weather the dispute.
The world’s number one liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter has also set up new shipping routes to compensate for the shutdown of its border with Saudi Arabia, stashed billions in local banks, and enticed firms like France’s Total by announcing it will increase LNG output by 30 percent. The success of these measures—and the continued presence of 10,000 U.S. servicemen and -women at Al-Udeid Air Base—suggests the tiny Gulf state will be able to keep on resisting outside pressure and maintain its low-key support for extremist groups.
With Doha more defiant than ever, the United States needs to take more drastic action and remove a crutch that has been propping up the emirate for too long: Al-Udeid. Shutting down the base is one of the few tactics that could convince Qatar to mend its ways. On top of that, closing Al-Udeid would be a powerful way for President Trump to usher America on a new course in the Middle East that he first outlined in a speech during his two-day visit to Saudi Arabia this spring.
The Base Serves Qatar’s Interests Better Than Ours
Trump’s vision for U.S. policy in the Middle East represents a major reset from the Obama years, pushing Arab partners to take their share of responsibility in the fight against terrorism, reaffirming the longstanding alliance with Saudi Arabia, and refocusing America’s energy on confronting state sponsors of extremism like Iran. Moving U.S. troops out of one of the biggest troublemakers in the region would send a clear signal to Middle East partners that Washington is finally getting tough on terrorism again, and is willing to turn its back on deviants.
Trump has already signaled that he’s done with tiptoeing around the issue, tweeting what has been open secret: Qatar supports terrorism. The commander-in-chief calling out Doha for trying to have it both ways is about as strong a signal as the United States could possibly send.
The Al-Udeid base is a huge strategic asset to Qatar: as Dennis Ross put it, the reason Doha hosts the U.S. military is to use our men and women in uniform as a security guarantee to do whatever they like—not, as the Qataris claim, to support a key counterterrorism installation.
In fact, as far as counterterrorism partners go, Qatar has been one of America’s most problematic. The Qataris have insisted to American counterparts for years that they are doing everything to stop their citizens from channeling funds to extremist groups, but they have nothing to show for it. David Weinberg at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy published an extensive report back in January, in which he failed to find a single example of Qatar “charging, convicting, and jailing a US- or UN-designated individual.”
The country is known to have indirectly supported al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and other extremist groups by funneling them ransom payments, most recently for the release of members of its royal family. Paying ransoms like these has been condemned by the UN Security Council and numerous states because paying terrorists encourages more kidnappings.
Qatar Blatantly Supports Terrorists
Qatar doesn’t have qualms about directly financing some terrorist groups, either. The Qataris have been one of Hamas’ primary outside supporters for years, its most significant source of outside funds and the base for its political leader, Khaled Meshaal, directly supporting a murderous Islamist group committed to destroying Israel. The Gulf state also hosted two Taliban officials traveling in and out of Qatar to meet with the “Taliban Five”—dangerous prisoners who were released to Qatar in exchange for U.S. deserter Bowe Bergdahl. Leaked cables reveal U.S. government officials thought the Taliban could use Qatar as a base for fundraising, and Qatar has openly funded al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria—which the UN Security Council has labeled “one of the most effective branches” of the organization worldwide.
Qatar’s blatant support for terrorist groups makes their hosting of the largest U.S. military base in the region—ironically, a nerve center for the fight against Islamic State—an oxymoron, but one the Qatari emir has been able to count on for years. By hosting Al-Udeid, his government is able to hedge its bets under the comfort of the U.S. security blanket. Some might argue that closing Al-Udeid would mean losing a strategically located base, but the U.S. military is more than capable of making up for it with capacities in Bahrain, the UAE, and elsewhere in the region.
The Qataris, seeming to realize the United States won’t be willing to cover for their misdeeds indefinitely, have to hope some other power would put its soldiers in harm’s way on their behalf. As it turns out, one country just might take them up on it: in response to the embargo, Turkey fast-tracked the potential deployment of its troops to a military base in Qatar.
That decision is a show of support from one pro-Islamist regime to another, but Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have send thousands of his troops to the Persian Gulf—at the same time the Turkish military reels from political purges—to truly fill in for 10,000 departing Americans. Without the United States and beyond Turkey, Qatar’s list of friends is dwindling to terrorist groups like Hamas and rogue states like Iran. The Qataris can still decide to come in from the cold, but the days of playing both sides are running out.