(July 9, 2019 / JNS) U.S. President Donald Trump met with Qatar’s leader, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani at the White House on Tuesday. Despite a rocky start to their relations when Trump took office in 2017, both countries have grown closer in relations following last year’s visit by the emir, where Trump referred to him as a “great friend.”
Varsha Koduvayur, a senior research analyst and Gulf States expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that the White House meeting is a “big win” for the Qatari emir.
“For Qatar’s Emir Tamim, this is his second visit, having come to the White House in April 2018 as well. I expect some contentious topics to be discussed, such as Iran and the situation in Libya, but I doubt that Doha and Washington will come to an agreement these issues, given the host of divergences at play between them.”
President Trump meets with the Amir of Qatar in the Oval Office: pic.twitter.com/yTu7ABv24h
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) July 9, 2019
Indeed, the emir’s visit comes amid the backdrop of both increasing tensions with Iran, as well as fractured relations within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Unlike Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which view Iran as its chief regional rival and fear its nuclear ambitions, Qatar has forged warm relations with Tehran despite calls by other Arab Gulf states to limit ties. Qatar and Iran jointly own the Pars natural-gas field in the Persian Gulf, which is the world’s largest and has made Qatar a very wealthy country.
Qatar also hosts the United States’ primary air base in the Middle East: Al Udeid Air Base, home to some 10,000 American troops and the operations center of U.S. Central Command.
At the same time, Qatar’s rivals have had been embroiled in their own controversy that may be a factor in the Trump administration reducing its visibility with its traditional Gulf partners.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman continues to be embroiled in the controversy of the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while Emirati leader, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was also recently mentioned in the Mueller Report for his Russian contacts. At the same time, the U.S. Congress has also recently pushed back on the Trump administration’s attempts to sell $8 billion in weapons to the Saudis and UAE.
Koduvayur attributes Qatar’s success in gaining a White House visit after initial tense relations with the Trump administration to a very active lobbying campaign by the Qatari government.
“Part of his [Trump’s] backtracking is certainly due to how well the Qataris have deployed their media machine in Washington, spending millions of dollars on lobbyists to further their cause,” noted the regional expert.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Qatar has spent at least $24 million in U.S. lobbying efforts since 2017.
This lobbying effort was on full display at the Treasury Department’s Cash Room on Monday, where Trump hosted 40 top business leaders and Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Trump lavished praised on the emir, saying that he has been a “friend of mine for a long time,” and that the “investments that you make are very much appreciated.”
Following their meeting on Tuesday, Trump also boosted about Qatar’s promise for a “very large transaction” with a purchase of Boeing jets as well as several other countries getting business from the Gulf state, such as Gulfstream, Raytheon, General Electric and Chevron-Phillips Chemical.
Concerns about treatment of minorities and links to terror groups
Nevertheless, despite the lavish visit, there are still very serious policy disagreements and concerns between the United States and Qatar, especially over its anti-Semitism and ties with terror groups.
“Doha remains tolerant of hate-speech in mosque sermons, textbooks, and particularly the Arabic-language output of its Al Jazeera satellite broadcasting station,” wrote Simon Henderson, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Indeed, the Anti-Defamation League is calling on the Trump administration to address Qatar’s incitement against Jews and other minorities, such as Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, women and the LGBTQ community.
According to the ADL, the Qatari government “continues to propagate or provide a platform for intolerant preachers and hateful messages, including toward Jewish people.”
Additionally, the ADL has uncovered virulently anti-Semitic passages in Qatari state textbooks.
These books claim that the “Jewish people are treacherous, seek to conquer the world and follow a perverted, invalid religion. The books also contained numerous examples of anti-Christian bigotry, as well as incitement against the West.”
Qatar’s government also funds the International Union of Muslim Scholars, whose secretary-general, openly denies the Holocaust, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute.
Concern also arises from the government-backed Qatar Foundation, which some have accused of using university grants to fund radical individuals and groups on American campuses.
Similarly, there are also concerns regarding Qatar’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
Qatar has long supported the Palestinian terror group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. While Israel has approved of Qatar’s role in providing humanitarian relief and investment in Gaza, much concern revolves around that relationship.
“Qatar is not likely to withdraw their backing of Hamas,” said Koduvayur. “They’ve committed too much political capital to this cause, not to mention millions of dollars.”
As such, Koduvayur does not believe that Qatar will end up playing much of a role in the Trump administration’s push for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain or Oman, Qatar has not expressed any interest in outreach to Israel. Whether they will change that stance remains dependent on how much pressure the administration places on them, but absent external forces, Qatar is unlikely to organically change its policy.”
Despite the lobbying blitz and warm exchanges, it appears unlikely that Qatar’s relationship will significantly deepen with the United States due to the significant gap between the two countries. Nevertheless, it is likely to provide Qatar’s emir with an important seat at the table with the Trump administration going forward.
“I see the emir’s visit as being motivated in part to maintain the relationship he has with President Trump,” said Koduvayur. “The Qataris likely feel that they are better off having a seat at the table, even if the administration has grown closer to their regional adversaries (and vice versa in Qatar’s case also) than to be absent from the table.”