WASHINGTON: Qatar was under increasing pressure in Washington this week as Congressman Ed Royce and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised possible sanctions and the moving of the US military base out of the country if Doha does not change its ways.
The news comes after a recent diplomatic spat between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, as well as signs of lukewarm relations between Doha and the Donald Trump administration.
At a conference hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies this week, Royce and former US officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations called for a more hawkish response to what they described as Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as groups such as Hamas, the Palestinian group designated as terrorist by the US.
Royce, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs committee, lambasted Qatar for its alleged support for Hamas. “Qatar hosts the worst of the worst of Hamas’ leaders,” Royce said, adding that his committee is putting together an “acid test legislation” to target Hamas’ backers.
The congressman said that “if it doesn’t change, Qatar will be sanctioned under a new bill I’m introducing to punish Hamas backers.”
Royce also appeared willing to have Congress consider having the US military leave Al-Udeid air base, where the US has been operating since 2003. “If their behavior doesn’t change, we in Congress would absolutely be looking at other options including moving out of Al-Udeid base.”
The change of behavior that Washington appears to be seeking from Qatar is related to cracking down on alleged terror funding activities and “commitments on terror support behavior,” as Royce indicated.
Gates was also open to the idea of ratcheting up pressure on Qatar. Responding to a question on moving the base from Qatar, Gates said: “My attitudes toward Al-Udeid and any other facility is that the United States military doesn’t have any irreplaceable facility.”
Gates criticized the apparent lack of strong action from Qatar against radical groups. “I don’t know instances in which Qatar aggressively goes after (terror finance) networks of Hamas, Taliban, Al-Qaeda,” he said.
He urged both Congress and the Trump administration to “tell Qatar to choose sides or we will change the nature of the relationship, to include downscaling the base.”
The former defense secretary, who served under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, added: “Qatar has long had the welcome mat out for the Muslim Brotherhood.” He called the group “science fiction shape shifters.” Gates referred to a generational split within the Brotherhood and said “it’s a mistake to see it as a solid group,” leaving the decision to designate it to Congress.
Jake Sullivan, former Obama official and aide to Hillary Clinton, also advocated a harder line against terror financing. Sullivan said that “terror financing needs to be a persistent issue we bring out from behind closed doors and continually have on the table.” While many Arab leaders have flocked to Washington, Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani has not made a visit to the White House since Trump took office.
The highest-level visit of a Qatari official to Washington this year was made by Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, who met US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month.
The concerns raised in the US follow tensions in the Gulf earlier this week, after a series of controversial comments attributed to Qatar’s emir.
Sheikh Tamim alleged comments, carried by the official state news agency QNA, apparently saw him endorse Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah — strongly diverging from the stance of Qatar’s Gulf neighbors. Doha claimed the report was the result of a hacking attack.
Criticizing the event, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al-Thani said that no Qatari official was invited to attend the event.