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U.S. Asset or U.S. Adversary? Why Qatar Looks Worryingly Like Both

February 07, 2024

By Ben Weingarten, RealClearInvestigations
February 7, 2024

After Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, one of the terrorist organization’s chief financial sponsors, hosts of its leaders, and backers of its propaganda found itself singled out by America’s leaders – not for condemnation, but praise.

“The U.S.-Qatar partnership could not be stronger, and Qatar could not have done more than it did in 2023 to play an indispensable role on the world stage,” U.S. ambassador to Qatar Timmy Davis wrote on X last December.

The Biden administration, from the president on down, has lauded the emirate throughout the Israel-Hamas war, especially for its shepherding of negotiations between the two sides for a ceasefire and hostage releases – a role Qatar is singularly capable of filling in part because it maintains Hamas’ “political office” in its capital city, Doha.

At the annual Qatar-led Doha Forum last December, Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham echoed the Democratic administration, while also thanking Qatar for its assistance evacuating Americans during the deadly Afghanistan withdrawal – a success attributed in part to its harboring of another terrorist group, the Taliban.

Graham too thanked Qatar for accommodating “10,000 American airmen who live better than [at] any air base in the … world” – a reference to Al Udeid, the largest such facility in the region

House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Jack Bergman, a Michigan Republican, highlighted the irony of this bipartisan praise, noting, “Our brave men and women in uniform who have served out of Al Udeid … have gone on missions to combat terrorist groups funded by Qatar.”

Even Qatar’s critics acknowledge that its role as both a valued U.S. ally and supporter of some of America’s deadliest foes represents a remarkable diplomatic feat. 

To understand how this tiny but rich, theocratic and terror-tied nation has become “indispensable” to Washington – elevated by the Biden administration to major non-NATO ally status on par with Australia, Japan, and Israel – RealClearInvestigations analyzed thousands of pages of congressional testimony and correspondence, other research and news articles, and conducted interviews with policymakers and scholars.

The analysis suggests how Qatar has wedded the leverage of the Pentagon’s operational demands, and policymakers’ desire to negotiate with adversaries, with a sprawling multi-billion-dollar campaign to “buy power and influence wherever possible,” as Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, put it.

The upshot is that Qatar’s ruling House of Thani has executed what Goldberg told RCI is a “kind of terror-finance double game” transcending Hamas.

Energy Windfall, Outsized Power

The Connecticut-sized state with a population the size of Houston punches above its weight with a war chest built on vast liquefied natural gas reserves. After the U.S., Qatar is the second largest exporter of the commodity in the world. Its position could improve not just because of the Biden administration’s recent bow to its domestic anti-fossil-fuel base in curbing U.S. LNG exports, but also as the gulf state capitalizes on the growing energy needs of China and a Europe seeking alternatives to Russian gas.

The LNG-rich nation has used its energy windfall to project outsized global power and influence. “Billions of Qatari dollars permeate all aspects of our lives without us even knowing it,” says Goldberg.

Defense cooperation is core to the U.S.-Qatar relationship. U.S. officials cast Al Udeid, U.S. Central Command’s headquarters, as its key asset in the Middle East. Built in 1996 by Qatar at a cost of $1 billion, the U.S. transitioned its major air operations there from Saudi Arabia in 2003, in part due to security threats. 

The base, in which Qatar has invested billions more to revamp, enables the U.S. “to support a range of critical missions in the region and respond to challenges to our shared security,” according to the Pentagon.

Critics see it differently. “Far from being an American strategic asset in the Arabian Gulf, Al Udeid is, in fact, a Qatari asset in Washington,” national security analyst David Reaboi wrote in his 2021 book, “Qatar’s Shadow War.”

“As long as the U.S. military advocates on behalf of the base’s continued use,” he argued, “… nearly any amount of trouble and mischief Qatar creates will be accepted, excused or contextualized.”

The emirate has deepened influence with the U.S. military by lavishing sometimes lucrative contracts on over a dozen former high-ranking defense officials. One implicated official is retired Marine Gen. John Allen. The former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan came under federal scrutiny for alleged illegal foreign lobbying for Qatar when, in 2017, he counseled the country as it faced a blockade from neighbors over its support for Islamists.

Investigators alleged Gen. Allen traveled to Doha to confer with top Qatari officials on how to influence U.S. policy, and promoted Qatar’s view to U.S. lawmakers – including its opposition to a resolution linking Doha to terror financing. “At the same time he was lobbying U.S. government officials on behalf of Qatar,” the government alleged, “Allen pursued at least one multimillion-dollar business deal with the Qatari government on behalf of a company on whose board of directors he served.”

Prosecutors dropped their probe last year, but not before Allen stepped down as president of the prestigious Brookings Institution.

U.S. think tanks, including Brookings, are another strategically significant area Qatar has cultivated for influence.

The Brookings Connection

Brookings established its satellite Doha Center in 2007 to “undertake research on the socio-economic and geopolitical issues facing the Muslim world, and encourage more understanding between U.S. and Muslim policy-makers” – in consultation and coordination with Qatar, and with $5 million in Qatari funding.

In 2014 the New York Times reported that one year prior, the emirate agreed to donate an additional $15 million to the liberal think tank in part for the center. The report suggested the Qatari cash may have come with strings attached – scholars were not to criticize Doha.

Brookings is adamant Qatari funding has not compromised its work.

But the affiliation undoubtedly bought Qatar a prestigious partner – and proximity to a roster filled with prominent policymakers and thought leaders. At times they would take positions consonant with Doha or those of its Islamist acquaintances.

The center was formed under the leadership of, among others, the then-head of Brookings’ Middle East center and later director of its Foreign Policy Program, Martin Indyk.

The Obama administration would tab the former Clinton administration diplomat as its Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations in summer 2013 – the year the Doha Center secured the massive Qatari cash infusion – where he would lead talks to which Qatar-sponsored Hamas was central. Indyk would reportedly blame Israel for the collapse of those talks, and return to Brookings in 2014.

Hady Amr led the Doha Center as its first director, a position he held until 2010. Then, he too joined the Obama administration, including serving under Indyk and later as Deputy U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations for Economics. After returning to Brookings, President Biden would tab Amr Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs before elevating him to Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs. Amr, who wrote a year after September 11, 2001 that he “was inspired by the Palestinian intifada,” has drawn the ire of pro-Israel critics for such rhetoric, and support for related policies they see as hostile towards the Jewish state and favorable to its foes, including Hamas.

Shadi Hamid served as the Doha Center’s research director from 2009 to 2014 and continued as a senior fellow at Brookings. Hamid would argue during a Qatar-sponsored 2009 debate that Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are “committed to a moderate path” and “clearly” pose no threat to the West. When Trump administration officials suggested they would consider designating the Muslim Brotherhood – which spawned Hamas – as a terrorist group, Hamid argued vigorously against it. In a 2017 Brookings explainer, he warned that targeting the “mainstream” organization would “open[] the door for repressive regimes abroad to crack down on Islamist groups,” “feed[] into ISIS propaganda,” and promote “a false narrative” that U.S. Muslim organizations have ties to the group. “Not a single American expert” supports such a designation, he would argue then, and again as designation talk intensified in 2019.

Proponents of the policy would note that Qatar is a leading patron of the Islamist group. Fox News reported on Jan. 20 that recently revealed documents suggest Qatar’s efforts to defeat a congressional measure aimed at achieving the designation also included using a firm run by former CIA officer Kevin Chalker “to discredit Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex … because he had sought to have the Muslim Brotherhood designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.” Reports allege that in recent years Qatar has targeted a number of high-level American critics via such surreptitious efforts, as well as through lawfare.

Hamid did not reply to RCI’s request for comment.

Brookings would rake in at least $22 million from Qatar from 2013 to 2017, when it “elected not to renew funding,” according to a FAQ that appears to have been published amid bipartisan congressional scrutiny, including regarding whether Brookings violated the Foreign Agent Registrations Act.

Brookings maintained the center until 2021. Then it ended its affiliation, ceding authority to Qatar. Still, critics, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), say the Doha Center relationship “appears to have significantly compromised the organization’s independence.”

The Richardson Center

Another recipient of Qatari largesse to come under scrutiny is the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a Santa Fe-based group established to carry on the work of the late New Mexico governor and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson to “promote international peace and dialogue.”

In 2019, the organization announced that it had received a “substantial commitment” – later reported to be $900,000 – from Doha for its efforts to secure the release of hostages detained abroad. Qatar would contribute $900,000 again in 2020 before tapering off its donations to $250,000 in early 2023. In December, Jewish Insider reported that the Richardson Center had “advised the families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza not to criticize the Gulf state,” as it engages with Qatar in what’s been described as an “under-the-radar role” to free hostages held captive by Hamas.

Facing criticism over the group’s conciliatory posture towards Qatar – compounded by a report that Richardson Center Vice President and Executive Director Mickey Bergman had counseled Jewish community officials that Israel’s caving to Hamas’ demands was the only way to quickly secure the release of hostages – Bergman took to X to respond. “For those of us who’ve been working on getting hostages home for years & the families that experienced this tragedy, there are two cardinal truths: 1) the deals to bring them home never get better with time; 2) the chances of survival never get better with time,” he wrote.

Bergman added: “The deal last month was better than today’s. Unfortunately, it was not taken & several hostages killed since. ‘If your goal is to bring hostages home, you do what you need to, today. If your goal is different, you criticize those who r trying to bring them home.’”

The Richardson Center is not alone among Qatari-funded American entities advising the families of hostages held in Gaza. On January 31, Politico reported that former special assistant to President Bill Clinton Jay Footlik’s ThirdCircle Inc. has also been counseling such families. It has been a registered foreign agent since 2019, facilitating trips for U.S. officials to Qatar on behalf of its embassy for $40,000 per month.

Robert Malley, Accused Iran Appeaser

Another influential recipient of Qatari funds is the Washington, D.C.-based International Crisis Group. Financial records show the emirate made two grants to the group totaling $5 million from 2018 to 2021. This period largely overlapped with Robert Malley’s tenure as the organization’s president.

Seen by critics as an Iran appeaser and apologist for its proxy Hamas, Malley rose to national attention in 2008 when the Obama presidential campaign removed the diplomat as an adviser for having met Hamas’ leaders while running International Crisis Group’s Middle East program. Ultimately, President Obama would bring Malley back into the fold as lead negotiator on his Iran nuclear deal team.

Malley returned to government in January 2021 to help the Biden administration reprise that deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which President Trump had withdrawn. Qatar helped mediate indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran. Qatar also helped mediate America’s exchange with Iran last September of five Iranian detainees plus $6 billion in unfrozen Iranian funds – panned by critics as a ransom payment – for five detained Americans. After Iran-backed Hamas carried out the Oct. 7 attack, Qatar reportedly agreed with the U.S. to withhold the funds – which are held in Doha bank accounts – though Iran’s foreign ministry recently released a statement suggesting otherwise.

Last year, Malley was stripped of his security clearance, suspended, and reportedly put under FBI investigation for allegedly mishandling classified information while serving as President Biden’s special envoy to Iran.

Evidence would emerge suggesting Malley “and members of his negotiating team may have had compromising ties to the Iranian regime,” per congressional investigators. They noted that Ariane Tabatabai, whom Malley would recruit to that team, was part of the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI). The Iranian government launched this apparent influence operation in 2014 to cultivate a network of U.S. and European scholars to promote the regime’s favored positions on global security matters. Two International Crisis Group employees have also been implicated in this effort.

In response to questions about Qatar funding, International Crisis Group told RCI, “Donations from the Government of Qatar accounted for less than 5% of our total funding during the relevant period and were constructed to preserve our full independence.”

Direct Investments in America

Money lubricates the U.S.-Qatar relationship in other ways. Qatar’s Investment Authority is one of the ten largest sovereign wealth funds in the world. It has pumped over $30 billion into the U.S., sometimes in concert with major U.S. financial firms like Apollo, Blackstone, and KKR.

Qatar plans to commit $45 billion more to the U.S.

Recently, Qatar reportedly became the first foreign country to use its sovereign wealth fund to make a direct investment in American’s sports teams when it bought a 5% stake worth hundreds of millions of dollars into an entity holding Washington, D.C.’s professional basketball and hockey teams.

Qatar also owns stakes in numerous landmarks including iconic New York properties such as the Empire State Building, The Plaza, and St. Regis hotels.

The U.S.-Qatar Business Council aims to foster bilateral commercial relations. It counts among its members major oil companies like ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Chevron, some with which it has engaged in joint energy projects; defense contractors including Boeing – from which Qatar Airways purchased $37 billion in 737 Max planes in a massive 2022 deal – General Dynamics, and Lockheed Martin; and financial services companies such as MetLife and Visa.

Recently, the Washington Examiner reported that Washington, D.C., U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves represented the Qatari government, a Qatari charitable organization alleged to have backed Al-Qaeda, and the Qatar-backed Al Jazeera Media Network when he was a partner at DLA Piper law firm in D.C. Critics charge that Graves, who is now overseeing many Jan. 6 prosecutions, has by contrast gone soft on pro-Palestinian rioters in the nation’s capital. 

Bankrolling Higher Ed

Qatar’s influence extends to the higher education institutions that seed America’s most influential sectors as well.

The emirate has been the largest foreign donor to American universities since 9/11, contributing at least $4.7 billion from 2001 to 2022 according to the National Association of Scholars (NAS).

A large chunk of the funds has gone to Virginia Commonwealth University, Cornell, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Northwestern to establish American campuses in Doha’s “education city.”

Ben Freeman, director of the Democratizing Foreign Policy program at the Quincy Institute, has said the funds “could translate to an implicit bias amongst university graduates, which is probably why … most of the top recipients of funding from countries in the Middle East are universities that produce some of the top foreign policy minds in the U.S.”

A 2023 Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism & Policy study suggests these funds correlate with both “the erosion of free speech norms” and “increased levels of campus antisemitism.”

Middle East Studies departments, often funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, NAS found, “have repurposed critical theory to galvanize activism on Middle East issues,” which some link to the eruption of pro-Palestinian and anti-Semitic sentiment at colleges after Oct. 7.

Other reporting suggest Qatari funds may not only compromise the work of its recipients, but raise national security concerns.

Doha’s Direct Lobbying – for Hamas?

Qatar’s direct lobbying operation is also formidable.

From 2016 to 2023, Qatar spent $240 million based on Foreign Agent Registration Act filings alone – sixth most of any country. China ranked first, at $378 million.

These efforts mushroomed during the Trump years as the emirate sought to fight the economic, diplomatic, and travel blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.

The stated reason for the row was Qatar’s support for both Sunni and Shia Islamists, which the emirate’s neighbors felt threatened their authoritarian but anti-Islamist regimes – particularly during the Arab spring.

The parties to the blockade demanded that Qatar curb its ties to Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and that it cease backing and designate as terrorist organizations the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah. The Gulf states also demanded that Qatar shutter the Al-Jazeera media network, whose programming, they said, promotes terror. (Former Vice President Al Gore reportedly netted $100 million when Qatar bought his struggling Current TV in 2013, and turned it into the since-shuttered Al Jazeera America.)

Members of Congress have characterized Al-Jazeera’s often pro-Islamist programming and platforming of jihadists as “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel” – something critics say is even more prevalent in its Arabic-language content.

The blockading states treated Qatar’s backing of Al-Jazeera – which reaches more than 400 million people in some 150 countries – as tantamount to its waging of information warfare against them.

The Justice Department wrote in a September 2020 letter that Al-Jazeera and its affiliates were foreign agents of Qatar.

These entities have refused to register accordingly, prompting Rep. Bergman to push Speaker Mike Johnson to revoke House Press Gallery credentials from the 136 Al-Jazeera employees who have received them – nearly double that of those provided the New York Times – some percentage of whom he is concerned could be influence agents or spies.

Qatar’s lobbying efforts aimed to undermine the blockade, including by countering prominent critics and targeting hundreds of influencers in Trump world. In addition to hiring the likes of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to advocate on its behalf, Qatar enlisted lobbyists to change the hearts and minds of national security-focused American Jews weary of Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations, some of whom it flew to Doha and feted.

One specific aim of the lobbying effort, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, was to kill legislation aimed at sanctioning state sponsors of Hamas, including Qatar.

Rep. Bergman told RCI the emirate “single-handedly defeated” a 2017 bipartisan bill specifically fingering Qatar for its Hamas support.

When colleagues re-introduced the bill in 2019, with “Qatar's name … removed, and only Iran remain[ing] – Qatar killed it again,” Rep. Bergman emphasized.

Had America imposed such sanctions, the congressman believes, Hamas might not have been able to execute the Oct.. 7 attack.

“To go against the Qatar regime for its state sponsorship of Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist terrorism,” said J. Michael Waller, senior analyst for strategy at the Center for Security Policy, “is to commit political suicide in Washington.”

A Tough Cost-Benefit Equation

Despite its connection to terrorist groups and state sponsors of terror, the West and its allies believe the benefits of using Qatar as an intermediary to the world’s pariahs outweigh the costs.

Even as leaders from both sides of the aisle in both chambers of Congress have pushed the Biden administration to exert pressure on Qatar to squeeze Hamas to return all hostages, expel its leaders, and cease support for the terrorist group, the administration has agreed to extend its stay at Al Udeid for the next 10 years.

This cemented the U.S.-Qatar alliance at the same time critics had been calling for the U.S. to leverage the air base to influence the emirates’ behavior.

The White House did not respond to RCI’s inquiries.

Former Trump deputy national security adviser Victoria Coates told RCI that while the emirate’s Islamist ties pose “a significant problem,” some of the capabilities touted by Doha’s boosters, plus its formidable natural gas position – where Coates believes there could be mutual benefits to cooperation – compel America to carefully consider its approach to the relationship. Between “apologists” and “haters,” Coates asks, “are either of those positions actually what’s in the best interest of the American people?”

Rep. Bergman is adamant that the U.S. should not allow Qatar to buy influence. “Qatar should not be allowed to infiltrate our universities or buy up half of the lobbyists and PR firms in Washington, let alone to purchase 5% of the NBA and NHL teams in Washington, D.C. … Nor should Qatar be able to covertly fund – and thus exert control over – the think tanks that Congress and the Administration rely on so heavily to set policies.”

Coates’ former NSC colleague Goldberg put it this way: “Qatar can be with Hamas or with the United States. It can't be both.”

This article was originally published by RealClearInvestigations and made available via RealClearWire.
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