NEW YORK // Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, met with Barack Obama on Tuesday in his first White House visit.
Mr Obama said “the United States and Qatar have a very strong security relationship,” and are “partners with us on a whole range of security initiatives.” The US president added that “Qatar is a strong partner in our coalition to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”
The pair also agreed that Syria can only be stabilised after Bashar Al Assad steps down. “How we get there, obviously, is a source of extraordinary challenge and we shared ideas on how that can be accomplished,” Mr Obama said.
The talks come as deep concerns persist over Qatar’s relationship with extremist groups across the region.
Qatari officials say the ties are part of a strategy to be indispensable to all sides in the region, while observers say that it is also to project influence through these groups after they gained more power following the Arab Spring.
Doha’s relationship with groups like Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, Al Nusra Front, the Afghan Taliban, and Hamas have all proved key for negotiations over hostage releases and other backchannel contacts, such as during the war in Gaza last year.
But these relationships have also caused deep concern in Washington that Qatari policies are undermining US counter-terrorism efforts, especially with the fight against ISIL extremists a central US concern.
In particular, Doha has come under intense pressure over its lax enforcement of laws intended to cut off private funding for extremists. Last fall, the US Treasury Department announced that an unnamed Qatari businessman had given $2 million to an ISIL leader, and that virtually no prosecutions had taken place for violations of financial counter-terrorism laws.
US and Arab officials have been reported as saying that Qatar has done more recently to stem money flowing to extremist groups, particularly in Syria.
“I know Qatar, especially the central bank, has been addressing that and I think that the emir will reassure the president about Qatar’s commitment to strengthening these financial controls in order to make sure Qatari-sourced money does not reach ISIL,” said Joseph LeBaron, the US ambassador to Qatar from 2008-2011, who is now a Middle East business adviser at Squire Patton Boggs, a law firm with offices in Doha that advises clients on Qatari law.
But the topic was likely discussed by the two leaders, along with the positive role Doha can play in countering ISIL propaganda through Al Jazeera Arabic.
“I expect that addressing terrorist financing and countering extremist propaganda through prominent media outlets in the region will be topics as these have been issues of concern with Qatar for the past few years,” said Brian Katulis, a senior Middle East fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank.
Despite these enduring concerns, the administration appears committed to maintaining the strategic benefits of the relationship with Qatar.
“Despite all the differences between the two countries, we’ve seen over and over again that their strategic security relationship trumps in importance the differences,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a fellow in Gulf politics at the Washington Institute.
Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its refusal to cut ties with the group led to an unprecedented diplomatic spat with fellow GCC members Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. Those strains have been at least publicly mended, with shared concerns over the threat posed by ISIL in Syria and Iraq and Iran’s regional policies helping the countries present a united front.
But deep differences remain over extremist groups, particularly in Libya, where the recent rise of ISIL and the murder of 21 Coptic Egyptian migrant labourers has publicly pitted Egypt and its Gulf allies against Qatar over how to respond.
Egypt has called on the US and European countries to take action against the militants in Libya, with Arab officials saying that it could become another Syria or Somalia if urgent action is not taken.
But western countries have refused to back Egyptian air strikes against alleged ISIL targets, saying that they could derail the peace talks between the internationally-recognised parliament and its allied armed forces — allegedly backed by Egypt and the UAE — and the Fajr Libya militia coalition that is reportedly supported by Qatar and Turkey.
Fearing that action against ISIL could be used as cover to attack Fajr Libya, Qatar last week condemned the Egyptian strikes. In response, an Egyptian official accused Qatar of backing terrorists.
During last week’s White House summit on countering violent extremism, Arab officials’ message to Washington was that organisations such as the Brotherhood, were key to creating the conditions that spawn terrorist groups like ISIL, and that they must both be addressed through a concerted strategy.
Sheikh Tamim’s message to the White House was likely very different, underscoring the divisions within the GCC on the question of how the extremist threat should be combated.
In an op-ed in the New York Times on Tuesday, Qatar's emir said "bullets and bombs alone will not win the war on terror…Addressing the root causes of terrorism will require a deeper, longer-term, and more strategic approach to the problem. It will require political leaders to have the courage to negotiate pluralistic, inclusive, power-sharing solutions to regional disputes. And it will require that tyrants be held to account."
In contrast to other Arab officials, Sheikh Tamim likely made the case to Mr Obama that almost all political groups should be included in political solutions. “The question here again is where you draw the line between extremist and non-extremist,” Ms Plotkin Boghardt said. “Washington and Qatar have a very different sense of this.”
In his op-ed, Sheikh Tamim also questioned US strategy in Syria, saying that extremism would flourish as long as Bashar Al Assad is in power. His frustration was in line with other Arab countries in the US-led coalition, who have increasingly questioned the US strategy, and in particular whether it will do anything to address the underlying political grievances of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.