Timothy Lenderking, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Gulf affairs, says the US hopes to move forward with designating Qatar as a major non-NATO ally. This status provides a country with US benefits in defense trade and security cooperation.
Specifically, “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA) status gives a country preferential access to US military equipment and technology, including free surplus materiel, expedited export processing and prioritized cooperation on training. Currently, 17 countries have MNNA status, including the Gulf Arab states Kuwait and Bahrain.
US consideration of MNNA status for Qatar probably also reflects domestic and corporate interests: the desire to sell arms to one of the richest countries in the world. But this privileges domestic considerations over longer-term foreign policy considerations, namely the importance of bolstering allies against foes.
A US decision to designate Qatar as an MNNA would not be wise. Although Qatar hosts the largest US military facility in the region, it does not deserve to be considered a true ally of America.
Qatar spends enormous amounts of money in systematic support for the nefarious activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its branches all over the world. The Muslim Brotherhood is an anti-Western and anti-democratic organization. Qatar also funds numerous jihadist groups, and many Qatari citizens have been convicted of regional terrorist activities.
Qatar also uses its influential Al Jazeera television network to undermine the stability of its pro-Western Arab neighbors. The US recently concluded that Al Jazeera is not a media outlet, but a lobbying outfit. As far back as the so-called “Arab Spring,” Al Jazeera fomented trouble. Today, Qatar seeks to subvert the regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (a regime that put an end to the dangerous Muslim Brotherhood–backed presidency of Mohamed Morsi).
Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have imposed a blockade on Qatar since 2017, in an attempt to check the subversive behavior of Doha, to little avail.
Qatar has called in Turkish help. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey (which also is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood) has stationed 5,000 soldiers on Qatar’s soil to defend the sheikdom. Moreover, Qatar has supported Erdogan’s adventurist foreign policy that is driven by Ottoman and Islamist impulses.
Qatar has helped Erdogan overcome the economic difficulties of recent years. Qatar is also financing the Turkish intervention in the civil war in Libya (on the side of the Tripoli government, whose Islamist links are well known) against Egypt, which backs the other protagonists in Libya.
Seeking short-term stability, Israel has allowed Qatar regularly to provide funds to sustain Hamas rule in Gaza. Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization intent on destroying Israel. (This Israeli policy is shortsighted and foolish.)
Overall, the US has failed to discern the emergence of a not entirely new anti-Western axis in the Middle East, comprised of Turkey and Qatar. This is a dangerous radical Sunni alignment.
Both countries have opposed the US-orchestrated Israel-UAE peace agreement. Both countries are trying to undermine the stability of Egypt. (Stability in Egypt is a core US interest.) Ankara and Doha openly support Hamas and facilitate Hezbollah-Hamas cooperation. Turkish and Qatari actions accentuate tensions within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance that could devolve into Greek-Turkish and French-Turkish military confrontations.
There are indications that the radical Sunnis are moving closer to the radical Shiites led by Iran. Qatar has been cozying up to Iran for quite some time. One indication of this is that Qatar Airways has been the only foreign carrier to land in Iran over the past six months. Therefore, one has to be concerned that US weapons sold to Qatar might be made available to Iran, thereby threatening US troops in the area.
It is noteworthy that for years Turkey has circumvented US sanctions on Iran. It has helped Islamic State in many ways, particularly when the Kurds were ISIS’ opponent. Ankara shares the same interests as Tehran in Syria; it seeks a dissected Syrian state, with weak central authority and even weaker Kurds.
Former US president Barack Obama foolishly believed that the Muslim Brotherhood could be a pro-democratic force in Arab politics. The US also has flirted with the radical Sunnis, including in Erdogan’s Turkey.
US President Donald Trump has continued Obama’s policy of disengaging from the Middle East, a trend that has allowed greater freedom of action for regional actors. Turkey and Qatar have capitalized on the new circumstances to deviate from American preferences.
Instead of supporting the effort of its Gulf allies to pressure Qatar into responsible behavior, Washington sees the Saudi-Qatar rift as a threat to containment of Iran. It has tried to mediate with little success. Similarly, Washington mistakenly has tolerated Turkish mischief against America’s traditional allies in the Middle East and in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Washington should conduct an urgent review of its relations with these two very problematic Middle Eastern actors, Qatar and Turkey. America needs to be able to distinguish friend from foe. In this regard, awarding MNNA status to Qatar would be a serious mistake.
The writer is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.