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June 5, 2017 4:21 pm

Qatar Facing Unprecedented Pressure From Arab States Over Terror Support, Experts Say

avatar by Ben Cohen

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US President Donald Trump meeting with the emir of Qatar at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia last month. Photo: Shealah Craighead / White House.

As the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and four key Arab states intensified on Monday, Middle East policy experts argued that time may be running out for the emirate’s twin strategy of seeking international acclaim and recognition while supporting terrorism at the same time.

Four key Arab states — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — all cut ties with Qatar earlier on Monday, citing the various forms of support the ruling Al Thani family provides to Iran as well as to Sunni Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. As Saudi Arabia announced that it was closing land, sea and air links with Qatar, the stock market in the capital Doha fell by 7.2 percent.

“There is a diplomatic earthquake taking place in the Gulf right now, ” Jonathan Schanzer — a senior vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank in Washington, DC — told The Algemeiner. “It’s the culmination  of several years of strong disagreements between the Gulf states and Qatar.”

“The Qataris are strong proponents of various Islamist groups  — Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, jihadi factions in Syria, Islamists in Tunisia,” Schanzer continued. “This has over time chafed the Arab states.”

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The richest country in the world thanks to its outsized per capita GDP, Qatar has become a major player in financial and property markets around the globe, boosting its self-image as an international destination that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, among other prestigious events.

But Arab impatience over Qatar’s relations with Sunni and Shiite Islamists finally snapped last week when the state-run news agency carried comments by Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in which he criticized mounting anti-Iran sentiment.

The Saudis and the UAE have also been pressuring Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian branch, Hamas, which rules Gaza. Reports on Monday indicated that Qatar had asked senior Hamas officials based in the country — including Saleh al-Arouri, the military commander overseeing West Bank terror cells — to leave, but this was denied by a Hamas spokesman.

“The Arab states are sending a signal to Iran that they are going to put pressure on anyone in the Iranian sphere of influence — which includes Qatar and Hamas and Hezbollah — to stop backing and engaging in terror,” Michael Pregent — an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank and a veteran of the Iraq War — told The Algemeiner.

Schanzer suggested that any expulsions of Hamas personnel from Qatar were more likely the consequence of  US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the region, rather than any immediate Saudi pressure.

“The Gulf leaders present at Trump’s speech in Riyadh, including the Qataris, vowed to remove terrorists from their territory and cease funding for terrorism,” Schanzer said. “This is high drama, but it’s safe to say that Qatar’s policies and permissive environment for terrorist groups is front and center.”

Pregent hailed what he called an “opportunity” to “pull Qatar out of the Iranian sphere.”

“There have been credible intelligence reports that Qatar continues to finance all sides of these conflicts — I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a coordinated effort to pull Qatar away from Iran and stop it from supporting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah,” Pregent said.

As a top priority, policymakers in Washington will be closely watching any change in Qatar’s financial support for terrorism.

“In recent months, there has been much discussion specifically about the extent of Doha’s progress in countering private terrorist funding activity inside its borders,” Lori Plotkin Boghardt — an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — observed in a just-published briefing on the Gulf diplomatic crisis.

“This is viewed as a measure of any change in approach toward the terror financing challenge,” she went on to write. “Under the Trump administration, the issue of countering terrorist financing has been a reoccurring theme in high-level discussions with the Qataris.”

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