Qatar, a small peninsula off Saudi Arabia that’s the size of Connecticut, is a strong security partner to the United States on many issues, but its support for Islamist forces within many countries affected by the Arab Spring raises important questions.
Last year, Qatar hosted Syrian opposition groups to discuss a unified opposition government. It also joined Saudi Arabia in sending military assistance to the Syrian opposition. However, it is not clear who is benefiting from the funds: The al-Nusra Front, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, is said to have exploited the power vacuum in Syria and is fighting alongside the opposition.
Qatar is also a major backer of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Qatar has sent billions of dollars to President Mohamed Morsi’s government and the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who lived in Qatar while in exile.
During the Libyan civil war, Qatar pushed the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League to aid Libyan rebels. Qatar even joined NATO’s air campaign against the Muammar Qadhafi regime, providing its own warplanes. But Qatar’s reputation was scarred when it favored Islamist political factions over the country’s transitional government. Furthermore, with the Obama Administration’s blessing, Qatar provided the Libyan rebels with advisers, financial assistance, training, and weapons, which subsequently fell into the hands of Islamist militants.
Qatar’s influence in the Sahel has also raised eyebrows. France, Mali, and Algeria have repeatedly accused Qatar of supporting Islamists in northern Mali. In 2012, Qatar’s Red Crescent charity began relief efforts in northern Mali and other areas now controlled by Islamist and terrorist groups, spending approximately $1.7 million. Qatar has also invested heavily in societal structures, such as schools and charities in Mali, and is suspected of attempting to establish access to Mali’s potentially large oil, gas, gold, and uranium resources.
In 2009, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government accused Qatar of funding the terrorist group al-Shabaab. However, in 2011, Somalia requested that Qatar assist in mediating the conflict between several Somali factions. Qatar has also mediated the negotiations in Sudan’s Darfur region between the government and rebel factions. This April, Qatar will host a conference for development and service projects in Darfur.
While criticism of Qatar’s support of extremist groups has been limited to accusations, the growing influence Qatar wields throughout Africa and the Middle East is undisputed. However, whether Qatar’s influence will assist in stabilizing these regions remains to be seen.
Sarah Field is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.