The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Qatar’s ruler and Obama think alike on terrorism

President Obama (R) besides Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al Thani (L), emir of Qatar, following their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC,  24 February 2015.  (EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS)
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Qatar's emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, called on the White House on Tuesday. The morning meeting with President Obama yielded the usual bilateral bromides -- references to a "wide-ranging conversation," a "meeting of the minds," mutual concerns and shared commitments.

The Persian Gulf emirate is a staging ground for U.S. military operations. Fueled by petrodollars, it's one of the world's wealthiest nations per capita and boasts some $7 billion in annual trade with the United States. The Qataris have taken the lead in attempting to broker deals with militant groups, from the Taliban in Afghanistan to negotiating a hostage release in Syria. It's "a strong partner," as Obama put it, in American-led efforts to counter the Islamic State.

But that's where critics may object. Ever since the 2011 Arab uprisings, Qatar has played a conspicuous role in the region, backing Islamist parties and factions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya even as its Gulf neighbors sought to counteract their growing influence. Qatari donors have been linked to rebel militant groups in Syria and elsewhere, some of which have ties to al-Qaeda.

According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, some elements within the White House were so annoyed with Doha that they urged Obama to pull an American air force base from Qatar, only for the Pentagon to push back. The United States extended its lease in 2013.

The Qataris reject all allegations linking them to terrorism, and insist, as the emir did in a Tuesday op-ed in the New York Times, that they "are ready to do whatever it takes" to "pull the Middle East back from the brink of collapse."

But unlike, say, Jordan, Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, the Qataris aren't necessarily keen to show that resolve through strength of arms. Rather, as the emir wrote in the Times, they agree with Obama's stated position "that military solutions are insufficient to defeat terrorism and confront the monumental strategic challenges facing the Middle East and the world."

This was the most significant passage from the Qatari ruler's message:

I know that many in the West look at the terrorist threat and say that the problem is Islam. But as a Muslim, I can tell you that the problem isn’t Islam — it’s hopelessness. It’s the kind of hopelessness that abounds in the Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps, and in war-weary towns and villages in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Gaza. It’s the hopelessness we see in the poorer neighborhoods of Europe’s great cities, and, yes, even in the United States. And it is this hopelessness, which knows no state or religion, that we need to address if we are to stem the tide of terrorism.

The emir gestures at larger debates taking place about Islam and the terrorists who claim to act in religion's name, but turns his focus on the socio-economic and political root causes that underlie extremism in various parts of the world. The "hopelessness," as he puts it.

Obama made similar remarks last week at a summit on countering "violent extremism." He stressed the importance of "discrediting" the ideology of jihadists, but then landed on a second point:

What’s true... is that when millions of people -- especially youth -- are impoverished and have no hope for the future, when corruption inflicts daily humiliations on people, when there are no outlets by which people can express their concerns, resentments fester.  The risk of instability and extremism grow.  Where young people have no education, they are more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and radical ideas, because it's not tested against anything else, they’ve got nothing to weigh.  And we've seen this across the Middle East and North Africa.
And terrorist groups are all too happy to step into a void... They try to justify their violence in the name of fighting the injustice of corruption that steals from the people -- even while those terrorist groups end up committing even worse abuses, like kidnapping and human trafficking.

The solution to combating this, Obama said, is a broad program of development, coupled with leaning on authoritarian governments to promote political reform. Qatar, like the other Arab kingdoms of the Gulf, is an absolute monarchy that has a shocking record on labor rights. Through its influential television network, Al Jazeera, it has challenged authoritarian governments elsewhere in the Arab world, but that has hardly sparked a conversation at home where the political status quo is safely cocooned by the state's petrodollars.

At least in his statement made at the White House, Obama sang from a friendly song sheet on Tuesday. In the presence of the emir, Obama never once uttered the word "democracy."