When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Qatar in December, he met with Qatar's emir and other senior officials and took time to tour the high-tech Combined Air Operations Center at the massive al-Udeid Air Base. It's not only the biggest U.S. airbase in the Middle East, but a very visible symbol of what Hagel touted as the close "partnership" between the United States and the tiny hereditary kingdom with big global aspirations. America may dream of abandoning the entanglements of the Middle East but, for now, as Hagel put it, these ties with America's Persian Gulf allies are "important, and probably more so than they've ever been."
Awkwardly, the U.S. Treasury Department just one week later designated Abd al-Rahman bin 'Umayr Nu'aymi, a Qatari national with links to the emirate's elites, a "terrorist financier and facilitator who has provided money and material support and conveyed communications to al Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen."
These two reports underscore the very strange alliance between Doha and Washington. The United States drew closer to Qatar during the Arab Spring, thinking the Gulf country's warm relations with Islamists across the Middle East could guide other countries in the region to a soft landing. But the idea that autocratic Qatar, a pint-size peninsula with just over 2 million people, could help ensure the spread of democracy was laughable, as even President Obama seemed to realize. In a hot-mic gaffe at a 2011 fundraiser in Chicago, he noted that the Qatari emir was "not reforming significantly. There's no big move towards democracy."
That was an understatement. Qatar is an absolute monarchy—emphasis on the absolute. The royal family has generated friendly media buzz for showcase projects like a campus of Western universities clustered in the desert and Qatar's improbable status as the world's No. 1 contemporary art buyer. As for its slave-like treatment of migrant workers and a dismal human rights record? Not so much.
Qatar also supports the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas. While the United States seeks to weaken the group, responsible for countless terror attacks and undermining Middle East peace, Qatar remains a key Hamas patron, hosting its leader, Khaled Meshal, and furnishing huge sums of aid.
Qatar's dalliances with jihadist groups are another bone of contention. Treasury's designation of Nu'aymi, who bankrolled al Qaeda operatives in Syria from Qatar, is a case in point, but there are many other examples. A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable labeled Qatar "worst in the region" on counterterrorism. The emirate has also reportedly ignored American requests not to supply the Syrian rebels with advanced shoulder-fired missiles.
In Qatar itself, members of the Taliban operate freely. Indeed, for a short stint, the Afghan terrorist group maintained an office in Doha—with U.S. approval. One analyst based there recently recalled to me the bizarre spectacle of known Taliban figures circulating near American servicemen during the grand opening of a new IKEA last year. If that sounds uncomfortable, consider that while the U.S. military coordinated operations in Afghanistan and Iraq from Doha, the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera TV station—located just down the road from the U.S. base—was whipping up anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world during the two wars.
The American base, which faces Iran directly across the Persian Gulf, may represent the last bit of U.S. leverage in the ongoing standoff with Tehran over its illicit nuclear program. But Qatar reportedly wants to help Iran develop its natural gas reserves and is preparing for joint naval drills with Tehran. The Qatari government has, on at least two occasions, publicly ruled out using the U.S. base for operations against Iran—raising the question of just what all that fancy hardware is for.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.