Qatar’s brand new ambassador to Washington was already bewildered, along with much of the rest of his country, at dramatic moves by several Arab nations in the past 48 hours to cut diplomatic and trade ties with the tiny Gulf nation. The hate tweets by Donald Trump only made things worse.
“We were surprised,” said Ambassador Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, perhaps the understatement of the year from the diplomat who is just a couple of months into his post here. “No one approached us directly and said, ‘Look, we have problems with this and this and this,’” he told The Daily Beast in his first on-the-record interview since the controversy broke.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, accused Qatar of financing terrorism and then cut diplomatic and trade ties.
President Donald Trump hailed the move in tweets as proof his recent visit to the region was a success. “They said they would take a hard line on funding… extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism,” he tweeted.
But here’s the strange thing. Trump had hailed the Gulf nation in his landmark summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, calling Qatar “a crucial strategic partner,” and he met with Qatari leader Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani—and raised no complaints, the ambassador said.
“We participated in Riyadh. We had a good meeting with the president and with [Saudi] King Salman—nothing was raised,” he said.
The Treasury Department has praised Qatar’s work on terrorist financing, and the gulf nation plays host to a massive U.S. air base. Its special operations forces fight side by side with American special operators on a number of battlefields.
“It’s unfortunate to see these tweets,” the ambassador said. “We have close coordination with the United States. They know our efforts to combat financial terrorism and terrorism.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday that the Qataris “have made some great efforts to try to stop financing of terror groups,” but added that they “still have work to do.”
The Pentagon appeared to be caught a little off guard by the diplomatic turmoil.
“Qatar is a host for our base, and they do a great job as a host and a counter-ISIS partner,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. He said the diplomatic deep freeze was having no impact on Al Udeid Air Base, where some 11,000 coalition forces are based and dozens of aircraft fly in and out on bombing runs against the so-called Islamic State. “We still have the coalition air operations center there, where the Russian hotline is located. U.S. planes are able to fly in and out,” he said.
Davis declined to comment on the president’s tweets.
Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, learned of Trump’s tweets from reporters on Capitol Hill. When a reporter later showed Corker the tweets, he just shook his head.
The Gulf nations spurning Qatar also cut air and sea routes, and the three Gulf countries gave Qataris two weeks to get out and called their own citizens back home. Qatar Airways is now limited to a few air routes, rerouted through Iran and Turkey, and the ambassador said he’s getting reports of trucks trying to deliver food and other trade items to Qatar being blocked at land crossings by the other Gulf countries.
It’s not the first time Qatar has been accused of backing terrorism; government-funded television network Al Jazeera was regularly accused of jihadi sympathies during the days after 9/11.
The ambassador said everything started going south when Qatar’s main news network, Qatar News Agency, got hacked on May 23 and released a false statement by the emir that appeared to praise Iran. The ambassador said the FBI is on the ground in Doha helping to investigate the cyber attack.
But he said media outlets in surrounding countries kept repeating the false statement, and relations soured from there, culminating in the Monday meltdown.
CNN reported Tuesday that FBI investigators suspect Russia is behind the hack that planted the false story. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told CNN on Tuesday that the FBI has confirmed the hack and the planting of fake news. “Whatever has been thrown as an accusation is all based on misinformation, and we think that the entire crisis [is] based on misinformation,” the foreign minister said.
On the same day as the hack, a U.S. think tank held a forum to denounce Qatar’s alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood. At the Foundation for Defense of Democracies event, former defense secretary Robert Gates griped that Qatar only helps fight terrorism when pushed.
“They’ll go after someone if we ask… but won’t do it themselves,” he told the audience, which included White House adviser to the president Sebastian Gorka. Gates called on Qatar to be more aggressive attacking terrorists.
FDD scholar Jonathan Schanzer wrote an op-ed that summed up the tone of the conference:
“Qatar, nominally an American ally, regularly aids in the whitewashing of terrorist organizations,” he wrote as he described how Palestinian group Hamas had held a meeting complete with a press conference at the Sheraton Grand Doha hotel.
Al-Thani defended his country’s relations with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, portraying Qatar as a sort of U.N. for the Middle East with mediating powers past U.S. administrations have called on, including the Obama administration.
“One of the pillars of foreign policy of Qatar is mediation,” the ambassador said. “It works between conflict parties to stabilize our region.”
Qatari diplomats facilitated negotiations between U.S. officials and the Taliban with limited success, though they did manage to help bring about the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for captive U.S. Army Private Bowe Bergdahl.
In an earlier era, they brokered talks between Lebanese Hezbollah and other parties there. “In order to broker successful negotiations, you need to talk to everyone. That doesn’t mean we agree with their political or ideological condition. Our objective was toward stabilizing Lebanon at the time,” the ambassador said.
“Today we are disagree with them on their position in Syria, so we cannot say we have lines of communication.”
That’s also why his country maintains relations with Hamas in Gaza, he said.
“Our objective is not based on any political or ideological position. It is based on pushing a peace process,” he said of their last major intercession in 2005, on behalf of the Bush administration. “We were requested by the Americans to engage with Hamas in the context of the peace process. That doesn’t mean if we are… on the same political or ideological path.”
“To have peace, first step is to have reconciliation within the Palestinians. Hamas happens to be one of those parties,” he added. “We are not financing Hamas. We are working in Gaza on reconstruction efforts, building houses and hospitals in coordination with the Palestinians and Israel.”
The current Egyptian administration of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has regularly accused Qatar of supporting the now-ousted Muslim Brotherhood there. Al-Thani said it’s a case of supporting the people, not the Brotherhood’s now-jailed ex-president, Mohamed Morsi.
“When Morsi requested five shipments of gas and was ousted, we delivered them to Sisi. So if we’d wanted to undermine Sisi, we wouldn’t have delivered the gas,” Al-Thani said with frustration. “We have stated many, many times that we don’t share ideological or political views with them,” he added of Qatar’s views toward the Brotherhood.
As for his country’s continued contact with Iran, he pointed out that Qatar, like other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, had downgraded to a chargé d’affaires after the 2016 attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities there.
“We understand that Iran is a destabilizing factor in the region, that they are in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. We agree with all that.”
Al-Thani said he is hoping the visit Tuesday by Kuwait’s leader to Riyadh on Qatar’s behalf will help clarify what his country can do to end the diplomatic conflagration.
“We were not given any justification or any requests of demands,” he said. “This is why we are puzzled.”
But he said he worried the other countries were trying to control his nation’s foreign policy.
Of the United States government, he would only carefully say, “The U.S. is trying to understand and make assessment of the situation. We appreciate the role they are playing in trying to de-escalate it.”
—Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.
This story was corrected to reflect the Qataris assisted the Bush administration on Palestinian peace talks in 2005.