Islamic State remains a mortal threat to the region despite its recent battlefield defeats, Qatar’s foreign minister warned in an interview, cautioning that the terrorist group could rise again if Washington and its Arab allies fail to address the root causes fueling religious extremism.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, the top diplomat from the small but influential Persian Gulf nation, said the military victories over Islamic State should be celebrated but the terrorist group’s ideology must be crushed “in order to defeat any version” of the group rearing its head.
A portion of the Islamic State has likely dissolved into the general population of the Middle East, Sheikh al-Thani said, and nations across the region need to “become more responsive to their people and the needs of their people to fill the vacuum that was there and created [such] organizations.”
The sheikh serves as both deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. In an interview with The Washington Times, he touched on a wide range of other matters, including the future of the Iranian nuclear deal, the growing economic ties between Qatar and the United States and the bitter diplomatic stalemate that has divided Qatar from other U.S. Arab allies in the region.
His remarks on the need for vigilance against terrorism were noteworthy because Qatar has been accused by Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers of supporting terrorist groups and radical Islam.
Two years ago, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates banded together to impose an economic and diplomatic blockade against Qatar over a variety of issues including what they say is its weak posture on Islamic extremism.
The rift among Arab nations within the Gulf Cooperation Council has put Washington on shaky diplomatic ground. The Trump administration has resisted siding with Saudi Arabia because of strong American interests in Qatar.
In addition to major investments by U.S. companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. in Qatar’s oil and gas sectors, the Qataris host what is widely considered Washington’s most strategic military base in the Persian Gulf. Al Udeid Air Base, situated just outside Doha, is home to U.S. Air Force Central Command and is critical to U.S. military operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia.
Sheikh al-Thani said the charges from Saudi Arabia and others were exaggerated to justify an attempt to contain Doha’s economic rise.
“Our country has been subject to an unjust aggression,” he said, adding that claims by Saudi Arabia and the others have created “an unnecessary distraction for the region.”
Sheikh al-Thani took a cautious tone on the Iranian nuclear deal, which President Trump has harshly criticized but which other parties to the deal, including the European Union, China and Russia, continue to support.
“We were not part of the deal,” Sheikh al-Thani said. “But what we know is that we need to make sure that any nuclear program which will be developed [in Iran], we have to assure that it’s a peaceful program.”
Iran, he said, “is a neighbor, and we need to deal with it in a way that ensures the security of the entire region is not affected by any confrontation, to ensure that Iran doesn’t have any destabilizing factors for us.”
Despite U.S. mediation efforts, the sheikh said he was not optimistic about a quick end to the diplomatic divide in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
“It will not end by bullying, this is for sure,” he said. “It will end if every country understands that its rights and responsibilities are equal to other nations’.”
He said Qatar, with U.S.-backing, has repeatedly called for dialogue with the Saudis and the others to no avail. “The other side is not willing,” he said. “President Trump invited everybody to Camp David. We responded positively; they just rejected the invitation.”
One thing is abundantly clear. Qatar sees the United States as a solid ally and great friend.