Today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, along with their Qatari counterparts, will co-chair the inaugural U.S.-Qatar strategic dialogue in Washington, DC. The dialogue has been touted as a sign that the alliance between Qatar and the United States has grown stronger, even amidst charges that Doha has been backing extremist elements both inside and outside the tiny emirate. The Trump administration must make it clear that Doha has not been exonerated. Indeed, this dialogue presents the Trump administration with an important opportunity to assess whether the Gulf emirate is fulfilling its commitments to close off the Qatari financial system to supporters of terrorism.
Qatar’s long history of permissiveness towards terror finance is well documented. The country’s leaders have allowed private financiers of various terrorist groups to reside in Qatar with impunity. Its troubling record on terror finance is one reason the Arab quartet cut ties with the emirate last June. This track record has also occasionally elicited tough public comments from U.S. officials in recent years.
Since the blockade began, U.S. and Qatari officials have held at least three high-level meetings focusing specifically on illicit finance. In July 2017, the U.S. and Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on combating terror finance, with Qatar claiming a major victory for becoming the first country to sign such an agreement with the U.S. Finalized during Secretary Tillerson’s tour of the Gulf, the MoU laid out steps for both states to take to “disable terror financing flows.”
Washington and Doha signed an additional agreement during Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s visit to the Qatari capital last October, which provided for greater information sharing on terrorist financiers and increased scrutiny on the charitable and money service sectors in Qatar. In a move to demonstrate its cooperation, Qatar was one of six Gulf nations later that month to announce sanctions on 11 individuals and two entities with purported links to al-Qaeda.
Finally, in early November, the inaugural U.S.-Qatar counterterrorism dialogue was held to review Qatar’s progress in implementing the July MoU.
Both sides are bringing their heavyweights to the strategic dialogue in Washington this week. Qatar’s delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani. Qatar’s defense, energy, and finance ministers will also attend, along with a number of other ministries and institutions, including the central bank and the Qatar Investment Authority. Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis will co-chair the opening session jointly with their Qatari counterparts. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin will also participate.
This high-level dialogue is the perfect opportunity for the U.S. to pressure Qatar further. Specifically, despite being a signatory to the Jeddah Communique, which compels it to counter terrorist financing, top U.S. officials have spoken out about how little progress Doha has made. While Qatar said it prosecuted five private financiers for the first time in 2016, two were acquitted, one was convicted but acquitted upon repeal, another was convicted and served a brief sentence before resuming his terror finance activities upon release, and one was convicted in absentia – essentially amounting to no convictions at all. Financiers of groups like al-Qaeda continue to reside in Qatar. And though it has a regulatory framework for anti-money laundering in place, its informal financial system remains vulnerable to exploitation by terrorist financers.
With the Gulf crisis now in its eighth month, the U.S. has the upper hand. It is not pure coincidence that Qatar’s flurry of counter-terror finance activity began after the Gulf crisis broke out. Improving its record to better bilateral ties with the U.S. gives Qatar a face-saving means to address one of the major grievances aired by its blockading neighbors.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Gulf. Follow her on Twitter @varshakoduvayur.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.