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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Qatar's protestations of innocence get more absurd by the day

Embarrassing wedding photos are just the latest sign of Qatar's reckless approach to regional security, writes Con Coughlin

Under pressure to demonstrate it is cracking down on the funding of terrorism, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani met with US President Donald Trump last year. Evan Vucci / AP
Under pressure to demonstrate it is cracking down on the funding of terrorism, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani met with US President Donald Trump last year. Evan Vucci / AP

Qatar’s strident claims that it is committed to fighting terrorism have struck a hollow note after senior members of the Qatari government were photographed at the wedding of one of the world’s leading financial backers of terrorism.

Ever since the quartet of Arab states imposed a diplomatic boycott on Qatar for its support of Islamist terror groups, Doha has loudly protested its innocence, claiming that it has implemented numerous measures to tackle terrorism.

Only last month the Qataris were publicly praised by senior counter-terrorism officials in the Trump administration at the inaugural US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue in Washington, for the very strong steps they say they have taken in recent months to assist the international community and the US in their campaign against ISIS, Al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups.

Among the measures praised by American officials were the alleged steps taken by Doha to clamp down on the funding of terror groups by prominent Qatari citizens.

The Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim, later gave his personal pledge to Donald Trump that “we do not tolerate...people who support and fund terrorism". The commitment also drew praise from British ministers, who welcomed the “emir of Qatar’s commitment to tackle terrorism in all its manifestations, including terrorist financing.”

Now the Qataris find themselves in the embarrassing position of having to explain how, so shortly after receiving these public plaudits, their prime minister was photographed happily celebrating a wedding hosted by one of the terrorism financiers it is supposed to be taking action against.

The pictures emerged after Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa, the Qatar prime minister, attended a wedding hosted by Abdulrahman Al Nuaymi. The Qatari government had only recently designated Mr Al Nuaymi as a financier of terrorism, a move that was supposed to restrict his ability to support extremist groups. And yet here was the Qatari prime minister happily posing for pictures with Mr Al Nuaymi as they celebrated the marriage of his son.

Nor does the embarrassment for the Qataris end there, as the guest list for the wedding reads like a who’s who of Middle East terrorism. For also joining the wedding party was Khaled Mashaal, the former head of the militant Hamas terrorist organisation, which is banned by the US.

For a country that is supposed to be pursuing a so-called “zero tolerance” approach to terrorism, the presence of a senior member of the Qatari royal family at such an event raises some troubling questions about just how serious Doha is about changing its ways.

The Qatari government was quick to respond to the story, pointing out that it was a private occasion and that it was not sanctioned by the authorities in Doha. It stated that Sheikh Abdullah had been invited “personally” by the groom, whom it described as “a government employee of the state of Qatar, and upstanding young man”.

It does, though, raise questions about whether the Qatari government is serious about investigating the activities of the groom’s father, who has been the subject of an asset freeze and travel ban since 2015 over allegations concerning his links to terror groups. Mr Al Nuaymi was last month released after serving an eight month spell in prison having been acquitted due to "lack of evidence".

It will be hard, though, for the Qataris to persuade the outside world that the wedding pictures reflect nothing more than a harmless social occasion. For many in the Gulf and beyond, they will be seen as just the latest example of the Qataris' double standards in both their attitude towards sponsoring terrorism actions with regard to the security concerns of their Gulf neighbours.

Qatar’s reckless approach to the safety of the citizens of other Gulf states was demonstrated last weekend when a Qatari fighter was reported to have flown within almost 200 metres of a UAE civilian aircraft, which was carrying 86 passengers, while flying over Bahrain on an approved route.

It is the fifth time a Qatari aircraft has flown close to a UAE plane, prompting Saif Al Suwaidi, director-general of the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority, to denounce the incident as “the greatest form of terrorism: using military weapons against civilians. A fighter jet flying that close to a defenceless civilian aircraft is an act of intimidation and a show of power.”

Another example of Qatar’s attempts to undermine the security of its Gulf neighbours has emerged in Bahrain, following the trial of three men charged with “hostile acts against Bahrain with the intention to overthrow the political system". The Bahraini public prosecutor has presented new evidence relating to the links between the accused and Qatar, including contacts alleged to have been made by Ali Salman Ali Ahmed, the head of Bahrain’s largest opposition group, Al Wefaq, and the then Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, during the 2011 anti-government protests in Manama.

None of these actions are the work of a country that is serious about having a constructive relationship with its Gulf neighbours, and shows that, for all its protestations to the contrary, Qatar poses a threat to the stability of the Arab world.

And the Qataris need to understand that, by continuing to pursue such policies, they are putting their own survival at risk. For the moment, the Trump administration is taking Qatar’s protestations that it is fighting terrorism at face value. But this is not a policy the quixotic Mr Trump will continue to support if Washington decides Doha can no longer be trusted as a reliable and truthful ally.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor

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