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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

How France ransomed itself to Qatar's money and 'soft power'

The country has used its immense wealth to buy influence as well as material symbols of power.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) shakes hand with Qatar Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani (R) on February 3, 2010 at the Elysee Palace in Paris after a working lunch.  Eric Feferberg /  AFP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) shakes hand with Qatar Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani (R) on February 3, 2010 at the Elysee Palace in Paris after a working lunch. Eric Feferberg / AFP

Qatar has long fancied itself as a major player in the politics of the Middle East, an intermediary between the Arab World and the West.

The country has used its immense wealth to buy influence as well as material symbols of power.

In 2011, the anti-Qaddafi movement in Libya drew Qatar into an external conflict for the first time and marked its entry into the big boys’ club of foreign policy, alongside France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Doha supplied weapons and money to the rebels. And though it was the first Arab country to recognise the National Transition Council (NTC) in Libya, the substantial aid Qatar sent to Libya was soon bypassing the NTC and heading straight to extremist rebels, such as Ali Al Sallabi.

Qatar had given asylum to the Libyan radical during the Qaddafi years and it was in Qatar that Al Sallabi came under the influence of Yusuf Al Qaradawi, spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But Doha’s ambitions extended beyond the Middle East. In their book, Our Dearest Emirs, French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot lay bare the links between the French establishment and the rulers of Qatar.

Speaking exclusively to The National, Georges Malbrunot, an expert in Middle East Affairs, explained, “Our intention is not to depict Qatar in a systematically negative way, but there are several grey areas that must be addressed.”

Among the greyest areas are Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup and the purchase by the Qatari investment firm Oryx Qatar Sports Investments in 2010 of football club Paris St-Germain (PSG) — the very same club that has just acquired Brazilian star Neymar for the world record fee of 222 million euros (Dh955 million).

Investigators in France are currently probing the possible role of former president Nicolas Sarkozy in those two sporting triumphs for the Qataris

France emerged as one of the key backers of Qatar’s World Cup bid during Mr Sarkozy’s presidency. The allegations swirling around the ex-president are that he received funds, profited from multi-million-dollar business deals and even that the emir of Qatar paid for Mr Sarkozy’s divorce.

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Read more:

$2m was sent to child of Fifa member before Doha awarded World Cup

Sarkozy probed over Qatar 2022 graft claims

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The problem with Qatar, said Malbrunot, is not only the institutional support for unsavoury radical groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria, but also “the private funding of terrorism by individuals” who use so-called charitable organisations as cover.

“The problem currently at the heart of the crisis [between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain], is that it has been financing dubious charity works around the world, and particularly in Europe,” he said.

While little involved militarily, Doha nonetheless exercises considerable “soft power” in the various conflicts plaguing the Gulf region and beyond. One of its methods is paying ransoms.

“The soft power of Qatar is embodied by this capacity to balance things out by doing favours: they have helped with the release of hostages and paid ‘ransoms’. They paid the ransom for the release of the Bulgarian nurses in Libya, and for the release of journalists in Iraq.”

In 2007, five Bulgarian nurses were released from prison in Libya where they had languished for eight years after being convicted of infecting Libyan children with HIV. Cecilia Sarkozy, then still the wife of the French president, helped negotiate their release.

Malbrunot and his colleague Christian Chesnot are themselves among a number of French journalists who have been kidnapped and held hostage in Iraq over the years. They were freed in December 2004 after five months in captivity. The French government denied paying a ransom.

But there is no doubt that such incidents point to a certain ambiguity in the West’s relations with Qatar.

“From the perspective of Western countries, things are somewhat complicated because Qatar did help them. At the same time, they are embarrassed because they did turn a blind eye to several activities that simply should not go on”, said Malbrunot..

And, he points out, that even if individuals, rather than the Qatari leadership, paid the ransoms, “Is it possible for these individuals to act without the knowledge of the authorities?

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — dubbed the quartet — cut off diplomatic, economic and transport links with Qatar. Soon after they released a comprehensive list of individuals and organisations deemed to be financing terrorism. One of them is Abd Al Rahman bin Umayr Al Nuaimi, who calls himself a human rights advocate but also allegedly finances Al Qaeda in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Christian Chesnot told The National he had met Al Nuaimi in Qatar, adding, “He still lives in Doha.”

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More about the Qatar crisis:

Qatar crisis: What you need to know

Qatar crisis enters third month as Doha struggles to end boycott

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In July the quartet added 18 more individuals and organisations to the terror blacklist. Barely a day later, two men were arrested in Yemen on Qatar-related terror charges.

And then there is Al Jazeera. Chesnot and Malbrunot pinpoint the outbreak of the war in Iraq as marking the TV network’s transformation from news channel to platform for the likes of Hamas and sundry radicals and rebels in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, under the leadership of the newly-appointed director Wadah Khanfar, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Until 2003, the sermons of [Muslim Brotherhood leader] Al Qaradawi had seemed to be strictly religious, and were broadcast on Al Jazeera to tens of thousands of viewers in the Arab World. Within a decade, his radical ideology was reaching Europe and the United States, luring foreigners to fight with the extremists in the region’s theatres of war, and Al Jazeera had lost its credibility.

“The West, and France in particular, did not want to acknowledge these activities, because Qatar has helped western countries many times,” said Malbrunot.

Qatar denies all the quartet’s allegations against it. The US, France and other western countries have offered mediation but have not taken sides in the dispute. A sign, perhaps, that they are again being held to ransom? Or that Qatar is calling in favours.

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Read more from Opinion on Qatar:

Too many false flags flutter over Qatar

A new geopolitical reality dawns on us

Doha must work harder to restore trust

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