The relationship between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and ISIS

Recent news

Last month, Saudi Arabia severed ties with Qatar over its role in ‘supporting terrorism’ throughout the region. Tensions had risen following an incident where the Qatari state-run news agency published a story which falsely attributed comments which expressed support for Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The Qatari government categorically denied the story and the Foreign Minister blamed hacking whilst disregarding the comments as ‘fake news’. Yet the Saudi Arabian and Emirati based broadcasters ran the story regardless. The relationship descended to new depths when the Saudi government, along with its allies the U.A.E., Bahrain, Yemen, the Maldives and Egypt, made a concerted effort to apply pressure on the Qatari government to end its funding and relationships with terrorist organisations such as Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda and Deash, which they state is destabilising the entire region.

Qatar responded by labelling he allegations “unjustified’’ and “baseless’’

The breakdown of relations between the two states over such an issue isn’t new. In 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the U.A.E. temporarily withdrew ambassadors over Qatar’s support for armed groups. However, the severity of this move should not be underestimated and will consequently effect aviation, maritime trade, military cooperation and energy markets.

These events have caused Qatari stocks to plummet, created the biggest rift in Middle Eastern relations for years, called into question the legitimacy of the GCC, and could even see a political re-alignment of Qatar in the New Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So, what are the relationship between these states with Daesh, and are the accusations of supporting terrorism justifiable or hypocritical?

Qatar’s role

The Gulf State has had a dubious history with supporting terror organisations. Specifically, the House of al-Thani, such as Abdullah bin Khalid al-Thani who harboured and protected Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 1996 from US arrest, allowing him to travel with Qatari protection into Afghanistan. He would go on to be one of the main architects of 9/11. Furthermore, a report by the New York Times documents how Abdulkarim al-Thani, a member of the royal family , operated a safe house for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (founder of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to Daesh) when he transited the country going in and out of Afghanistan.

Qatar now stands accused of supporting and financing Al-Qaeda and Deash.

This claim was widely accepted by the international community. As early as 2014, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, challenged the Emir on this issue of funding Daesh during a state visit, and in the same year Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki in an interview with France24 accused Qatar of ‘supporting them {ISIS} with money and by buying weapons’’. However, most damning was a US State Department memo by Hilary Clinton, dated 17 August 2014, which stated: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis and other radical Sunni groups in the region’’. However, a Washington Institute report into the role of Qatar and funding of Daesh concluded that no connection between the government of Qatar and ISIS existed. However, it did state that “private individuals in Qatar are helping to finance this group and others like it’’. This can be examined regarding two individuals;

Khalifa Muhammad Turki al-Subaiy who is on a designated terrorist list of the UN, EU, USA, UK and Russia, and Abd al Rahman al Nuaymi who was labelled “one of the world’s most prolific terrorist financiers’’ and on December 18, 2013, the US treasury identified him as a specially designated global terrorist and described him as “a Qatar-based terrorist financier and facilitator’’. He was the ex-president of the Qatari Football Association and a previous board member of the Qatar Islamic Bank. This shows the extent to which private donations amongst the Qatari elite is prevalent and how little progress Qatar is making towards combatting this issue as both these individuals now live freely in Doha whilst continuing to fund terror in both Iraq and Syria.

The state will continue to pursue these policies. As their cost-benefit analysis concludes that by supporting certain Islamist groups they are pursuing their grand strategy goals which could have huge benefits in the future with little cost to their own internal security. Qatar does not deem this foreign policy strategy as a threat to their own existence as they have one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, and Islamist activism and political engagement is prohibited. So, therefore there were minimal internal issues regarding Islamic terrorism within the country up until the boycott. This is supported by a report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) which provided data stating that by the end of 2014 only 15 fighters came from Qatar, in contrasts to 2,500 fighters from Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the country has had no recent major terrorist incident. Is this due to diligent counter-terrorism, or simply the case of the dog not biting the hand which feeds it?

Saudi Arabia’s role

The country has a long history of supporting extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, responsible for the Mumbai attacks in 2008, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which renown journalist Ahmed Rashid in his book ‘Taliban’ documents how Saudi donations were used to spread Wahhabism in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Saudi Arabia also played an instrumental role in 9/11 with 15 of the 19 terrorists originating from Saudi Arabia and the leader of Al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden having been born and educated in the country before being expelled and having his passport revoked. This history has resulted in questions into the relationship between Saudi Arabia and extremist groups within the Middle East. However, regarding Daesh, the government of Saudi Arabia is a member of the international coalition committed to degrading and defeating them.

Yet members of government and the royal family continue to be at the forefront of criticism for alleged funding of ISIS. An accusation which Mohammed Yahya, political consultant at the Saudi embassy in London, states are “unfounded’’ and that “Saudi Arabia has some of the strictest financial measures and controls to stop funding to terrorist organisations”. This rebuttal is supported by the Washington Institute which in its report concluded that “there is no credible evidence that the Saudi government is financially supporting ISIS’’.

Although the government has financed unfavorable extremist groups in the past, this was pursued to achieve political objectives, but Daesh presents a serious and immediate threat to the national security of the state. Although minimal in comparison to attacks in other countries, Saudi Arabia has itself been subjected to Daesh attacks such as the Qatif and Dammam mosque bombings in 2015 and an attack in March 2017 which resulted in the death of one police officer. Nevertheless, this does not cover private donations. Although the state is taking counter-measures, such as formally outlawing funding for organisations on designated terror lists. Private donations from the peninsula “continue to represent a significant funding source’’. Saudi Arabia does implement measures and does work with the international community regarding counter-terrorism. However, while ever Saudi Arabia does not fully address the issue of private donations and whilst ever the state continues to export Wahhabist ideology which drives these extremist’s groups, no amount of progress can warrant them being designated friend rather than foe.


1) In conclusion, naïve and short sighted polices in pursuit of foreign policy goals led to the indirect funding of Daesh. In their attempt to overthrow Bashar al Assad and support the rebels in the Syrian civil war, both these states significantly invested in money and armaments without regard for the faction’s political ideology or long-term prospects. These groups were then either defeated by ISIS or incorporated into the group when it became more successful, which consequently then administered the funds and weapons from the two gulf states.

2) The governments of these states do not directly fund Daesh or its affiliates, but private donations from citizens of both these states continue to aid and benefit Daesh. However, this has no strategic or significant benefit to the group. Although foreign donor investment into the group should be eradicated, it is not the number one priority regarding fighting Daesh. From 2005 – 2010, outside donors accounted for only 5% of the AQI budget and income of the Islamic State is now predominantly from oil revenues, taxation, extortion, kidnapping, drugs and black-market sales.

3) The two main priorities of the international communityshould be firstly to target the genealogy of the Islamic State which derives from Jihadi Salafism and the policies of the Saudi state, and secondly to continue progress in defending all territory recently reclaimed by Daesh to prevent revenue from the aforementioned sources. The Saudi Arabian state and its allies emboldened by the recent visit of President Trump are simply applying soft power to punish Qatar for support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and improved relations with Iran with specific aims of preventing Iranian influence and preserving the regional balance of power. By continuing to be a major recruiter of fighters for Daesh and by continuing to export Wahhabism and Salafism as a form of government policy, Saudi Arabia’s accusations of Qatar supporting terrorism are simply hypocritical, and the old proverb ‘those who live in glass houses should not throw stones’ has never been more apt.

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