I’m a fan of amateur sailing. Brisk wind and salty chop does wonders for the spirits. I’m also a fan of successful hostage negotiations, reassured that the two activities share nothing in common.
Amidst news of the Islamic State beheadings of American journalists, Peter Theo Curtis’ recent release brought relief to an international community accustomed to tragic endings in Syria. Captured by the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra in 2012, Curtis suffered terribly before being handed back to U.S. authorities through intervention from Qatar’s foreign ministry. Even more remarkable, according to officials, no ransom was paid.
Despite jubilation in Doha, Qatar’s capital, the hand-over rings hollow. Like Oracle Team USA’s win over New Zealand in last year’s America’s Cup, victory comes with an expansive pocketbook.
The United States has a long and complicated relationship with Qatar. Located in the Persian Gulf and home to the world’s largest supply of natural gas after Russia and Iran, Qatar welcomed America’s first ambassador in 1974 and has since become a chief Western ally in the region. In 2013, the volume of U.S. trade with Qatar exceeded $3.6 billion, up from $838 million in 2001, while Washington’s direct investments nearly tripled that amount.
The U.S. military has found relations with Qatar equally productive. Starting in the 1990s the Pentagon built Camp As Sayliyah, its largest pre-positioning base outside the country. In 2003 the Al Udeid Air Base became foreign headquarters for the U.S. Central Command, chief hub for managing American operations in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.
Despite commitments between the two countries, not all has been well. According to Wikileaks, a U.S. State Department cable in 2009 called Qatar the “worst in the region” when it comes to cooperation with American counterterrorism efforts.
Hemmed in by powerful neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, the tiny state of Qatar has learned to survive by keeping irons in every fire. During the 1990s, the ruling amir Khalifa bin Hamad provided sanctuary to thousands of Arab fighters who had left Afghanistan after having driven back Soviet troops but whose efforts had led to exile from their homelands.
While most of these veterans returned to peaceful lives, others agitated for armed Islamic struggle worldwide. The Al Jazeera television network provided one outlet for airing ideological controversy. Qatar’s ministry of religious endowments, working far off screen, provided lesser known mediation.
In sermons and lectures, religious scholars discussed how the term al-qaida, meaning “base” or “rule” in Arabic, signified a common resource available to Muslims whatever their cause. Whether deployed in Islamic law, theology or linguistics, such rules provided lessons to Qatar’s many vying political parties about how they could argue and even quarrel without collapsing into open discord. Their homily proved useful for conservative proselytizers as well as to revolutionaries.
Even as Qatar actively developed relations with the West, its leaders also cultivated active relations with Ahmadinejad’s Iran, Hamas and a host of Islamic reform and militant movements, among them the Jabhat Al-Nusra front in Syria.
Despite Qatar’s many faces, the U.S. is wise to remain engaged. In a region wracked by war, terror and the desperate pleas of several million refugees, much good can be done. According to President Barack Obama, the rewards of renewed commitment will not be immediate: “Rooting out a cancer like (the Islamic State) won’t be easy and it won’t be quick.”
Qatar is to be at the forefront of America’s coalition efforts. Continued patronage of the country’s tightly knit Al Thani rulers, divided though their loyalties are, is simply the cost of entry into a rough neighborhood. However plausible such assertions, Peter Curtis, once hostage and now symbol of Qatar’s utility for America, was the emblem of a Faustian contract struck before his release.
Headline news this August has been consistent. The American government does not negotiate with terrorists. In contrast with European countries, American officials refuse payments of any kind to free their citizens from al-Qaida captors. Lost in this story is the disproportionate scale of America’s ongoing economic and military investments in the region. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other chief U.S. allies in the Arab world retain intimate financial and ideological links with the very terrorist groups they purport to fight.
Much as I did when watching Oracle Team USA prevail in the final hour over Emirates Team New Zealand, I rejoiced when hearing of Curtis’ release. The ecstasy proved just as fleeting. The sad truth is that Curtis’ ransom had already been paid.