There are not too many Orthodox Jews who have been to both the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, let alone been welcomed as a guest of the government in both Persian Gulf States.
I received criticism for visiting Qatar, as have other American Jewish leaders who have gone there recently, even though most of them have either withheld judgment or criticized Qatar upon their return.
I accepted the invitation, because I wanted to persuade the Qataris that they could play a more positive role on the Palestinian issue and stop helping Hamas.
I wanted to hear their side of the story. Perhaps their negative image was unjustified. I was dubious about Qatar being different than any of the other Arab states. Intuitively, I thought none of them could be trusted and that Qatar could be no worse than Saudi Arabia.
My visit to the UAE came last week, along with other Jewish leaders from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, though I arrived a few days earlier to explore the emirates.
Visiting both countries in a short period gave me perspective that I believe could have an influence on Qatar, which is striving to improve its image in the world, especially among American decision-makers.
Qatar and the UAE have many similarities and many key differences.
They are both small former British colonies that in a short period built themselves up into technologically super-advanced, massively wealthy, family-run sheikhdoms, thanks to their vast natural resources. Both have increasingly influential economies diversifying away from oil. In both, native citizens are less than 10% of the total population.
And both are currently investing heavily in re-branding themselves for the US in general and the Trump administration in particular, in high-stakes campaigns that have attracted attention and controversy.
The UAE has succeeded in that goal, developing close relations with American governments from both parties, deepening military ties, expanding trade with the US to $26 billion, and building its most populous city, Dubai, into a financial metropolis with a skyline that reminded me of Manhattan. The UAE is also a close ally of Saudi Arabia, and together they are waging an active war with Iran’s Houthi proxy in Yemen.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, called MbZ, is UAE’s crown prince and deputy supreme commander of its armed forces. He is seen as the driving force behind the UAE’s activist foreign policy, promoting diversity and tolerance, shunning radicalization and deepening close ties with his Saudi and American counterparts, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Jared Kushner.
In dialogue with our interlocutors in Abu Dhabi, it became clear that – with rare exceptions – the UAE is doing its part to be a positive force in the Middle East. But the UAE needs its Saudi allies to do their part as a regional force and lead efforts against Iran and its terrorist proxies.
Qatar’s progress in winning over America has been slower. US President Donald Trump called Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani last month to thank him for helping fight terrorism. By hosting an American air base (built after the US was asked to leave Saudi Arabia) with fighter jets used for air strikes on Islamic State, Qatar can rightfully say it hosts the US fight on terrorism.
But unfortunately, Qatar also remains a safe haven for some of the world’s terrorist groups, harboring Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and others. It is not doing enough to pressure Hamas to release Israeli captives, dead and alive.
The Al-Jazeera network is based in the Qatari capital Doha, and its biased and problematic coverage does not advance the cause of Middle East peace, to put it mildly. For those reasons and more there has been such an outcry over the visits to Qatar.
Qatar justifies its behavior by noting that its sovereignty and even its existence is threatened by the Iranians, Saudis and the Emirates. It explains that it must get along with Iran, because it shares lucrative gas fields with the Islamic Republic.
But the Qataris must realize that their long-term strategic interests require shunning Iran, fighting the terrorism emanating from the Islamic Republic and seeking a full alliance with the US. After all, Iran’s primary goal is to defeat all Sunni states and control the world, and when it tries to exercise that plan, due to its proximity, Qatar will be among its first targets.
They can look to the UAE and see the benefits their neighbor has received from fighting alongside the US and never against it in all operations throughout the Middle East. The UAE was even willing to make sacrifices for their alliance, starting the process of stopping trade with Iran and losing business deals there to Turkey.
Among the steps that could help Qatar win over America would be to adopt a policy of not tolerating any terrorism, work behind the scenes with the US against Iran, pressure the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table under American mediation, and provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza through Israel and aid organizations to ensure it really reaches the people and is not stolen by Hamas.
As all American allies in the region should, Qatar could fund educational initiatives that encourage tolerance, end incitement to terrorism, promote human rights, and even use Al-Jazeera to promote the positive messages that the Middle East needs today.
None of America’s current and potential allies are perfect. They could all do more.
The Trump administration should also do its part to unify the Gulf states against terrorism, because for the war on terrorism to succeed there cannot be any outliers. There must be complete unity.The author is the co-president of the Religious Zionists of America and chairman of the Center for Righteousness and Integrity. He can be reached at [email protected]