‘Qatar has been a problem for the United States for over a decade’: Former US defense secretary

  • "So many of the same concerns that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are raising today were actually a problem more than ten years ago," Robert Gates told CNBC Tuesday.
  • The most powerful countries in the region began an economic blockade of Qatar, who they accuse of sponsoring terrorism and destablizing the region, in June.
  • Qatar has strenuously denied that it supports terrorism and sees the blockade as a way to subsume it under the powerful influence of Saudi Arabia.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that the United States experienced the same "problems" with Qatar a decade ago that its Gulf neighbors are going through now.

The most powerful countries in the region began an economic blockade of Qatar, who they accuse of sponsoring terrorism and destablizing the region, in June.

Gates told CNBC that the George W. Bush administration had issues with what Al Jazeera, the award-winning news TV network owned by the Qatari government, was broadcasting.

"One of the first trips that President George W. Bush asked me to take when I became secretary (of defense) over a decade ago was to go to Qatar, go to Doha and talk to the Emir about all of the problems we were having with Qatar," he said.

"Even a decade ago, we had problems with what they were putting on Al Jazeera — they were giving an opportunity for those we were fighting in Iraq to propagandize over Al Jazeera, they would publicize American soldiers being killed, there was a problem with terrorist funding," he said.

"So many of the same concerns that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are raising today were actually a problem more than ten years ago."

Gates' comments come amid an ongoing economic and transport blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE. The Gulf allies also cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting Islamist groups and destabilizing the region.

One of the demands that the countries are making of Qatar is that it close Al Jazeera, a Middle-East focused news network with global reach, which they accuse of sympathizing with Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al Jazeera has responded to the allegations by insisting that it has editorial independence, telling the BBC in an interview earlier this year that it is not influenced by any "particular group or ideology." CNBC has contacted Al Jazeera for a response to Gates' comment that the network had had a problem with "terrorist funding" but is yet to get a response.

Qatar has strenuously denied that it supports terrorism and sees the blockade as a way to subsume it under the powerful influence of Saudi Arabia.

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani defended Doha's record on terrorism in late November, telling a counter-terrorism conference in London that Qatar was "committed to destroying terrorism."

The U.S. has sent conflicting messages over Qatar. In June, U.S. President Donald Trump backed Saudi Arabia over the blockade and criticized Doha when the blockade was imposed, accusing it of funding terrorism at a "high level." However, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called in June for Saudi Arabia and its allies to end the blockade.

More confusingly, Al Thani and Tillerson signed an agreement in July pledging cooperation in the fight against "terrorist financing." In addition, the U.S. has a large military base in Al Udeid , Qatar, from which its Central Command runs operations in the Middle East.

Gates said Tuesday that while the U.S. "greatly value our partnership with them militarily," Qatar needed to decide on "how it sees its role in this region."

"Frankly, we in America would like to see this dispute resolved so that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is unified in dealing with Iran and other challenges, but Qatar has to make up its mind," he said.