TAMPA — Qatar juts like a thumb about the size of Connecticut into the Persian Gulf, linked to land only by its border with Saudi Arabia.
Now, Saudi Arabia leads a coalition of four Arab states that have imposed a trade and diplomatic boycott against Qatar, claiming the oil-rich nation funds, supports and enables extremist groups including the Taliban and Hamas.
The tension among neighbors who once were allies is playing out in a region where U.S. military operations are overseen by U.S. Central Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. That explains why the man who represents Qatar in the United States, Sheikh Meshal Bin Hamad Al-Thani, visited Tampa this week for a meeting with the CentCom commander, Army Gen. Joseph Votel.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times before their meeting Wednesday, Ambassador Thani said the boycotting nations — the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, as well as Saudi Arabia — are carrying out a plan to mislead the United States about the roots of terrorism, suggesting they aim to divert attention from themselves.
He also said Qatar is fulfilling an agreement with the United States in a prisoner swap that led to the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who faces court-martial on a charge of desertion after walking away from his base in Afghanistan and spending five years in militant captivity.
But Thani, 41, said his main message for President Donald Trump and the American people is that Qatar, though hampered in its efforts by the boycott, remains a strong ally of America and a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism.
Here are highlights of the interview, edited for clarity and space.
What do you hope to accomplish in your visit with Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of CentCom?
To assure on the commitments Qatar has and reassure the general of these commitments and what I would like to take out of this meeting is looking to the possibility of how we can enhance this relationship. What could be done more.
This recent controversy seems to have been kicked off by tweets from the president. What was your reaction to those tweets basically accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism?
Before I move onto this, let me step back and put things in perspective. Qatar has not been approached by the blockading countries at any time to raise any concerns. In my view, what happened is that these blockading countries have misled the United States, have misinformed leadership here in the United States, but we can see very quickly that the United States immediately understood what's going on. And I think the message to all the blockading countries, including the state of Qatar, is that de-escalation is important.
Do you think they were emboldened by seeing the president of the United States seemingly side with them?
I am convinced that this was a plan in the making and they have misled the United States. And I underscore this. They have misled by providing false information about Qatar. Specifically they talk about terrorism. I think the track record of Qatar is very clear. But I think it is also very important that they talk about their track record. We know where most of the banks are located who undermine the U.S. sanctions in Iran. The UAE was a concern in State Department reports that it is a country of concern when it comes to money laundering.
And 9/11. Where did those hijackers come from and who were they financed by? And also where they came from exactly — Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Egypt. And I think it is very important to remind your readers that Qatar in the past stood by the United States when the Saudis asked the U.S. to leave Saudi Arabia.
Can you tell me the status of the five Taliban leaders whose release you helped engineer in return for the return of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier kidnapped after wandering off base in Afghanistan in 2009?
There is an agreement between the U.S. and Qatar on that issue. I can't reveal the details of this agreement, but I can tell you Qatar is making sure that whatever was agreed on with the United States is enforced to the fullest.
How is the blockade affecting Qatar?
The biggest effect we have is the humanitarian aspect. We have about 13,000 complaints and these are family separations, where mothers were forced to leave their kids, people lost their jobs, because of this. Jail, because of the laws they have enacted, sympathy laws, you know if you are sympathizing with Qatar you get 15 years in jail. So our primary focus is to make sure that we have a solution to that humanitarian aspect. And we are hopeful some breakthrough will come on that.
Gen. Votel recently told me about his concerns that this rift is taking away from the coalition fighting ISIS the longer it goes on. What's your concern?
Let me give you an example. The Bahrainis asked some of our forces, two or three, to leave the American base in Bahrain because of this. And those were embedded with the American troops fighting ISIS. And they asked them to leave and the Americans worked on bringing them back. I'm just giving you an example and you can multiply this by every aspect of the cooperation.
Are you concerned that this rift could become a shooting war?
No, I don't think so.
Because I think all the parties involved understand the importance of resolving this. And don't forget, it is very important, the whole GCC, six countries (Gulf Cooperation Council, including Bahrain and the UAE), are family. There is intermarriage, there are families and I don't think this is going to be something really accepted by the people to go to war against your cousins and your brothers, so this has never been in our minds. So at least that's our perspective in Qatar. I think I can say I am sure it is in the others.
The blockading countries say Qatar-based media outlet Al Jazeera is fomenting problems in the region. What's your response?
They don't want the people to understand the truth. They want to shut down every way truth comes out. That's what they are afraid of. If they shut down Al Jazeera, no one else could give another voice. They don't want any media, they don't want any free speech. They want to impose what they feel is good for the region. Not what the people of the region want.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.