Why is Qatar being blockaded and isolated?

Why is Qatar being blockaded and isolated?
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I just returned from a private visit to Qatar, at the invitation of and paid for by the Emir. I do not represent Qatar's government and, to be honest, I was initially reluctant to accept his invitation because I had heard that Qatar was contributing to Hamas, which is a terrorist group, and that it was supporting Iran, which is the largest exporter of terrorism in the world. But then I did my own research and concluded that the Qatar issue was more complex and nuanced. So I wanted to see for myself.

As soon as I got to Doha, Qatar’s capital, I was surprised to read that an Israeli tennis player had been welcomed by the Qatari government to participate in a tennis tournament. I had hoped to attend the match and cheer him on, but unfortunately he lost. Nonetheless, I was surprised to see how open Qatar was to welcoming Israeli athletes, as the government had pledged to do if Israel qualifies for the World Cup in soccer in 2022.

I was also surprised because, just days earlier, Saudi Arabia — which has criticized Qatar for supporting Israel’s arch enemies, Hamas and Iran — had excluded an Israeli chess player who had qualified for an international chess tournament to be held in Riyadh. Moreover, Saudi officials criticized Qatar for allowing an Israeli tennis player to participate in its tournament, and for ordering “the Israeli flag to be raised in the Qatar open.” The Saudis insist that “normalization of the tennis open is rejected.”

This episode made clear to me that the Saudis were not necessarily the good guys in their dispute with Qatar. The Saudis have led a campaign to blockade, boycott and isolate their tiny neighboring state. They have gotten other states to join them in this illegal activity. It is illegal and immoral because it keeps family members who live in different Gulf States from attending family functions, including weddings and funerals. It also requires Air Qatar to avoid the air space of neighboring countries and fly over Iran. The right to travel is a fundamental human right.

The Saudis defend their action on several grounds. First, they complain that Qatar sponsors and finances the Al Jazeera media, which is quite influential in the Arab world and around the globe. As one of their primary demands, they insist that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera, because it presents “alternative views” to those espoused by the Saudis and other gulf states. This blatant attempt to shut down conflicting views violates core principles of freedom of speech and expression.

One does not have to agree with all the content of Al Jazeera in order to defend their free speech rights and those of their viewers. I have been interviewed by the English Al Jazeera channel on numerous occasions and have found it to be generally fair, though I disagree with much of its content. That is the essence of freedom of expression: to defend the right of those with whom you may disagree.

A second complaint is that Qatar financially supports Hamas in the Gaza Strip. I too, was concerned by this allegation and met with Qatar’s ambassador to Gaza. He explained that Qatar’s financial assistance was limited to direct payments to builders in Gaza who were constructing homes, schools and hospitals. He insisted that no money was being given to support terrorism.

When I pointed out that money is fungible and that funds given for humanitarian purposes can then free Hamas to use other funds to support terrorism, he said that Hamas would not build these buildings with their own funds in any event. He also told me that the building projects sponsored by Qatar were “coordinated” with Israeli authorities. I have no way of confirming the accuracy of these conflicting claims, but I think they ought to be subject to a process of verification before the Saudi arguments are accepted.

The Saudis also claim that Qatar gave asylum to Hamas leaders, who live freely in Doha. Again, there is the conflict over the facts. The Qataris claim that American officials had asked them to allow the Hamas leaders to live in Doha, and that they have now left. Again, these factual issues should be subject to objective verification.

Yet another complaint is that Qatar, alone among the Gulf States, has extensive business ties with Iran. The Qataris provided two responses: First, that other gulf states do far more business with Iran. Second, that since they had been cut off by Saudi Arabia, from whom they received much of their food and other necessities of life, they have been forced to increase their trade with Iran, which is a neighboring state with which they share gas reserves. Once again, the facts must be established objectively.

After hearing these different accounts, I observed that Qatar is quickly becoming the Israel of the Gulf States, surrounded by enemies, subject to boycotts and unrealistic demands, and struggling for its survival. I heard a lot of positive statements regarding Israel from Qatari leaders as well as hints of commercial relationships between these isolated nations.

The Qataris would like to reestablish normal relationships with the surrounding states and have asked the White House to convene a meeting to be attended by all the Gulf States. That seems like a good idea. Another good idea might be the establishment of an independent commission of credible experts to resolve the conflicting factual claims about what Qatar is and is not doing.

The current situation does not serve the interests of the United States, of the Gulf region or of world peace. It would be far better if the Gulf States could present a united front with regard to Iran, Hamas, terrorism and freedom of the media.

Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard Law School and author of “Trumped Up: How Criminalizing Politics is Dangerous to Democracy.” Follow him on Twitter @AlanDersh and on Facebook @AlanMDershowitz.