By Jacques Chitayat
Europe shares a complicated relationship with the Gulf States. There is a world of difference between their respective ideologies and policies (as well as their human rights track records). However, thanks to their abundant oil resources, the Gulf States – namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – emerged as economic powerhouses over the course of the twentieth century. This economic boom created interesting opportunities for partnerships between the two regions. Generous investments started pouring in from Gulf States into the European market, building up their presence in the political, religious and media sectors, displayed in seemingly omnipresent advertising and sponsorships. Indeed, one will be hard pressed to find, for example, a sports event without “Fly Emirates” or “Qatar Airways” emblazoned on team jerseys or even entire stadiums.
Still, the awkward issues of aggressive Islamism, support for extremist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and financing of Palestinian and other branches of radical terrorism have sometimes brought an uneasy feeling into these partnerships. This darker Islamist extremism is especially present in Qatar’s leaders, such as the emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Doha-based religious leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi, as well as their policies, who are notorious for their financing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and BDS. In recent years, Qatar’s deep pockets have helped spread its fundamentalist religious doctrine and their Islamist political agenda worldwide via many sources, such as Al Jazeera, the State-funded news outlet.
These awkward issues led to some Arab States imposing a diplomatic blockade on Qatar in 2017 to get the country to back away from its radical agenda. Saudi Arabia’s Minister for Culture and Information, Dr. Awwad Alawwad, stated that “for too long, the Government of Qatar has followed a policy of supporting terrorist organizations, which have as their stated objectives the destabilization of governments in the region, while professing to support efforts to destroy those same entities”, and that Al Jazeera TV serves as a mouthpiece for the propaganda of these organizations. Qatar being too Islamist even for fellow Gulf States should make Western nations wary of close ties with this emirate. However, as mentioned, economic opportunities overshadow the ideological differences. This is especially the case for the relationship between Qatar and France.
Relations between these two countries go back to the 1970s, but the two countries grew much closer starting in the mid-2000s under Nicolas Sarkozy’s government. In 2007, the Qatari emir Ben Khalifa Al-Thani was the first foreign leader to visit the newly elected President Sarkozy. Since then, the two leaders signed many trade, financial and defense deals. So many that French newspapers such as Marianne and Libération deemed their friendship unequal, with Qatar seemingly “buying up” France to implant its influence and spread Islamism. The Qatari influence in France, which is indeed considerable, can be grouped into three general categories: cultural, religious and political.
Qatar’s Cultural Influence
To blur its image and extend its soft power, Qatar made use of its abundant petroleum revenues to acquire many of Paris’ most prestigious institutions, often through the Qatar Investment Authority, a State-owned sovereign wealth fund. In 2018, it acquired the Hôtel de la Marine, a large eighteenth century hotel built to house French Navy sailors, for twenty million euros, to display the Qatar royal family’s personal art collection to the public for the next twenty years. As an article published in the French newspaper Marianne explains:
“The opening of an art collection in a Parisian high place would be a consecration of the influence of the emirate, which likes to show its works – bought at a high price – to the French public. An exhibition of part of the Al-Thani family’s private collection, for example, opens on 8 September at the Château de Fontainebleau. In 2017, an exhibition entitled “The Jewels of the Al-Thani Collection”, featuring 280 pieces, was hosted at the Grand Palais. The 20-year term of the future contract with the Hôtel de la Marine would ensure the emirate’s long-term establishment. This is everything the Qataris dream of, who need to work on their international reputation.” (Étienne Girard, 2018, Marianne, translated)
This hotel is only one of the many Parisian properties owned by the Al-Thani family. According to the same Marianne article, the total value of Qatar’s assets in France in 2016 exceeded 3.3 billion euros. The list of places bought in Paris is impressive. Indeed, the Al-Thani family owns some 35,000 square meters of property on the Champs-Élysées alone. This list includes, among others, the Royal-Monceau Raffles hotel (acquired in 2012 for 250 million euros), the international conference centre (acquired in 2008 for 400M euros) and the 27,000 square meters “Virgin” building located on the Champs-Elysées (500M euros in 2012).
Qatar is so active in French real estate primarily because it is the only country to benefit from a complete tax exemption on all revenues collected from these properties. In contrast, other countries pay roughly 34% of their real estate revenues. This generous exemption effectively sets France apart from other countries as it has become a tax haven for Qatar, and is the result of a deal between Sarkozy and Qatari officials in 2008, one that some French politicians consider highway robbery: “Our deficit has destroyed our freedom,” said Nathalie Goulet, a centrist senator from Lower Normandy, in 2013. “The Qataris are here to buy, while we are selling our family jewels.” Which they did” (Drieu Godefredi, 2017, Gatestone Institute).
These acquisitions of luxurious properties and art expositions in Paris are not the only displays of Qatari soft power in the cultural sphere. Its leaders decided that building up Qatar’s presence in the world of sport was a sure way of polishing its image. Thus, the Qatar Sports Investments organization was founded in 2005. Its presence in the French sports world now extends to horseracing and handball, but most notably to soccer: By 2012, the QSI obtained complete ownership of the Paris soccer team Paris St-Germain, worth at the time $130M, investing an additional $340M in the team’s players. The political motivations behind this acquisition were “hardly surprising to observers who follow the news from Qatar,” writes Akram Belkaïd, an Algerian journalist, chronicler and writer. He added that “for more than a decade now, [Qatar] has been working hard to establish itself as a major player on the international stage. And sport, its leaders believe, is one of the best ways to promote a country barely larger than Corsica” (Akram Belkaïd, 2017, Le Monde diplomatique, translated).
The Spread of Islamism and of the Muslim Brotherhood
Even more significant and disconcerting are Qatar’s close links to the Muslim Brotherhood, (MB), and financing of mega-mosques in France, as well as the implanting of the Brotherhood’s influence in European Muslim communities. The MB is a religious and political organization created in Egypt in 1928, whose founder, Hassan al-Banna sought to restore the caliphate and impose strict shariah (Islamist) law in Muslim lands and, ultimately, the world. al-Banna is quoted as stating, “it is in the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.” The Brotherhood, which is anti-secular, anti-Semitic, and anti-Western, seeks to infiltrate the political establishments of Muslim countries. While violence is officially condemned by the group, it regularly sanctions jihad and financially supports al-Qaeda and Hamas. The Brotherhood is currently banned and is declared a terrorist organization in many countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but is has found refuge and support in Qatar.
Last year, two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, compiled data on Qatar’s financing in the religious sector. They uncovered staggering numbers and facts, such as hundreds of bank transfers made by a Qatar charity to finance 140 projects for mosques, Islamic centres or schools all over Europe. Malbrunot explained that these figures represent about 100 million euros over ten years, including about 30 million euros in France alone. According to him, “the money feeds the structures of the Muslim Brotherhood, supporters of radical Islam”. Furthermore, he asserts that “through this financing, Qatar is buying influence. It is establishing itself as an operator of European Islam alongside other more traditional countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Turkey” (translated).
With the financing of these mosques comes Qatar’s apparent taste for historical irony. The best example is the Great Mosque of Poitiers. It was built on the site of the Battle of Poitiers, where the Frank army led by Charles Martel defeated the advancing Muslim army in 732, effectively stopping the Muslim army’s advance into Europe. Curiously, this mosque’s official name in Arabic is “The Mosque of the Martyr’s Road”. When asked whether this choice of name references the battle, the mosque’s imam, who is a member of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, answered: “Yes, thank God, this place is on the main line passed by the Islamic army. It was a road paved by the Romans, and the Islamic army passed through this road. So, thank God, this place is next to the main line. That’s why it was named “Mosque of the Martyr’s Road” ”. (Amaury Brelet, 2018, Valeurs Actuelles, translated).
The imams sent by Qatar to their European mosques to preach are notorious for their radical Islamist and antisemitic rhetoric. A notable example of a Qatar-supported extremist is a Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al Qaradawi. This Egyptian cleric, explains Giulio Meotti, an Italian journalist and specialist on Middle Eastern and Jewish issues, “condoned suicide bombings during the Second Intifada; endorsed a fatwa for killing Americans in Iraq and encouraged Muslims to travel abroad to fight in civil wars in Syria and Libya. Al Qaradawi also called for the “conquest of Rome” and announced on Egyptian television in 2013 that without death as a punishment for leaving the religion (apostasy), “Islam wouldn’t exist today” ”. Furthermore, the Lycée-Collège Averroès, a French Muslim school backed by Qatar, “was at the center of a controversy a few years ago when one of its teachers resigned after writing that the school was ‘a hotbed of anti-Semitism and was ‘promoting Islamism’ to pupils’ ” (Giulio Meotti, 2019, Gatestone Institute).
Qatar’s Political infiltration
The powerful media and educational tools of the Qatari government – Al Jazeera being the most effective one – facilitate the broadcast of its ideology to political elites and average citizens alike. As a State-owned news platform, Al Jazeera benefits from worldwide audiences as well as websites and channels in many languages, while adopting an Islamist, anti-American and anti-Israel stance. It acts essentially as a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatari regime. As reported in Libération, al Qaradawi used to be a regular guest on Al Jazeera, and now inundates Europe with fatwas from Dublin where he directs the European Council for Fatwa and Research.
Moreover, as reported by journalist Willy Le Devin in Libération, Qatar has understood that to win over the French Muslims, it must acquire skilled communicators. For this reason, the emirate has moved closer to Tariq Ramadan, a world-famous Swiss Muslim academic and writer, whose audience and ability to listen on the ground are unparalleled in France. As exceptional strategists, the Qataris have also invested in a whole section of associations fighting against “Islamophobia”. Indeed, “the emirate is forging relations with the Collective of the Muslims of France (…), the Committee against Islamophobia in France, and the Tawhid cultural centre in Saint-Denis, where intellectuals close to the Brotherhood are active.” (Willy Le Devin, 2013, Libération, translated). By working on their communication and by wearing a mask of progressivism – by pretending to be champions of anti-Islamophobia but in reality, consolidating the Brotherhood’s influence in French lobbying groups – Qatar’s political propaganda asserts its influence on the average French citizen and policymakers.
Qatar’s propaganda machine focuses especially on the young. AJ+, Al Jazeera’s “young, trendy and woke” branch, is particularly insidious. About two years ago, its French-language version was launched. Aimed at a younger audience, it offers very progressive-seeming content such as short videos and articles on feminist or LGBT issues, but mixed with the same Islamist-flavoured content seen on Al Jazeera, only it is less overt in AJ+. To an unaware viewer, it would be impossible to notice that this platform is owned by a fundamentalist and radical Islamic emirate. Dive in deeper into its content, and you will realize that “the whole of Western society is analyzed in terms of the “colonial” oppression inflicted on the “racialized peoples”, i.e., the non-Whites. This worldview is found in the editorial line of French AJ+, where countless news items are written with the transparent aim of instilling the idea that Islamophobia and racism are omnipresent in France. (…) It feeds an obsessive topical thread, creating a particular climate, in this case that of a racist and Islamophobic police State” (Hadrien Mathoux, 2018, Marianne, translated). Thus, Qatar has managed to broadcast its political propaganda to all of France, young and old, average citizens and elites, through neatly-designed “news” outlets, without being accused of foreign interference.
All these investments in culture, property, sports, religious sites and organizations and the media have deeply engrained Qatar’s influence in multiple spheres of the French society. Many of France’s politicians do not dare to speak up against the very harmful effects Qatar is having on the country, out of fear of cutting off such an abundant cash flow to a country heavily in debt. If Qatar were not rich from oil money, the European establishment would find it much harder to ignore that they are dealing with a radical terrorism-backing country that should not be permitted to shift a Western society’s development. At some point, leaders will realize that Qatar’s billions in investments are not worth the damages done to society as well as their loss of political freedom. Hopefully, that time will come sooner rather than later.
Jacques Chitayat is a graduate student in political science at the Université de Montréal, and a Baruch Cohen Internship Fellow at the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.