Oil-rich gulf state Qatar has a vested interest in the outcome of the north Mali crisis, according to various reports that have been picked up by French MPs, amid suspicion that Doha may be siding with the rebels to extend its regional influence.
Since Islamist groups exploited a military coup in the Malian capital of Bamako in early 2012 to take control of the entire north of the country, accusations of Qatari involvement in a crisis that has seen France deploy troops have been growing.
Last week two French politicians explicitly accused Qatar of giving material support to separatists and Islamists in north Mali, adding fuel to speculation that the Emirate is playing a behind-the-scenes role in spreading Islamic fundamentalism in Africa.
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Communist Party Senator Michelle Demessine both said that that Qatar had questions to answer.
“If Qatar is objecting to France’s engagement in Mali it’s because intervention risks destroying Doha’s most fundamentalist allies,” Le Pen said in a statement on her party website, in response to a call by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani for dialogue with the Islamists.
‘Cash from Doha’
The first accusations of Qatari involvement with Tuareg separatists and Islamist groups came in a June 2012 article in respected French weekly the Canard Enchainé.
In a piece title “Our friend Qatar is financing Mali’s Islamists”, the newspaper alleged that the oil-rich Gulf state was financing the separatists.
It quoted an unnamed source in French military intelligence saying: “The MNLA [secular Tuareg separatists], al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine and MUJAO [movement for unity and Jihad in West Africa] have all received cash from Doha.”
A month later Sadou Diallo, the mayor of the north Malian city of Gao [which had fallen to the Islamists] told RTL radio: “The French government knows perfectly well who is supporting these terrorists. Qatar, for example, continues to send so-called aid and food every day to the airports of Gao and Timbuktu.”
The presence of Qatari NGOs in north Mali is no secret. Last summer, in the wake of the separatist takeover, the Qatari Red Crescent was the only humanitarian organisation granted access to the vast territory.
One member of the Qatari humanitarian team told AFP at the end of June that they had simply “come to Gao to evaluate the humanitarian needs of the region in terms of water and electricity access.”
Regional geopolitical expert Mehdi Lazar, who specialises on Qatar, wrote in French weekly news magazine L’Express in December that Doha’s relationship with predominantly Muslim north Mali was deeply entrenched.
“Qatar has an established a network of institutions it funds in Mali, including madrassas, schools and charities that it has been funding from the 1980s,” he wrote, adding that Qatar would be expecting a return on this investment.
“Mali has huge oil and gas potential and it needs help developing its infrastructure,” he said. “Qatar is well placed to help, and could also, on the back of good relations with an Islamist-ruled north Mali, exploit rich gold and uranium deposits in the country.”
Qatar’s foreign policy is also motivated by religion, wrote Lazar, and success in Mali would “greatly increase the Emirate’s influence in West Africa and the Sahel region”.
“If the Qatari influence in the current situation in Mali turns out to be real, it must be seen in the context of two branches of a global competition,” he wrote. “Firstly, competition with Saudi Arabia to be the centre of Sunni Islam; secondly, in terms of competition between the Sunni and Shiite branches of the Muslim faith.
“It would be an extension of the effort Qatar is already making in Egypt, Libya and in Tunisia.”
Lazar does not believe, however, that Qatar will get directly involved in the conflict unfolding in Mali, however, and that rather than getting its hands dirty, Doha will try to position itself as mediator in future negotiations between the Malian government, the various rebel groups in the north of the country, Algeria and France.