One of the lesser noted aspects of the weeklong truce between Israel and Hamas, which collapsed at the beginning of this month, was the country that made it possible: not the US, nor the EU, but Qatar. Even though the ceasefire faltered and the Israeli military has resumed its devastating attack on Gaza, the negotiations helped cement Qatar’s role as a global mediator. But why Qatar – and what do its rulers really want?
A tiny emirate in the Persian Gulf that is rich in natural gas, Qatar seems an unlikely centre for high-stakes geopolitical negotiations. Yet the country’s leaders have built a muscular foreign policy based on keeping channels open between enemies: in recent years, Qatar has hosted peace negotiations between the US and Taliban leaders, and indirect talks that led to a prisoner exchange between Iran and Washington. Just this week, it was reported that Qatar had distributed billions of dollars in aid to people in Gaza over the past decade, with the tacit approval of the Israeli government.
The Israel-Hamas negotiations are the most high stakes undertaken by Qatar’s leaders, but they have also exposed Qatar to new potential dangers. Since Hamas’s brutal attacks on 7 October, Republicans and other rightwing politicians in the US and Israel have stepped up their attacks on Qatar for hosting the group’s leadership in the capital city, Doha, framing the issue as an example of the emirate supporting terrorism. Mike Lee, a Republican US senator from Utah, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that “Qatar has blood on its hands” and demanded that Joe Biden’s administration force the Qataris to “arrest Hamas leaders and seize their assets”.
Qatari officials insist that they decided to host Hamas’s political leaders and open an office for them in Doha in 2012 only after the Obama administration asked Qatar to establish an indirect channel that would allow Washington to communicate with Hamas. “The presence of the Hamas office shouldn’t be confused with endorsement,” Qatar’s ambassador to the US wrote in an opinion essay in the Wall Street Journal in October.
The threats don’t stop in Washington. Even as Israeli negotiators were in Doha trying to hammer out further swaps to extend the truce with Hamas, other Israeli officials were threatening Qatar. One senior foreign ministry official told Israeli Army Radio that Israel would “settle accounts” with the emirate once the war in Gaza was over. As if to reinforce that threat, Israeli airstrikes destroyed a Qatari-funded housing complex in Gaza on 2 December, as Israeli negotiators were leaving Doha the day after the truce collapsed. The Biden administration is also succumbing to domestic US pressure, signalling that it plans to revisit the future of Hamas’s presence in Qatar once the hostage crisis is resolved.
But it would be a mistake to force Hamas leaders out of Qatar: they would probably go to Iran, Lebanon or Syria – and Israel, the US and Europe would have a harder time negotiating with them indirectly. The Hamas leaders who settled in Qatar in 2012, including Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’s political bureau at the time, and his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, had been forced out of Damascus after Hamas refused to wholeheartedly support Bashar al-Assad’s regime early in the Syrian war.
So if hosting Hamas is such a double-edged sword, why does Qatar persist? Qatar’s ruling family, and especially the 43-year-old emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, have tried to position the tiny emirate as a force in global geopolitics as both a matter of prestige and a way to survive in the midst of powerful neighbours.
Since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq unleashed regional turmoil, the ruling family has sought to pursue an independent foreign policy, using its enormous natural gas wealth to increase its influence. That has set the country on a collision course with two powerful neighbours and fellow Sunni Arab monarchies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis, in particular, were disdainful of their tiny neighbour’s attempt to set its own foreign policy and not follow Saudi Arabia’s lead.
When the US decided to move its military operations out of Saudi Arabia before the invasion of Iraq, Qatar offered use of its Al-Udeid air base outside Doha. Since then, Qatar has invested $8bn in the base, which has grown into the largest US military installation in the Middle East, housing 8,000 troops and the hub for drone strikes across the region.
The breaking point between Qatar and its powerful neighbours came after the Arab uprisings of 2011, when popular protests forced out dictators across the region, and leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE worried about internal revolts threatening their rule. The Saudis were enraged by Qatar’s support for the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, and especially Egypt, where Qatar became a primary backer of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi and UAE leaders saw Qatar throwing its lot in with Islamist groups who they viewed as the greatest threat to their monarchical rule in decades.
Tension between these US allies simmered until June 2017, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with Bahrain and Egypt, cut diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar. With support from Donald Trump and his administration, the four countries also imposed a land, sea, and air blockade, accusing Qatar of financing terrorism by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and undermining Sunni Arab efforts to isolate Iran. The crisis upended trade across the Persian Gulf, and disrupted the lives of thousands of people.
But Qatar survived the blockade, partly by becoming more dependent on Iran, Turkey and other regional powers opposed to the Saudi-UAE alliance. Qatar also doubled down on its regional outreach as a mediator. Saudi Arabia finally agreed to lift the blockade in January 2021, but there are still tensions over Doha’s support for Hamas and other Islamist groups, as well as the Qatar-based Al Jazeera’s coverage of its neighbours.
While Biden has been more supportive toward Qatar than Trump, he might well insist that the Qataris expel Hamas in the coming months, even if that ultimately hampers diplomacy and longer-term US interests. It wouldn’t be the first time. In September, Doha played a key role in negotiating a prisoner swap between the US and Iran, in exchange for unblocking $6bn in frozen Iranian oil funds. But after an uproar in Congress following the 7 October attacks by Hamas, the Biden administration pressured Qatar to suspend the agreement with Iran. That decision infuriated Tehran and weakened Qatar’s reputation as a reliable broker.
Qatar is basking in the international attention it won by negotiating a complex deal between Israel and Hamas. But that attention could quickly turn into a political crisis if US and Israeli officials once again shift international focus on Hamas’s presence in Qatar – and turn the emirate’s effective diplomacy into a liability.
Source : TheGuardian