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The Gulf state needs to re-evaluate its relationship with Hamas if it wants to preserve its influence as a regional negotiator



Sebastian Sons,

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Ishtayeh attends the 21st Doha Forum, held under the theme of Building Shared Futures, in Doha, Qatar on December 10, 2023
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Ishtayeh attends the 21st Doha Forum, held under the theme of Building Shared Futures, in Doha, Qatar on December 10, 2023, Photo: IMAGO / APAimages

The current massive escalation of violence and human rights violations in West Asia has once again thrown Qatar into the international spotlight.

Sebastian Sons holds a PhD in Islamic Studies and works at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient, focusing on the Arab Gulf monarchies.

Since at least 2012, the tiny emirate has had close connections to Hamas; Ismail Haniyeh, leader of Hamas’s political bureau, has lived in its capital city, Doha, since 2017. As early as 2006, Qatar was mediating — albeit unsuccessfully — between Hamas and Fatah, and Doha again served as mediator in conflicts in the Middle East in 2009 and 2014. Qatar was thus able to use its networks to present itself as an efficient mediator for the release of some of the hostages abducted by Hamas in October 2023.

To this end, Qatar has hosted regular negotiation rounds in Doha whose attendees include David Barnea, director of Mossad, Israel’s secret service, as well as by his US counterpart, CIA director William Burns. Many representatives of the international community, such as US president Joe Biden and German foreign affairs minister Annalena Baerbock, have thanked Qatar for its constructive involvement in the negotiations between Hamas and Israel.

Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, Qatar has continued to advocate for a diplomatic solution and to call for a two-state solution. “The big picture, including urging the international community to demand that Israel agree to a time-bound and irreversible path to a two-state solution, cannot be ignored”, underscored Qatari prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al-Thani.

Qatar’s Indispensable Networks

No other regional player has been more successful in recent years at making itself irreplaceable to the international community for its channels of communication to groups like Hamas and the Taliban. These networks are an integral part of Qatar’s strategy of maintaining communication channels to “pariahs” like Hamas, with whom other international political players refuse to negotiate directly, in order to find solutions. In recent decades, Qatar has perfected its act as mediator, go-between, and platform and has achieved a good reputation as a crisis manager through “hyperactive diplomacy”.

This was evident, for example, in the negotiations between the United States and the Taliban that took place in Doha in 2020. After the US and other allies withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, Qatar made it possible for 58,000 refugees to evacuate the country after the Taliban takeover, and also provided necessary support to the country after evacuations. The Taliban already had a liaison office in Doha, opened in 2012.

Despite its small demographic size, Qatar thus sees itself as an influential ‘Middle Power’ in international politics, one with growing self-awareness and independence in a multipolar world.

In other conflicts, such as in Lebanon in 2008 and between Sudan and Eritrea, Qatar has negotiated diplomatic rapprochement, cultivating the image of an honest broker. In August 2022, a peace accord was negotiated, with Qatar’s active support, between the transitional military council and 40 opposition parties in Chad.

As for Israel, Qatar’s policy in recent years has been to officially reject the possibility of normalizing relations, while at the same time cooperating on an informal, pragmatic basis. In 1996, Israel even opened a trade mission in Qatar, in a first step on the path to a more conciliatory policy toward Israel in the Gulf states. Subsequently, however, Qatari-Israeli relations cooled, leading to the office’s being shut down after Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip began in 2007. Doha remained a somewhat sceptical observer during the normalization agreement between Israel, on the one hand, and the United Arab Emirates (UAD) and Bahrain on the other in 2020.

Independence and Protection through Relations with All Parties

Despite its small demographic size, Qatar thus sees itself as an influential “Middle Power” in international politics, one with growing self-awareness and independence in a multipolar world. As a player with strong political and sometimes economic ties to all parties — Iran and the US, Hamas and the Taliban, China and Europe — it attempts to stave off external threats in a world full of crises, avoiding “mono-reliance” on a few partners. This “policy of pragmatic reserve” is customarily seen as a protective shield in a fragile region in which Qatar is constantly threatened by regional rivals.

This was especially apparent in the “Gulf Crisis” from 2017 to 2021, when the four blockading countries — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt — attempted to isolate Qatar, which had gained too much power and influence over the course of the Arab Spring of 2010-11. Qatar was able to free itself from this precarious situation without giving up its historic ties to the US. The country made deals with Turkey to secure its food supply, while 5,000 Turkish soldiers were stationed in Qatar. Iran opened its airspace to Qatari planes. International partners in Europe and the US saw the blockade as an adventure that would damage business, and stuck by their relations with Qatar.

As early as 2003, the then emir Hamad was able to convince the US government to move its most important army base from Saudi Arabia to Qatar’s Al Udeid, a triumph of prestige for the tiny country. In 2022, Qatar was nominated by the US as a Major Non-NATO Ally. Furthermore, Qatar supported the US with more than 8 billion US dollars for military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria between 2002 and 2019.

At the same time, despite its pro-Western ties, Qatar maintained pragmatic relations with Iran, which could be construed as a further expression of Qatar’s policy of equilibrium. In any case, the two countries share a gas field. Qatar also has close economic ties to China, as well as to other Asian countries. The six most important Asian buyer countries for Qatari goods are as follows: Japan (18.6%), South Korea (15.6%), China (12.4%), India (12.2%), Singapore (7.6%), Thailand (3.9%). Against this backdrop, involvement in the war in Gaza is a continuation of Qatar’s traditional trajectory of international diplomacy.

Controversial Financial Aid to Gaza

Yet this approach also entails risks. It is estimated that Qatar has made payments of about 2 billion US dollars since 2007 in financial support and 30 million per year for the payment of salaries in Gaza, the bulk of which have gone to Hamas. In Israel and other countries, Qatar has therefore been criticized for financing terrorism. Qatari representatives deny any explicit support for Hamas, however, and stress that the country’s involvement in Gaza has always been coordinated with the US and overseen by Israel.

Qatar has poured further humanitarian aid into Gaza since the start of the war, for example in agreement with France. In doing so, the Qatari leadership intends not only to show solidarity with the Palestinian victims of the war, but also to signal to the international community that it continues to be a reliable partner. Qatari aid organizations in particular have regularly implemented projects in recent years, especially in Gaza. Among these are Qatar Charity and the philanthropic charity Education Above All (EAA), headed by Sheikha Moza Al-Missned, mother of the current emir.

While Qatar regards Hamas as a necessary evil and possibly sees the group as a political actor in a post-war scenario, the UAE stringently rejects such a viewpoint.

Although Qatar Charity in particular has faced repeated accusations of supporting Islamist groups, this has not prevented the UN and other national aid organizations from working together. EEA champions young people in Gaza, especially with its Al Fakhoora programme, founded in 2009, offering online trainings and various types of scholarships, and cooperates with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

In 2022, Qatar supported UNRWA with a total of 10.5 million US dollars, putting the country in twentieth place on the list of international supporters. Among other Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia ranked third, with 27 million dollars, and Kuwait nineteenth, with 12 million. In March, Qatar pledged 25 million dollars in assistance to UNRWA.

Qatar’s Proximity to Hamas

Yet Qatar has still faced international criticism for its proximity to Hamas. There have been accusations, for example, that the leadership around Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani could have known in advance about Hamas’s attack plans. This, too, is vehemently denied by Qatari officials.

Since the Arab Spring of 2010–11, Qatar has continued to support Islamist groups like the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and Hamas. Although erstwhile ideological proximity has given way to a prosaic cost-benefit analysis, in informal conversations, some observers still fear that Qatar has a hidden agenda of promoting Islamism under the guise of humanitarian assistance.

While Qatar regards Hamas as a necessary evil, even after the attacks of 7 October, and possibly sees the group as a political actor in a post-war scenario, the UAE stringently rejects such a viewpoint. An at-times-obsessive worry about the destabilizing influence of Islamist groups in West Asia has prevailed in Abu Dhabi for many years. Qatar’s approach is therefore viewed with a certain scepticism.

The Limits of Crisis Diplomacy

Qatar must therefore consider how high the price may be for its policy of talking to everyone; this criticism increases pressure on the leadership in Doha to scrutinize its ties to Hamas. In any case, in Qatar as in other Gulf states, there is doubt as to whether Israel will be able to completely destroy Hamas. Even so, it is a question of the Gulf states’ taking a unified stance. So far, Qatar has acted as a helper in times of need, but has not had much success in influencing the development of long-term solutions, despite Doha’s being in regular talks with the US, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE to mitigate the catastrophic situation for Gaza’s civilian population and to bring about de-escalation.

Qatar’s greatest strength (and sometimes weakness) in this regard is its unique characteristic of being able to act with flexibility in emergency situations and to achieve concrete goals such as the freeing of hostages by perfecting shuttle diplomacy in crisis situations.

Qatar can support such an approach through its own networks, but it cannot dominate the process.

However, this give-and-take approach runs into limits when it comes to long-term solutions. The long term will require a regional approach, one which must be developed and moderated especially by heavyweight Saudi Arabia. There have already been first steps towards a concerted Gulf approach: in March, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain in addition to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, announced a mutual vision for regional security. This vision explicitly lays out the finding of a just resolution to the conflict in the Middle East, realization of a two-state solution, and founding of a Palestinian state. This demand is based on the Arab Peace Initiative spearheaded by Saudi Arabia in 2002; this initiative demonstrates the kingdom’s influence and policy-making power when it comes to consensus-building in the Gulf.

Qatar can support such an approach through its own networks, but it cannot dominate the process. The country could instead serve as a platform for future negotiations, cementing its status as a neutral arbiter, similar to Switzerland. Qatar will therefore be keen to preserve its position as a broker and networker when the war ends, in order to consolidate its own credentials and influence on foreign policy.

Translated by Anna Dinwoodie and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.