When news of the latest inter-Arab feud broke on 5 June 2017, it was not the first time that Qatar’s neighbours in the Gulf had lost patience with that stand-alone kingdom. Back in January 2014 underlying tensions, brewing for years, suddenly surfaced, and Gulf states tried to induce Qatar to sign an agreement undertaking not to support extremist groups, not to interfere in the affairs of other Gulf states, and to cooperate on regional issues.
When Qatar flatly refused to comply, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain broke diplomatic relations with their recalcitrant neighbour and in March 2014 withdrew their ambassadors. Qatar’s 33-year-old Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, had been in power for less than a year, and the pressure proved too great. In April, at a meeting in Saudi Arabia, the Qataris signed the Riyadh Agreement whose terms, though never made public, were believed to be virtually the same as those they had refused to sign a few weeks before.
Whatever the Riyadh Agreement exactly specifies, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain clearly took away a very different view of what had been agreed than the Qataris. They expected Qatar to curtail its support for extreme Islamism, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. They believed that Qatar had agreed to remove, or at least reduce, the appearance of Islamists on Al Jazeera and other Qatari media, and especially to eliminate or soften the constant Muslim Brotherhood-based criticism of Egypt’s government and its president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. They also expected Qatar to expel, or at least silence, the provocative Islamist figures that dominated its media platforms, including Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Palestinian Arab nationalist firebrand Azmi Bisha.
With the document signed, on 17 April 2014 Gulf officials declared the end of what they described as a mere misunderstanding among “brothers of the same family”.
However the Gulf nations, and indeed Egypt, were soon to find that Qatar had no intention of meeting their expectations and simply continued its support of Islamist extremists intent on undermining the stability of the region. Finally, their patience exhausted, the Gulf states and Egypt, backed by Jordan, Yemen and at least 8 other Arab states, took drastic action. The main charge levelled at Qatar in the June 2017 débacle was that it had failed to fulfil the undertakings it entered into in 2014.
“We want to see Qatar implement the promises it made a few years back with regard to its support of extremist groups, to its hostile media and interference in affairs of other countries,” Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, told reporters in Paris, adding that by maintaining its support of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar was undermining the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Egypt. “Qatar has to stop these policies so that it can contribute to stability in the Middle East.”
Hamas said it was “shocked” by Saudi Arabia’s demand that Qatar cease supporting the group. Qatar, unlike the US, the EU and a clutch of other nations, refuses to designate Hamas a terrorist organization, but refers to it as a “legitimate resistance movement.”
When, on the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Hamas refused to support Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his Shi’ite allies, Iran and Hezbollah, its officials left their Damascus headquarters and Qatar provided a new base. Khaled Mashal, Hamas leader as he then was, made his home there, as did other Hamas officials. So when in May 2017 Hamas unveiled its new policy document to the world – the document that reiterates its aim of destroying Israel, while also being prepared to envisage a sovereign Palestine temporarily established within pre-Six Day War boundaries – the venue it chose was not Gaza City, but the ballroom of the Sheraton hotel in Doha, Qatar’s capital.
Over the past few years Qatar’s ruling Al Thani regime has become a major funding source for Hamas’s fiefdom in the Gaza Strip. It has provided millions of dollars in aid and bankrolled everything from electricity to public-sector salaries. In January 2016 Qatar handed over some 1,060 housing units to Gazan families who had lost their homes during recent wars. These homes marked the completion of the first of three phases of a multi-million dollar redevelopment effort which Qatar pledged to fund in 2012. In addition to infrastructure facilities, roads and green spaces, it includes two schools, a health centre, a commercial centre, a mosque and a six-floor hospital. Just before the crisis, Doha had agreed to send yet another $100 million to Gaza.
Whatever its rationale, Israel seems to raise no public objection to Qatar pouring millions of dollars into Gaza. Back in June 2015, despite the fact that Qatar does not recognize Israel, and the two countries have no diplomatic relations, Mohammad al-Emadi, a Qatari official, travelled between Israel and Gaza to discuss reconstruction projects in the Strip.
“Life is full of contradictions and strange things,” was how Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research for Israel’s military intelligence, described Israel’s apparent acquiescence to Qatar channelling its aid to Gaza through Hamas. Odd it certainly is. For while Israel is doubtless content on humanitarian grounds to see the funding of infrastructure improvements in Gaza, it is also intent on reducing the power and influence of Hamas. The former consideration clearly outweighs the latter.
The main Gazan newspaper, Filisteen, continually asserts that the PA is in cahoots with Israel to weaken the Hamas regime. On 20 June, citing the cutting of Gaza’s electricity supplies and the ending of payments to ex-prisoners, it claimed that PA President Mahmoud Abbas had called for the Arab coalition currently operating in Yemen against the Houthis to send some of its units to “liberate” the Gaza Strip from its terrorist rulers. “Simply outrageous,” thundered Mamduh al-Ajrami, former PA minister of prisoner affairs, in the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi.
What Hamas most fears is that Abbas is allying the PA with what it calls the “Riyadh summit bloc”, and the subsequent attack on Qatar. Qatar’s support for Hamas features so high on the list of policies the Arab states find unacceptable, that the outcome of the Qatar crisis has become of existential importance to Hamas.