It is not easy to pigeon-hole Qatar, a stand-alone Middle Eastern state in more ways than one, geographically, politically, economically, influentially. That Qatar aspires to become a major player in the region and beyond may seem obvious enough, but in pursuit of this objective Qatar’s tactics sometimes puzzle, sometimes infuriate, its neighbours. But then, as the world’s wealthiest nation by a long chalk, Qatar can afford the luxury of proceeding along its own preferred path, without too much concern for what others think.
Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists — from Hamas in Gaza, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to hard-line Syrian opposition fighters — while also offering itself as a key US ally, is rooted in pragmatism: Qatar wants to protect itself and to extend its influence in the region by being friends with everybody.
“We don’t do enemies,” said Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah. “We talk to everyone.”
And talk they certainly do through the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeerah world-wide media network – a network whose independence has been questioned, but is certainly curtailed by a requirement to avoid adverse criticism of Qatar’s Emir.
So when the Emir announces – as he did on July 29, 2016 – that he intends to pay one month’s wages for thousands of public sector employees in Gaza to help “alleviate the suffering of brethren in the Strip,” world opinion is left wondering whether his stated motive is his sole one, or whether other considerations lie behind the gesture. He will be spending $31.6 million from his nation’s purse to cover the salaries of some 50,000 Hamas-hired civil servants, many of whom have not seen regular pay packages since 2013.
But why have they not? One might legitimately ask what happens to the literally billions of official development assistance dollars poured into Hamas’s coffers every year.
Qatar is politically close to Hamas. 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 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.
“There’s much more than money involved with Qatar’s offer,” said Patrick Clawson, director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It draws in many of the region’s disputes and rivalries under one roof.”
Take the oft-proposed joint Palestinian municipal elections, now scheduled for October 2016 with Hamas agreeing to participate. Qatar’s substantial investment into Gaza at this time will undoubtedly boost Hamas’s popularity with the Palestinian man-in-the-street. It will also add to the concerns of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas about the likely result of the vote.
And yet Israel has apparently raised no public objection to Qatar pouring millions of dollars into Gaza. Back in June 2015 Mohammad al-Emadi, a Qatari official, traveled between Israel and Gaza to discuss reconstruction projects in Gaza despite the fact that Qatar does not recognize Israel, and the two countries have no diplomatic relations.
“Life is full of contradictions and strange things,” was how Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research for Israel’s military intelligence, described Israel’s agreement to Qatar channelling its aid through Hamas.
Perhaps Israel believes that permitting aid from Qatar could help undercut Iran’s influence in Gaza. For Qatar’s neighbours in the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, have come to realize how much their strategic interests overlap with those of Israel when it comes to the security of the region. The increasing power and influence of Iran dismays them all. Iran has been a main source of funding to Hamas for decades.
Qatar is currently considered anti-Israel root and branch. It was not always so. In fact Qatar was the first Gulf sheikhdom to have had official relations with Israel – the two countries opened trade links in 1996 – and, as a matter of interest, when Qatar was awarded the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup it declared that, although it does not recognise Israel, it would not object to Israel competing in the tournament if it qualifies.
But now the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) component has entered the picture. On August 4, a meeting in Tunis hosted by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, a body funded by Qatar, was devoted to reviewing how BDS’s attempts to organise a global boycott against Israel could be made even more effective. This, it might be supposed, would be entirely to the delight of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, for after all the BDS movement was founded by a Palestinian – Omar Baghouti – and he still leads it.
But no. On June 10, 2016 the following statement was sprung on a startled world:
“The Palestinian BDS National Committee, which includes the widest spectrum of Palestinians worldwide, will not participate in this conference – and does not recommend any participation.”
In other words, they advocated boycotting the boycott meeting.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is the first of the reasons given, namely that the Arab Center and the conference, are sponsored by the Qatari government. “which always stood against BDS, and has normal relations with Israel.”
No justification was offered for either breath-taking pronouncement. A schism seems to have opened up within BDS.
As regards the charge often levelled against Qatar of supporting terrorist organisations, there is ample evidence that those strongholds of Wahhabist Islam, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, did sustain, both financially and logistically, the self-styled Islamic State (IS) in its early days, as well as its extremist precursors. In August 2015 US Vice-President Joe Biden spelled out what motivated Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
“They were so determined to take down Assad …they poured … thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
But when IS vowed to topple both the Qatari and the Saudi regimes, the penny dropped and both states allied themselves to the US-led coalition aimed at defeating IS.
The Emir of Qatar has insisted that his country does not fund terrorism, adding the troubling caveat that Qatar and the West might disagree over what precisely constitutes a terrorist movement. On current evidence he would include IS, but exclude Hamas – a fine distinction most of the world would not acknowledge. But then, Qatar is a stand-alone state.