Qatar: Attention-Starved Teen of the Middle East
Here is the genius of Qatar, the peanut-sized Persian Gulf state that provides material support to Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly some of Syria’s jihadist rebel groups, in a single image: A two-cheeked kiss, in public, between Qatar’s second-most powerful man, the prime minister (and foreign minister), Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, and Haim Saban, the Israeli-American billionaire who funds, among other things, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
The kiss took place at a Brookings dinner last week in Washington that was convened to pay homage to Al Thani for his support -- because, yes, in addition to pledging $400 million to Hamas, Qatar also supports Brookings, one of Washington’s premier research groups.
One of the biggest questions asked by people who watch the Middle East is a simple one: What, exactly, does Qatar want?
In addition to funding Hamas and providing support for Islamists across the region, Qatar also hosts the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command at the huge Al Udeid Air Base. The government of Qatar also hosts, and owns, the Al Jazeera television network, which allows it to project its often anti-American ideas around the world. (The only government that has guaranteed immunity against criticism from Al Jazeera is, unsurprisingly, Qatar’s). And as the kiss on Saban’s two cheeks suggests, Qatar sees nothing incongruous about maintaining open contacts with Israelis while funding an organization whose declared goal is killing Israelis.
Many Arab leaders think that Qatar’s leadership is motivated by three basic interests. The first is that Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (the prime minister’s boss and cousin), actually feels sympathy for Islamists. The second is that despite this sympathy, he understands that the best guarantor of his continued rule in his unhappy neighborhood is the permanent presence of the American military on his territory. The third is that Qatar will support -- out of competitiveness, spite and jealousy -- whatever Saudi Arabia, its much larger neighbor, opposes.
The ultimate explanation for Qatar’s behavior, however, may be that the country is essentially an attention-starved teenager, whose emotional insecurity causes it to insert itself into everyone’s business. That’s one reason the Qatari government maintains an intermittently open relationship with Israeli officials; it wants to play a central role in the Middle East peace process. This week, it spearheaded a drive to revive negotiations, reintroducing a version of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state and normalization of relations between Arabs and Israel.
It may seem improbable that the Qataris would even try to match Saudi Arabia, or any of their larger neighbors, in influence. Qatar is about half the size of Belize. But thanks to its immense oil wealth, the country’s per-capita gross domestic product is one of the highest in the world.
Qatar may also be the biggest exploiter of guest workers in the world. Of a population of roughly 1.9 million, almost 90 percent are migrant workers who, human-rights groups allege, are often treated with great cruelty by their employers and by the state. Qatar was recently chosen to host the 2022 World Cup, and it plans to use an army of exploited Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Nepalese to build its new stadiums.
If it sounds as if I’m describing a miserable place, I am. I went to the dinner that night embarrassed on behalf of Brookings, which, like many institutions in Washington, shouldn’t be taking money from despotic Middle Eastern regimes, yet does. And the warm-up acts were indeed cringe-worthy. I can’t write about what was said, because these introductory remarks were summarily declared off the record, but suffice to say that various government officials who should have known better ventilated on the subject of Qatar’s magnificence with more than the minimally required sycophancy.
The main event -- a conversation between HBJ, as Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani is known, and Martin Indyk, a vice president and director of foreign policy at Brookings -- was more enlightening. When his turn came, Indyk (who is a friend of mine) asked HBJ a series of direct and uncomfortable questions that prompted answers so incredible they had many of the people in the audience not on Qatar’s payroll rolling their eyes. “Whether it’s your bailing out the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, or your support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, or Hamas in Gaza,” Indyk said, “there’s the impression that you’re taking sides.”
HBJ replied: “I am happy for this question because this thing has been spread a lot in Washington and I know how it’s being spread.” When Middle Eastern countries are upset with one another, he said, “we try to make rumors against each other.” He went on to argue that Qatar -- whose government is a family-run business that allows neither dissent nor political parties -- supports whichever Arabs happen to be rising against their leaders at any given moment.
“The Tunisian people chose the Islamic government, and we should respect that,” he said, citing a country not named by Indyk. “We will respect anything being chosen by the people, not by us.” He went on, “It is the same in Egypt, everybody is talking about the Islamic Brotherhood, and Qatar is supporting them. Also, I know and you know that these rumors come from our region. Fine, we expect this.”
Indyk’s next question touched on an even more sensitive subject: Qatar’s support for antigovernment Syrian Islamists, including those with direct ties to al-Qaeda. Again, the prime minister bobbed and weaved, eventually settling on a rhetorical strategy of blaming the U.S.: “We have to do more. The United States has to do more,” he said. “But later, don’t blame us, or you blame yourself, because it will be our mistake together not to intervene.” He ended by scolding his host: “So this rumor, again, it’s between families, which are sometimes jealous. Sometimes we tease each other. Don’t go to this business, Martin.”
For a reality check, I spoke to two administration officials deeply engaged on the Syria question and on Qatar’s role in supporting the rebels. (They requested anonymity to speak freely.) They painted an unpretty picture. The officials were pleased by the role Qatar is playing in the Arab-Israeli peace process, but they were flummoxed by its support for Hamas -- which directly undermines the possibility of achieving an equitable two-state solution (Hamas being, as it is, opposed to Israel’s existence). They were also concerned that Qatar may be supporting the most radical Syrian group, the Nusra Front, which is openly affiliated with al-Qaeda.
In a meeting with the emir on April 23, President Barack Obama is said to have spoken in blunt terms about Qatar’s support for jihadists, and to have warned that Qatari backing of al-Qaeda-like groups would pose a direct challenge to the national-security interests of the U.S. The emir was said to have agreed with the president wholeheartedly on the matter.
He was also said to have suggested to the president that stories about Qatari two-timing were mere rumor.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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