Qatar Shifts Foreign Policy After Supporting Revolts

Qatar, which backed rebels in Libya and Syria and supported an Islamist government in Egypt, is now mediating between Israel and Hamas to end the Gaza conflict.

Its role may signal a foreign policy shift as Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani grapples with controversy over his country’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup. Seeking an agreement in Gaza, where more than 1,900 Palestinians and 67 Israelis have died, returns Qatar to its historically neutral role in conflicts from Darfur to Lebanon.

Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah this month joined Turkey in helping U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry negotiate a cease-fire between Hamas, the Palestinian group that governs the Gaza Strip, and Israel. With that truce extended yesterday, Qatar is using its links to Hamas to be a crucial go-between in talks over a longer term accord, said Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at King’s College London in Qatar.

“Hamas has established an intimate relationship with Qatar,” Krieg said in an e-mail. “Qatar remains the informal channel of communication between the Hamas leadership and the U.S. and Israel.”

The world’s richest country per capita has used wealth from the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves to buy stakes in Barclays Plc, Volkswagen AG and purchase London’s Harrods department store. Its current mediation comes as the country embarks on a $200 billion domestic spending spree on roads, stadiums, a rail network and a new city. Two years ago it announced plans to spend $400 million on projects in Gaza.

World Cup

A panel set up by FIFA, soccer’s governing body, is looking into alleged corruption in Qatar’s selection to host the world’s most-watched sporting event. The country has also come under scrutiny for its treatment of migrant workers, who will build the infrastructure for the soccer tournament. Workers from other countries suffer “widespread and routine abuse,” Amnesty International said in a report last November.

Under former Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar supported many of the revolts that broke out in the Arab world in 2011, sending war planes to fight the forces of Libya’s late leader, Muammar Qaddafi, and backing the Syrian opposition in its battle against President Bashar Al-Assad.

Those efforts, which continued under Sheikh Tamim after he took over from his father in 2013, triggered backlashes. The emirate’s flag was burned last year by protesters in Benghazi, Libya. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pulled their ambassadors to protest Qatar’s backing of Mohamed Mursi, the former Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt. Relations with Egypt deteriorated after the military overthrew Mursi last year.

Gaza Conflicts

In past flare-ups in Gaza in 2009 and 2012, it was Egypt’s government that played the primary mediator role. That role has diminished since Egypt’s Islamist-led government was deposed last year by the military and replaced by one that’s hostile to Islamist political movements.

“With Egypt gone, and Hezbollah and Iran having difficulty to deliver support, Qatar is the only patron it can trust,” Krieg said. Hamas “is in no position to choose its protectors or patrons.”

In the current Gaza war, Qatar is trying to “facilitate communication between the United States, the United Nations, our Arab neighbors, Israel and Hamas as the various parties struggle to find a peaceful solution to the violence in Gaza,” Qatari Foreign Minister al-Attiyah said in an Aug. 10 opinion piece published on CNN’s website.

Hosting Mashaal

Qatar allows Khaled Mashaal, leader of Hamas, to live on the peninsula. The U.S. and Israel regard Hamas as a terrorist organization and don’t talk directly with the group. Arab states, including Egypt, have expressed distrust of a group tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egyptian authorities have banned.

“Qatar has taken advantage of the political vacuum in Mideast peacemaking to take an important and much-needed role,” Jim Krane, a Gulf and energy research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said in an Aug. 5 e-mail. “There are plenty of folks clamoring for the parties to stop fighting, but few willing to mediate.”

Wide gaps remain between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in reaching a long-term resolution to the conflict, according to an Israeli official who wasn’t authorized to comment on the record. Negotiators agreed to extend the truce for five days shortly before the midnight expiration. Israel says it wants Gaza disarmed while Hamas is pressing to end a blockade that Israel imposed in 2006, citing security reasons.

Militant groups in Gaza face a harsh response if rocket fire resumes, Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz told reporters in Jerusalem yesterday.

Biggest Airbase

Qatar has built ties with countries and groups that are often bitter enemies, hosting the largest U.S. airbase in the region while maintaining close links to Iran. Representatives of Afghanistan’s Taliban are based in Qatar, which helped the country arrange the May 31 freeing of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban prisoners.

The country’s ties to Hamas have grown in the past two years. It provided a home for Mashaal after he pulled out of Syria in 2012 amid escalating violence. Then-Emir Sheikh Hamad visited Gaza in 2012, becoming the first head of state to do so since Hamas’ violent takeover of the enclave in 2007.

Qatar also hosted a meeting between Hamas’s Mashaal and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Doha on July 21 to discuss solutions to the crisis. Kerry has spoken with Qatar’s foreign minister on multiple occasions, thanking him and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for an “enormous amount of work” in bringing about the temporary cease-fire.

Hamas’ Qatar office didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment on its relations with Qatar. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to an e-mail.

Angering Israel

Qatar’s ties to Hamas have angered Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Qatar on Aug. 3 of financing Hamas while failing to put pressure on the group.

“Although Qatar got lots of criticism in public from Israel, I judge that it has strengthened its value to the Obama administration, given its need for channels to Hamas,” Ambassador David Mack, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and currently a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said in an Aug. 6 e-mail.

Qatar used to be one of the few Arab states to maintain commercial and diplomatic links with Israel. Former Emir Sheikh Hamad met with then-Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres in Doha in 2007 and with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni a year later. Qatar hosted an Israeli trade office until the 2009 Gaza war, when Qatar expelled the mission.

“We feel we have been on the right side of history,” Foreign Minister al-Attiyah said in his opinion piece. “History will judge our actions.”

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