Gaza War Reinforcing Qatar’s Gulf Clout
Unlikely outcast shakes off boycott to become powerful mediator
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Qatar today is at the center of Israel’s war on Gaza, helping mediate the conflict and negotiate the release of Israeli citizens – and some foreign nationals – that Hamas captured on October 7 — a vivid contrast to 2017 when the kingdom was declared a Gulf outcast as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt pulled their ambassadors out of the tiny Gulf state and started a boycott.
A tiny sultanate with only about 350,000 Qatari citizens and 2.5 million expatriate workers, the kingdom has thus rehabilitated itself to become a locus of attention and influence in the Gulf. Qatar has also successfully mediated between Iran and the US whereby Tehran released US prisoners and Washington unfroze Iran’s US$6 billion before blocks were put in the way as the result of the October conflagration. In 2020, Qatar mediated US talks with the Taliban, leading to the Doha Pact and the subsequent US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the ‘war on terror’ in August 2020, showing how Qatar has been able to not only defeat the impact of the boycott but also reinforce its position at the regional and global levels.
Whereas the UAE’s position vis-à-vis Israel had already changed since the 2020 Abraham Accords and Saudi Arabia was close to signing when Hamas began its attacks on October 7, Qatar was the one state that not only was not among the possible countries that would enter the accords but was – and still is – one country that has been hosting Hamas since at least 2012.
Qatar established its trade ties with Israel in 1996, the first Gulf state to do so, before permanently severed them in 2009 in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, the 2008 Gaza War. In June 2021, Qatari reiterated that a full “normalization” cannot happen with Israel unless the Palestinian issues are first resolved.
Yet, Qatari elites are able to communicate with both Hamas and Israel because, under current circumstances, it is the only country that has stable – and unique – ties with the West, especially the US. Because of the strength of these ties, Israel is also willing to talk via, Qatar. It is important because under its scrub desert soil lie deposits that make it one of the largest suppliers of gas to Europe since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in February 2021. In 2022 and 2023, Qatar signed three mega contracts with France, Italy, and the Netherlands to supply Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) for decades to come.
Even though Qatar is now competing in Europe’s energy market with the US, the US still has its largest military base in Qatar. Hosting some 11,000 US military personnel, this base has been frequently used by Washington to hit targets in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It houses the forward headquarters of the US Air Force Central Command.
The fact that Qatar, unlike Saudi Arabia, has very stable ties with Washington strengthens its credentials vis-à-vis Israel as a mediator. The capital Doha hosts Al-Jazeera, the most dependable television news organization in the Middle East, staffed largely by western professionals, which has a precarious but continuing relationship with the royalty.
Saudi Arabia’s ties with the US have declined steeply since the October 2, 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi allegedly on orders of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, leading Biden to profess in his election campaign to turn the Kingdom into a pariah state. These ties have not recovered even though Biden visited Saudi Arabia to convince MBS, as the prince is known, to increase its oil production, help bring prices down, and subsequently hurt the Russian economy by breaking out of the “OPEC+” deal. Saudi Arabi has repeatedly refused to entertain these requests.
But Qatar’s mediation between Hamas and Israel is also tied to the internal political dynamics of Palestine itself. Saudi Arabia recently endorsed the Palestinian Authority’s position against Hamas when Riyadh sent its first ever (non-resident) ambassador, who presented his credentials to Mahmood Abbas, based in the West Bank. This was the culmination of a previous (2019) Saudi campaign against Hamas when Saudi Arabia arrested its supporters. At the same time, Saudi Arabia was also pushing (2018) Abbas to accept the ‘peace deal’ – the so-called “deal of the century” – which was being offered by the US. But Abbas was unable to do that – not only because that deal did not address the fundamental issue of conflict resolution but also because Hamas opposed the deal vehemently.
Qatar’s support for Hamas – which includes millions of dollars every month for the Gaza strip – is now further undermining Saudi interests and marginalizing its role in Palestine. In addition to this, the fact that Hamas has been able to damage Israel – the US Defense Secretary recently said that Israel was headed to a “strategic defeat” – in a way that neither Riyadh nor Washington/Jerusalem had expected has made the imperative of eliminating Hamas synonymous, for Israel and its allies, with resolving the Palestinian question now. For Qatar, it means an even more deep and intense role in the conflict – and used to reinforce its regional and global influence.
Therefore, the more Israel ruthlessly kills Palestinians, the more it renews Hamas. For Qatar, this renewal creates fresh diplomatic opportunities to push for resolving the Palestinian question. For the rest of the Gulf region (excluding Iran), Hamas’s renewal is a bad scenario. First, it complicates the possibility of normalization with Israel. Second, if Hamas becomes stronger post-conflict, it might inflate other groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, in the Middle East. Qatar’s support for these groups was one key reason why Saudi Arabia and the UAE had boycotted Qatar in 2017.
It matters for Qatar because it allows it to reinvent its role as a key mediator. Qatari Emir believes that mediation is a key cornerstone of Qatar’s foreign policy. Why? Because Qatar being a tiny state surrounded by larger and powerful states, such as Saudi Arabia and its allies (Bahrain and the UAE), Qatar uses its ‘mediation skills’ to reinvent and reproduce its relevance to the US and Europe.
To continue playing a mediatory role is therefore central to Qatar’s overall security strategy, a strategy that other Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, do not actively follow. It is because of this strategy of reinventing its strategic relevance to the US that Washington declared Qatar a non-NATO ally in 2022 – a status that is now paying the US back in terms of helping Washington manage the crisis that, without Qatar, could have blown out of the current scale very easily.