Doha’s meddling in Palestinian affairs is much more about Iran than it is about Israel.
A deeply contrarian streak has taken hold in Qatar these days. Insulated by U.S. security guarantees, eager to use its burgeoning fiscal reserves, and propelled by its elites’ reformist zeal, Doha continues to exert a disproportionate influence on regional politics. Emir Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani’s latest move was a dramatic visit to the Gaza Strip, becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since Hamas wrested control of it in 2007.
Unlike some of its less imaginative Arab rivals, Qatar saw Hamas’s regional isolation as an opportunity rather than a problem. Despite its alliance with the United States, Doha has been nurturing its ties with the Palestinian Islamist group for some time: Its worst kept secret is that Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s leader, has had a house there for many years and has been increasingly seen in Doha since Hamas was forced to leave Syria in early 2012. Doha has also opened its pocketbook to Hamas, pledging $250 million in February — a gift that was increased to $400 million upon the emir’s visit.
The injection of funds, however, is not the most important aspect of Sheikh Hamad’s trip. By breaking Hamas’s regional isolation and explicitly recognizing its rule over Gaza, Doha has strengthened the militant group’s hand against its Palestinian rivals. An official from the Palestinian Authority, which is in charge of the West Bank, begrudgingly welcomed the visit while noting that “no one should deal with Gaza as a separate entity from the Palestinian territories and from the Palestinian Authority.”
Unlike the Palestinian Authority, Israel felt no need to Israel soften its criticism. An Israeli spokesman carped bitterly about the emir’s trip, saying that the emir was “throwing peace under a bus.”
The visit further highlights Israel’s loss of influence with Qatar. Relations between the two countries warmed with the opening of an Israeli trade office in Doha in 1996 (reputedly close to Meshal’s house) as the two sides looked to ship Qatari gas to Israel, with Enron acting as the intermediary. The deal failed, however, and relations ebbed and flowed until December 2008, when Qatar cut ties in protest of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Rumors that Doha was attempting to restart relations were finally put to rest with a leaked memo from Israel’s Foreign Ministry labelling Qatar as a “leading activist” against Israel, decisively cutting whatever informal relations remained.
The Iranian angle
Iran, with whom Qatar maintains cordial official relations, joins Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an unlikely triumvirate watching proceedings in Gaza with glum resignation. Tehran officials are doubtlessly looking back nostalgically to happier times only a few years back, when their proxy Hezbollah all but defeated the Zionist Entity — winning Iran no small degree of Arab support for its material support to the Lebanese militant organization. Back then, Hamas was also still ensconced in Iran’s camp, and Syria was a stable ally that appeared to be gradually increasing its influence in the Middle East.
Indeed, while Israel and the Palestinian Authority may view Qatar’s embrace of Hamas with chagrin, it is Iran that is the central loser in this drama. The emir’s visit is part of a larger Qatari policy to unseat and reorient crucial Iranian allies around the Middle East — and by extension, amputate a long-used, effective limb of Iranian foreign policy. This is a remarkably forthright policy, for Iran will not — and cannot — take it lying down.
This new policy is most evident in Syria, where Qatar is explicitly and unashamedly supporting the 19-month insurgency with money, equipment, and at the very least light weaponry — little less than a declaration of war against President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s core ally.
But Qatar’s new activism is also apparent in Gaza, where Doha has likely decided to take action precisely because of Hamas’s break from Iran. When Tehran stopped sending money to Hamas after the group failed to publically support Iran’s embattled ally in Syria, Qatar saw an opportunity to split the Palestinian group from its long-time sponsor. While its $400 million donation is earmarked for humanitarian development, not only is such support fungible, but there are doubtless other financial arrangements being made between Qatar and Hamas on this trip — further strengthening the ties between the Palestinian Islamist movement and Doha.
This move will, of course, catalyze another round of speculation that Qatar is supporting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world. That Qatar’s supports the Brotherhood is not in doubt — indeed, it hardly tries to conceal its efforts at engaging with the Islamist movement in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and now with Hamas, another Brotherhood offshoot. Yet Qatar is not nefariously trying to replace the Shia Crescent with a Brotherhood Banana, curving from Syria through Gaza, Egypt, and on to Libya and Tunisia. Doha is much more pragmatic and less Machiavellian than that: It is leveraging its relations where they exist, and looking to bolster popular, effective, moderate Muslim parties with whom it has relations.
Qatar’s vanguard role in weakening a key plank of Iranian foreign policy indicates that Doha must feel deeply secure with its relationship with Tehran, for it would hardly undertake such aggressive moves if it felt imminently threatened. Indeed, there is an obvious flashpoint between the two regional powers: Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest gas field, which has been responsible for Qatar’s recent spike in wealth. Traditionally, this has meant that Qatar treated Iran with a great deal of respect. Relations were carefully improved in the 1990s as the field was being developed, as Doha sought to avoid an escalation after numerous instances of Iran attacking and stealing equipment from unmanned Qatari gas rigs.
Today, Qatar’s relations with Iran are as pleasant as ever on the surface. However, the fact that Qatar is overturning one of the key tenets of its foreign policy by antagonizing Iran is a surprising and forthright move by the Qatari elite, which clearly does not accept conventional limits on what is and what is not possible in the Middle East.