Qatar Rises as Diplomatic Heavyweight
Qatar is rising in the Middle East. The small Gulf state is becoming an ever larger and more influential player, both in regional and international forums. Home to Al Jazeera News Network, the “voice” emanating from Doha is increasingly heard throughout the Middle East and the wider world. Under the current Emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar held its first municipal elections in 1999, with equal suffrage for women and men. The Emirate has also gained status as an economic leader, able to wield increasingly more influential (political) muscle.
Qatar’s diplomatic policies cross many political borders. It is one of the first of the Gulf States to establish relations with Israel; and in February, it became the “home” base of Hamas. Khaled Mashal, the leader of Hamas, who transferred his offices from Damascus, openly expressed his appreciation to Qatar for its support. According to the AP, Mashal is reported to have “declared that Palestinian fighters had ‘won the war [in the Gaza Strip] by defeating Israeli plans.'”
Qatar offered the al-Udaid Air Base to the U.S. shortly after the attacks of September 11th, 2001 and it is now home to a United States Command Center, (with the longest runway in the Persian Gulf) as well as to a substantial air wing and associated storage facilities. The location enables the US military to monitor air movements is the region, and serves as the base for B-1 bombers use to support U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Qatar enjoys positive relations with the United States, however due to its recent activities, including greater support for Islamist extremists, does this indicate that a shift in policy may be underway?
Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is the undisputed leader/ruler of Qatar and his family has ruled the Emirate since the mid 19th Century. In 1995, he ousted his father and installed his cohorts, maintained relations with the United States and enhanced relations with Israel, including the opening of a trade office in Doha. Foreign Minister Shaikh Hamad bin Jasem bin Jabr al-Thani, a relative of the emir, who serves as prime minister, has called for a rational and practical approach to politics, saying a country should “take decisions according to wise thinking, not emotional thinking.”
Recent Qatari diplomatic activity has shown many patterns. The government allowed Hamas to keep its fundraising office in the country for years, prior to the transfer of the Hamas administrative offices from Damascus and as Saudi support for Hamas decreased, Qatari financial support increased dramatically. When the US and the European Union limited their funding to Gaza, The Emirate replaced much of the funds.
During the second week of February, 2012, despite recent statements to the contrary, Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal moved his headquarters to Qatar. The LIGNET intelligence website, reported that Mashaal announced that he will “temporarily” be carrying out Hamas activities from Qatar, while “keeping its Damascus offices open.” Mashaal also announced that the terrorist organization had established a Palestinian Authority unity government deal with the rival Fatah faction allowing Mahmoud Abbas to retain his position as President. This deal was brokered in Qatar.
Diplomacy in Qatar appears to allow many viewpoints, ranging from the extremist to the more moderate. One of the first Gulf States to have formal relations with Israel, Qatar has been accused of disloyalty and “treason” by other Arab nations. In response, H.E. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister has said that “each country should seek to serve its own interests exclusively and in a rational manner free of emotions. Since mixing politics and emotions, is like mixing religion with politics, it can only cause disasters. Completely rational decisions,” he says “are often correct, since they are taken according to reality, and not based on emotions or feelings (religious or other).”
The approach has led Qatar to seek “its own interests as a state and to serve its people and their well-being… Qatar is not supposed or required to support anyone else’s ideas against others, because political relations are based on numbers and facts, and not on whims or animosities. And it’s not the right of anyone who isn’t from Qatar to criticize how that country runs its own foreign policies.”
Noting the benefits of a relationship with Israel, the Foreign Minister says “without any contact, there will be no understanding or affinity.” The FM suggests that “A lot of other Arab states must learn from Qatar, on how to put the interests of the country and the state first.” He continues, suggesting that “they all should stop funding terrorism and focus on building their own countries, and stop teaching kids at school the culture of hate.” Decisions should be “according to wise thinking, not to emotional thinking.”
Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani expressed early support for the Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid in 1991. The relationship warmed, and five years later, in 1996, Shimon Peres made his first visit to Doha to officially inaugurate the Israel Trade Office. Qatar became the first Gulf State to grant recognition – albeit de facto – to the State of Israel and Israel was subsequently invited to participate in the MENA Economic Conference in Doha in 1997.
Although Ehud Barak’s request for an official visit in 2000 was rejected, Sheikh Hamad did meet with him at the UN Millennium Summit in September of that year. However, prior to the Doha Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in November 2000, Qatar, criticized for its continued relationship with Israel by a multitude of Arab States, announced the closure of the Israeli office in Doha.
As the Israeli Palestinian peace process languished, the Qatari government distanced itself from its erstwhile trade partner. However, unofficial co-operation did continue. Shimon Peres, current President and former Prime Minister of Israel was welcomed to the Georgetown University Campus in Qatar, in March 2007. In January 2008, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with former Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Khalifa al-Thani at the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland, and later that year,(July, 2008) H.R.H. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir, met publicly with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Paris.
The relationship soured following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s December, 2008, attack on Gaza, when Qatar severed its ties with Israel. The Trade Office was closed and all Israeli representatives were expelled. Adding yet another tile to the mosaic, once the international furor quieted, it was Qatar that attempted to institute diplomatic ties in 2009 and 2010, but were refuted by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Qatar has evolved into a credible regional peace broker, helping to create the power sharing agreement now in place in Lebanon. Sources claim that Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani recently had a secret meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in London. Israel remains a valuable potential trading partner and despite its recent offshore gas discoveries, delivery is still several years away. In the interim, Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) sales to Israel have potential significant value to both countries, especially in light of the potential for interruptions in the flow of gas through Egyptian pipelines. (In 2008, during Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni’s visit to Qatar to attend a conference, she met the Emir, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Oil and Gas.)
It is the inherent, determined political independence that gives Qatar much of its political clout. Qatar is committed to non-commitment selecting its partners from across the political spectrum and choosing to engage in diplomatic and economic associations of benefit to Qatar.
Several questions concerning political and societal issues have been posed to the Ambassador’s office of the Qatari Embassy in Washington. When questions are answered, they will be reported.