A recent episode in the diplomatic saga of Qatar was the dramatic visit of the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani a few weeks ago to the Gaza Strip. Through this strong political gesture, the Emir became the first head of state to visit the small Palestinian territory since Hamas took control in 2007. With this move the emirate gave credibility to Hamas and reinforced its position alongside the Palestinian government. But what Doha seeks above all is to weaken Iran.
The end of isolation for Hamas
Consistent with its ‘Sunni diplomacy’, Qatar does not hide its support for Islamic political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Islamist group. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal lived in Qatar in the early 2000’s, and has lived there continuously since he left Syria in early 2012. In February of this year, Doha promised $250 million to Hamas - a sum that has now increased to $400 million.
However, the funds that the emirate will invest in the Gaza Strip are not the most important step in Qatar’s increasingly friendly relationships with Palestine. The goals of Sheikh Hamad appear above all to break the isolation of Hamas by explicitly recognizing their regional authority over Gaza through an official state visit, a hitherto unprecedented move amongst the world’s leaders. Furthermore, this move could encourage Turkey to do the same; the Turks having already considered it but so far decided against.
This strong stance on the part of Qatar provides support to Hamas not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank, as the movement gains in credibility with Fatah at a time when it recently increased its political clout through the West Bank municipal elections in late October (and more recently opposed Israel militarily).
Domestically, since Khaled Meshal does not want to stand at the head of Hamas, the Emir’s visit may also be designed to facilitate in the choice of his successor. Qatar could well have a preference for Ismail Haniyeh to the detriment of Abu Marzouk, who lives in Egypt. In the context of a growing rivalry between Egypt and Qatar for the position of regional leader in the Middle East, the emirate wishes to take the lead and avert any possible reconciliation between Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in the event of a victory for Abu Marzouk.
Qatar banking on the Muslim Brotherhood to influence the region
The emirate has become aware of the unique opportunity that the Arab Spring represents in redistributing power structures in the Middle East and North Africa. However, Doha knows that this political climate will not last and is trying to gain as much political clout as possible in the region while it can. This is particularly the case as the traditional regional powers are currently in weak positions: Iraq is plagued by sectarian conflicts; Egypt is in a post-revolutionary period (though perhaps not for much longer); Iran is in crisis and within the scope of economic sanctions; and Saudi Arabia is mired in its succession struggles while western powers remain cautious.
To take action, Qatar is setting its hopes on the Muslim Brotherhood, supporting them in the Maghreb (Tunisia and Libya), the Mashreq (Egypt), and now in Palestine through Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood. The emirate has been particularly clairvoyant in politically supporting the Muslim Brotherhood before their accession to power in some states in the region, and it continues to do so in others; in Syria, as well as probably in Mali, Qatar is supporting armed Islamist movements.
The visit of the Emir of Qatar can also be considered in terms of the relations that Doha maintains with Israel, especially after the two countries cut their ties after Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip in December 2008. However, since 2008, following the global financial crisis and reconciliation with Saudi Arabia - and more so since 2011, the beginning of the Arab Spring - Qatari diplomacy has developed a strong taste for power in the region.
The ‘game’ with Iran
While discussing Hamas, it is necessary to consider the interests of Iran. While the Palestinian Authority and Israel take a dim view towards Qatar strengthening its ties with Hamas, it is certainly Iran who has the most to lose in this episode. The Islamic Republic still maintains that Hamas, like Hezbollah (especially since the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005), gives them the ability to act in the Lebanon – Palestine – Israel geographic triangle.
The visit of the Emir of Qatar in Gaza should be seen through the broader prism of Qatar’s regional policies, namely to counter Iran's foreign policy and strengthen the Sunni’s powers in the Middle East. This same policy is also employed in Syria, where Qatar supports the insurgency that aims to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, a key ally of Iran (and of the Shiite axis of Iran - Syria - Hezbollah).
Qatar saw an opening in the Gaza Strip from the moment Hamas distanced itself from Iran. Indeed, the Islamic Republic has stopped sending money to the Palestinian movement since the latter has not publicly supported the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Hamas political leaders in exile have left Syria to settle in Doha. Qatar has seen an opportunity to distance Tehran and Gaza, while strengthening the links between the Palestinian Islamist movement and the emirate.
Qatari diplomacy in full spate
Why is Qatar pursuing its traditional ‘checkbook’ diplomacy with such vigour - investing in industry, sport or culture - but additionally this time in a regional geopolitical perspective? The Emirate and Iran share the world's largest deposit of non-associated gas that lies between the waters of the two countries (Iran has already proven its ability to tussle with Qatar over this). In addition, the geographic, demographic and military power of Iran is incommensurate with that of the emirate, which suffers from the ‘syndrome of Kuwait’, fearing more than anything else invasion of its territory. The strong relationship that Qatar maintains with the United States, including the presence of the American base at Al-Udeid in Qatar - the largest outside the United States - is an insurance that allows Qatar to exceed limits of what can usually be done with Iran. Thanks to the American umbrella and the political situation in Gaza, Qatar can continue its ‘Sunni diplomacy’ and its attempt to push Tehran into isolation.