The Inscrutable Qatar
By Rafael Hoffman
Qatar hosts Hamas’ political wing and largely bankrolls the group’s governance of Gaza. The terror organization’s supreme leader, Ismail Haniyeh, and top lieutenant, Khaled Mashaal, both live and work in its capital city, Doha.
The tiny and phenomenally wealthy Gulf state is also the home base and sponsor of the Al-Jazeera media network, well known for its virulently anti-Israel and anti-American rhetoric, at times directly inciting violence against both.
Shortly after Israel commenced strikes against Hamas in response to its massacre, Qatar’s head of state, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, condemned them in an address to the nation’s governance council.
“It is neither tenable to stay tight-lipped about the unprecedented barbaric bombing of the civilians in Gaza Strip,” said the Emir. “We are saying enough is enough. It is untenable for Israel to be given an unconditional green light and free license to kill, nor is it tenable to continue ignoring the reality of occupation, siege and settlement.”
Yet at the same time, Qatar is playing a leading role in efforts by the United States and Israel to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas — and received wide praise for its work.
“Qatar is a longtime partner of ours who is responding to our request, because I think they believe that innocent civilians ought to be freed,” said State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller at a recent press conference.
Israel has been equally effusive in praise of Qatar’s positive contributions.
“I’m pleased to say that Qatar is becoming an essential party and stakeholder in the facilitation of humanitarian solutions,” wrote National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi in a social media post.
Perhaps the Qatar paradox was best illustrated by the fact that a day after Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Doha en route from Israel, the nation received an official visit from Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian.
The contradictions run deep. Qatar hosts the U.S. military’s forward Central Command (CENTCOM) post at its large Al-Udeid Air Base and in 2022, President Joseph Biden designated the nation as a “major non-NATO ally.”
With increasing international pressure against Hamas, calls are growing to look Qatar in the eye and ask whose side it is on.
Qatar is a small nation across the Persian Gulf from Iran, practicing a form of Wahabi Islam similar to that of Saudi Arabia, which it borders. Its total population is around 2.8 million, yet its oil reserves and natural gas field have made it the fourth richest nation in the world by per capita GDP.
The nation has been ruled by the Al Thani family since the 19th century, when they gained power through a series of deals with Great Britain, which guaranteed Qatar’s security for over a century, but never ruled it. By the late 1960s, Britain no longer had an interest in protecting waterways to India and began disengaging from the region, formally ending its military presence in Qatar in 1971.
In the two decades that followed, Qatar increased its wealth and global influence. By the 1990s, its leaders began to look for a new protector.
“When Iraq invaded Kuwait, that indicated a level of danger for small Gulf States under threat from larger countries like Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — that’s when Qatar started thinking about developing working ties with different types of groups,” said Kristain Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University’s Baker Institute.
Over the decade following the first Iraq War, Qatar’s ties to the U.S. increased. After the 9/11 attacks, they multiplied quickly. America had a sudden need to find a base from which to launch its attacks against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, which hosted operations against Iraq in 1990-1, was not eager to play that role again as al-Qaida listed its hosting of “infidel” troops as a reason for its terror.
“After 9/11, America needed a place for CENTCOM’s forward base very quickly, and Qatar said, ‘Come on in.’ They’ve continued to milk that relationship while handing out money to all bad actors in the Middle East,” said Richard Goldberg, senior advisor at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Not only did Qatar invite the U.S. to al Udeid, it largely financed its expansion and continues to cover most maintenance, while allowing America’s military to operate there independently. For over two decades, the Pentagon has come to regard the location as essential to its operations in the region.
The normative explanation is that this extremely wealthy country is happy to pay the price of hospitality to the U.S. military in exchange for the security umbrella it offers. Some see more nefarious motivations.
“After the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon happily accepted Qatar’s offer, not understanding that Qatar viewed American use of the base as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for its own behavior,” said Michael Rubin, senior fellow and Middle East affairs expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
The U.S.-Qatar defense relationship goes beyond al Udeid. In 2013, the year Sheikh Tamim replaced his father on the throne, the two nations signed a 10-year defense contract which is likely to be renewed. The year the contract took effect, Qatar bought $3.8 billion in U.S. air and missile systems. That same year, U.S. companies imported $1 billion in Qatari oil and gas.
Dozens of major U.S. companies maintain offices in Doha, prominent among them Exxon.
Qatar’s paradoxical relationships are not limited to the United States. While being an active supporter of several Islamicist and Palestinian causes, in the late 1990s, Qatar took the then-controversial step of inviting Israel to open a trade office in Doha. For close to 20 years until the Abraham Accords, that office remained Israel’s only diplomatic outpost in the Gulf.
The Friend of My Enemy Is …
With its eclectic list of allies, Qatar took on a unique role, playing middleman between the U.S. and Israel on one side and Islamicist terror groups and their enablers on the other.
This curious phenomenon has been currently on display as Qatar took on the leading role in aiding America and other Western nations negotiate with Hamas to release hostages.
Earlier this year, after talks aimed at reviving Iran’s nuclear deal failed in Vienna, a less formal effort moved to Doha. After a mini deal resulted in the release of six U.S. prisoners in exchange for unfreezing $6 billion in sanctioned Iranian oil sales, the funds were transferred to a Qatari bank. Following Hamas’ attack, the transfer came under scrutiny from American politicians, forcing the Biden administration to order Qatar to hold the money for the time being.
When Hamas’ political wing was forced to leave Damascus, they took up an invitation to settle in Doha in 2012. Since then, America and Israel used Qatar to communicate with the terror group and to see that funds aimed at stabilizing Gaza were delivered.
“The Qataris are the Swiss bankers of the World War II era or the Saudis of the 1990s; they have foreign policy to play all sides of every conflict,” said Mr. Goldberg. “After Hamas took over Gaza, Obama wanted a mechanism to dialogue with them and get support to the Palestinians living there. But since Hamas is a terror organization, they couldn’t do it directly. Qatar enters, happy to help. They gave Hamas a diplomatic office in Doha and got the credit for it.”
Qatar played an identical role in America’s dealings with the Taliban, which also operates an office in Doha. It was there that the Trump administration negotiated a plan to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan in 2019-20. When the Biden administration’s attempt to carry out the withdrawal ended in disaster, Qatar ended up playing a key role in communicating with the Taliban to allow remaining Americans to escape.
Yet Qatar has not fostered its relationships with Hamas, the Taliban, and others through mere hospitality.
Since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, Qatar has largely covered Hamas’ bureaucratic payroll and picked up the bill for the area’s food, medical care, and other basic needs of its populace. Qatar insists that its funding only goes toward Gaza’s governance and humanitarian needs, not Hamas’ military wing. However, some view this claim skeptically.
“Money is fungible, and too often, such funds launder other activities. Hamas is adept at skimming off the top, and the Qataris know that,” said Dr. Rubin.
For decades, Qatar has been a leading supporter of activities connected to the Muslim Brotherhood and the main source of financing for its clerical organization. Controversially, it took the side of the Brotherhood during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010-11, which brought rebuke from governments in several other Middle Eastern nations who struggled to hold onto power in the face of threats from the Islamist movement. In 2017, Egypt and several Gulf states instituted a trade and diplomatic boycott against Qatar for its Brotherhood funding, which was only lifted in 2021 as part of a deal brokered by the United States and Kuwait. Hamas is one of several groups associated with the Brotherhood’s political goals.
In the 1990s Qatar created the Al-Jazeera media network, which is largely in line with the Brotherhood’s worldview. It continues to be the home base and financial underwriter of the network, which has been blamed for inciting violence against Israel, Jews around the world, and American troops in the Middle East.
The Qatari Patronage Train
The ironies of Qatar do not end with simultaneous sponsorship of terrorism and a warm diplomatic rapport with the United States. Its patronage extends Westward as well.
White Qatar’s investments into Western corporations and sports teams garnered a good deal of attention, billions have also gone to areas which bear directly on the mindset and policy leanings of America’s present and future leadership.
A recent article in The Free Press shined a light on Qatar’s massive donations to U.S. institutions of higher learning. It cited a 2022 study that, over the past two decades, Qatar gave $4.7 billion to American colleges. That includes $608 million to Northwestern University’s school of journalism and $760 million to Georgetown University’s school of politics. Several of the schools that received large grants partnered with Qatar to open campuses in Doha’s “education city,” where Qataris attend branches of American and European colleges.
“They wanted to replicate Western education in the Middle East,” said Dr. Ulrichsen. “After 9/11, it was hard for people there to get visas, which made them want to expand it even more.”
Yet others suspect a more insidious motivation.
“Qatar’s pouring money into universities is absolutely ideological,” said Mr. Goldberg. “They’re looking for these schools to look at things through a pro-Muslim Brotherhood lens.”
Qatar’s hand reaches yet deeper into America’s power base. For 14 years, the Brookings Institute, America’s largest left-leaning think tank, with considerable influence on Democratic elected officials and administrations, operated a branch in Doha. In 2013, it received a $14.8 million grant, and another in 2017 for an undisclosed amount. Their relationship ended in 2021, when Brookings’ then-president, John Allen, came under an FBI investigation for unregistered lobbying on Qatar’s behalf. Reports suggested Mr. Allen was influential in moving the Biden administration to negotiate an end to the boycott Qatar faced over its Brotherhood funding. No charges were brought against him.
Yet Qatar’s contributions to influential think tanks continued including large sums that went to the Center for International Policy and the Stimson Center.
Here too, some suggest that Qatar’s investments signal an attempt to garner a Western-friendly image and angle for limited self-interest, while others see a more suspicious game afoot.
“Qatar is using legal and illegal means to use soft power to transform the politics of the United States,” said Charles Small, Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP). “They masterfully used anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism to try to divide and weaken the U.S. and other democratic countries. They pay everybody off in the West while they take our technology and innovations and strengthen the military power of Iran and its proxies.”
Pragmatists or Creative Ideologues?
Speculation about what drives Qatar’s investments in institutions that form American minds mirrors debate over whether its Islamist connections are ideological or pragmatic.
One key argument for the latter view is a widely held belief that its friendly posture toward the terrorist elements has largely been at America’s behest. Few doubt that Qatar’s invitation for the Taliban’s diplomatic arm to take up residence in Doha originated as a suggestion from the U.S., which wanted a means to communicate with the Afghan group.
Joel Rayburn, Founder and Director of the American Center for Levant Studies, said this point reflected broadly on Qatar’s stance.
“When the Qataris hosted the Taliban, was that Qatar’s idea or someone else’s? Clearly, America encouraged it,” he said. “I haven’t seen signs that the Qataris operate ideologically in foreign policy. Their decisions are based on their own national security interests.”
Many feel that Hamas’ residence in Doha and Qatar’s generous funding for Gaza was driven by similar factors that the U.S. and Israel saw as being in their interests.
“Qatar’s funding for Gaza was carefully coordinated with Israel for the past four years,” said Dr. Ulrichsen. “A lesson learned from Arab Spring is not to ask ‘Why is Qatar supporting this or that?’ Their view is that it’s better to act alongside multiple parties. That’s what they’ve done here too. Israel wanted support and stable governance in Gaza; its ministers asked for it.”
Conjecture abounds as to how ideologically invested Qatar is in its Islamist funding. In the 1950s and ’60s, many intellectuals and leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood had an influential role in education there. It was a marriage of convenience, and many had been chased from their home countries as Qatar was looking to strengthen its own education system. Around the same time, many Palestinian thinkers made their way to Qatar, including Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, who lived there from 1957-69, working in its educational system. These figures had a major impact on the generation of Qataris educated under their influence.
Yet while Qatar promoted Muslim Brotherhood thinking abroad, its effects on life there are limited, and leaders remain primarily focused on maintaining the security of their own power and stability for the nation’s luxurious lifestyle.
“[Qatar’s] leadership is pragmatic,” said Dr. Ulrichsen. “They feel its better to bring these groups in and engage them with the hope they will moderate, rather than allowing them to further radicalize underground.”
Yet outstanding questions, specifically about what drives Qatar’s sponsorship of Al-Jazeera, lead some to the opposite conclusion.
“Qatar empowers the Muslim Brotherhood for ideological reasons,” said Dr. Rubin.
“They know Americans project our own institutions onto Qatar which lets them get away with murder.”
Qatar’s motivations aside, America’s support for Israel’s mission to eliminate Hamas, and a broader admission of the need to confront Islamist terror in the region, leaves U.S. policy makers with difficult decisions. Many argue that it is time for America to demand Qatar cut its funding to the terror group and exile its leaders from Doha.
“Qatar is master of the double-game; they have zero allegiance to anybody and now is the time to tell them that they can’t be a friend to the U.S. and jihadist terror at the same time,” said Mr. Goldberg. “Until now, America and Israel signed off on a policy of legitimizing Hamas, thinking it would get them to moderate. Now, everybody should agree that failed and that it’s time to recalibrate.”
Giving Qatar an ultimatum on Hamas comes with risks, beginning with their role in negotiating the release of hostages. American investment in the Al-Udeid base complicates the picture manifold.
“I don’t think the U.S. can pull up stakes and move military installations somewhere else. Where would we put CENTCOM’s base?” said Mr. Rayburn. “Altering a long-standing military relationship is not something we can do willy nilly, especially at a time of escalating regional conflict.
Qatar’s energy supplies play no small role in calculations either, especially at a time when America wants to wean Europe from reliance on Russian oil.
Mr. Rayburn was supportive of convincing Qatar to cut off support for Hamas in an effort to crush the group, but cautioned against casting the nation as a root cause of regional instability.
“The problem in the Middle East is not Qatar; the problem is Iran and its militant proxies,” he said. “Qatari leaders had no role or desire for Hamas’ invasion of Israel. Responsibility for that lies at the feet of Iran’s Supreme Leader. That’s where our energies should focus rather than on ancillary actors.”
As with most aspects of the curious U.S.-Qatar relationship, which party holds more leverage is a matter of debate.
Some argue that Qatar needs American protection, and that the Pentagon has other options for its regional base, leading to a conclusion that the U.S. has underplayed its hand with Doha.
“We have a whole bunch of levers to pull with Qatar,” said Mr. Goldberg.
“It’s time to tell them, ‘No support or office for Hamas, stop the Muslim Brotherhood’s incitement, stop Al-Jazeera’s anti-American and antisemitic rhetoric.’
“In exchange for that, we won’t move our base, unmake their ally status, freeze their assets or designate them as a terrorist sponsor.”
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