“We don’t do enemies,” a one-time foreign minister of Qatar once said. “We talk to everyone.”
This is the policy pursued with determination over the past thirty years by the tiny Gulf state of Qatar in its long-term effort to become a major player on the world stage – and it has succeeded. Qatar was absolutely central in negotiating the complex deal that has led to the release of a batch of the 240 hostages captured by Hamas.
It already had two successes to its credit. On October 20 Qatari officials negotiated the release of Judith and Natalie Raanan, mother and daughter, and then helped broker a deal for the release on October 23 of two elderly Israeli women held by Hamas — Yocheved Lifshitz and Nurit Cooper.
Two days later Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said that negotiations on the release of all the hostages captured by Hamas were progressing.
Yet there has been strong opposition in Washington to the Biden administration’s close working collaboration with Qatar – especially in light of Qatar’s statement, issued after the horrific Hamas assault on Israel of October 7. It declared that Israel is “solely responsible for the ongoing escalation due to its continuous violations of the rights of the Palestinian people…” Critics of the US-Qatar relationship also point to the fact that Hamas has been largely financed by Qatar for years, Since 2021, Qatar has reportedly funneled an estimated $360 million a year to Hamas. Between 2012 and 2021, Qatar is estimated to have given Hamas $1.8 billion in total. What Hamas spent the money on must be left to the imagination, since no accounts have ever been published. Certainly very little went to improving the lot of the citizens of the Strip.
Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Qatar is close to meriting the same epithet . Dubbed “the wild card of the Middle East”, Qatar makes for an intriguing case study. Not much is generally known about this stand-alone and gas-rich Gulf state except perhaps that it is the wealthiest country in the world on a per capita basis, that it has established what is now a global media empire called Al-Jazeera, that its national airline is a long-time sponsor of Britain’s Sky News TV channel, and that it won the hosting rights for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in somewhat dubious circumstances.
Qatar has long pursued a foreign policy that appears self-contradictory, if not bizarre. While offering itself as a key US ally in the Middle East, it has also consistently backed hardline Islamists — from Hamas in the Gaza Strip, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to Sunni jihadist opposition fighters in Syria.
It was back in 1995 that Qatar’s emir at the time, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, set the nation on its friends-with-everyone journey. In 2002, when the US military began pulling forces out of Saudi Arabia, the emir offered his country as a home for the US Central Command’s forward headquarters. Ever since, Qatar has hosted a large US military presence, one of the biggest in the region, at Al Udeid Air Base.
Yet as the Arab Spring dawned in 2011, with popular revolutions toppling dictators and autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the emir had no hesitation in allowing hardline members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, as well as other jihadists, to establish a presence in his capital, Doha. He gave them a fair degree of freedom of action, too, much to the irritation of Qatar’s neighbors who actually severed relations with the country for a period.
In the years leading up to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Qatar played a pivotal role in hosting meetings between US officials and members of the Taliban. While the talks ultimately failed, they demonstrated the reliance the US places on Qatar as a key intermediary. Qatar certainly played an important role in the events leading to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Collaborating closely with the US, Qatar acted as mediator between the Taliban and what was left of the previous Afghan administration in assisting the evacuation of refugees. Qatar’s role in coordinating the safe exit of tens of thousands of people — including US citizens and contractors — was invaluable to the American government. Nearly 40% of all evacuees were taken out via Qatar.
As a direct result, on March 10, 2022, President Joe Biden formally confirmed his grant to Qatar of the status of “major non-NATO ally”. MNNA, a US legal designation conferred on nearly 20 countries including Australia, Israel, Japan and Brazil, is a powerful symbol of friendship and close collaboration. It provides foreign partners of the US with a range of benefits and privileges, especially in the areas of defense, trade and security cooperation. By conferring the designation on Qatar, the Biden administration was signaling it wanted an even closer relationship with the Gulf state than it already enjoyed.
Biden’s gesture toward this paradoxical nation state certainly paid off. Qatar’s working relationships with traditional US adversaries such as Iran and Russia — or nonstate groups like Hamas and the Taliban — have made it an invaluable partner for the US and other Western countries. All turn a Nelsonian blind eye to its questionable friends and alliances deep in the jihadist and terrorist worlds, since it is precisely these relationships that make Qatar such a valuable contact.
On October 13 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to reporters at a press conference in Doha.
“Qatar,” he said, “has been a very close partner to the United States on a broad range of issues that are crucial to both of our countries and to this region — from working together on evacuating Americans, Afghans and others from Afghanistan, to cooperating very closely in responding to humanitarian emergencies, like the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and in Syria.” He diplomatically made no mention of Qatar’s sensitive role, being undertaken as he spoke, in attempting to negotiate a deal involving both Israel and Hamas to release the hostages.
Qatar’s bid to punch well above its weight has succeeded. The tiny state – less than half the size of Israel – has followed its own star by maintaining good relations with a vast spectrum of global players while still being a strategic partner to the US. Doing so, it has placed itself at the very heart of world affairs.