The Qatar Conundrum: The Emirate That Arms Syria’s Rebels Also Embraces Hamas

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Wissam Nassar / AFP / Getty Images

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (C) holds hands with Hamas' Prime Minister Ismail Haniya (R) during the Emir's tour of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Oct. 23, 2012.

Mindful of its declining appetite for projecting power in the Middle East, the U.S. is relying on more activist partners in the region such Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to arm the Syrian rebellion. But Tuesday’s visit to Gaza by Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani — to the delight of the territory’s Hamas rulers and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, while Israel and Fatah fumed — was a reminder that U.S. allies in the region often pursue goals quite different from those of Washington, despite many shared objectives and common enemies. And the relative decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East has seen some of those independently-minded allies grow more assertive in pressing their agendas.

In Monday’s presidential campaign foreign policy debate, Gov. Mitt Romney rejected U.S. military intervention in Syria, noting instead that “The Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks are … willing to work with us. We need to have a very effective leadership effort in Syria, making sure that the insurgents there are armed, and that the insurgents that become armed are people who will be the responsible parties.” President Obama also talked up cooperation with regional allies, but warned that “we have to [make] absolutely certain that we know who we are helping; that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region.”

(MORE: The Mainstreaming of Hamas Continues as Palestinian Unity Gains Steam)

But the Emir’s visit to Gaza makes clear that Qatar, the tiny Emirate whose massive natural gas reserves give it the world’s highest per capita income as well as geopolitical punching power way above its weight, has sharply different ideas from Washington’s about just who the  “responsible parties” will be in a changing Middle East. Hamas, after all, is formally shunned by the U.S. and European powers as a terrorist organization, and Washington has shown little enthusiasm for efforts by Arab governments, including Qatar, to promote reconciliation between the Islamists and the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas was reportedly furious at the Qatari leader’s decision to become the first foreign head of state to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza, effectively blessing the Islamist’ rule there. The Emir’s purpose was to inaugurate Qatar’s $400 billion investment in rebuilding infrastructure smashed in repeated confrontations with Israel — a massive stimulus to an economy choked off by a five-year siege imposed by Israel with Egyptian compliance.

Sheik Hamad seemed unmoved by Abbas’ ire or Washington’s discomfort,  his effort to rehabilitate Gaza and coax Hamas into the Arab mainstream prompted by the malign neglect of Gaza by all parties to the now moribund peace process. It’s also a reflection of the political paralysis of Fatah after a decade of passively waiting in vain for the U.S. to restart a credible peace process. And, there’s thinly disguised geopolitical agenda, too: driving a wedge between Iran and Hamas, and drawing the movement back into the moderate Islamist mainstream.

(SPECIAL: Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani – TIME’s People Who Mattered in 2011)

It’s also worth noting, however, that the mass rally planned as the centerpiece of Sheikh Hamad’s visit was abruptly canceled at the last minute, when the soccer-stadium venue was just one-fifth full and it became clear that the Gaza public wasn’t exactly rushing to the event — Gaza Palestinians are just as disdainful of their Hamas rulers as West Bank Palestinians are of their Fatah rulers, as was demonstrated in the low turnout at municipal election last weekend boycotted  by Hamas — and even then, the official Fatah candidates lost six of the 11 main seats. The Qatari leader did address a smaller crowd at a local university, and urged reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.”Why are you staying divided?” he said. “There are no peace negotiations, and there is no clear strategy of resistance and liberation. Why shouldn’t brothers sit together and reconcile?”

Washington responded cautiously to the visit, preferring — at least publicly — to take at face value Qatar’s insistence that the visit had an entirely “humanitarian” purpose. “We share Qatar’s deep concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people including those residing in Gaza,” said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland on Tuesday. We remain concerned about Hamas’ destabilizing role in Gaza and the region, and we urge all parties in the region to play a constructive role in bringing the Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table.”

Promoting peace is exactly what the Qataris would say they’re doing in Gaza, and in pressing for Palestinian reconciliation. The idea of a more assertive Palestinian polity that includes Hamas in a prominent role won’t appeal to either Washington or Israel, of course, nor to Abbas who has long claimed a monopoly on representing the Palestinians regardless of the verdict of his electorate. But Palestinian society has grown largely indifferent to Abbas’ diplomatic wanderings, and re-engaging them in the search for a national strategy may be critical to the prospects of winning legitimacy for any future peace deal. And a Hamas lawmaker involved in the visit, speaking anonymously, told the AP that “the Qatari leader urged Hamas to reconcile with Abbas’ forces and do everything possible to avoid violence with Israel.”

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hoglahoo
hoglahoo

A senior editor thinks Qatar is going to make a $400 billion investment anywhere?  *chuckle*  Also, since when does Hamas have a prime minister?  Hamas is a political party, not a government.  Makes me wonder what other oddball assertions might be fueling the opinions in this article

cjkastoun
cjkastoun

That $400Bn is just a bunch of malarkey, or more probably a mistake. 

Qatar's GDP is about $170Bn, so there is NO WAY they will be financing any $400Bn project.

Gaza's GDP is about $6Bn, so a $400Bn project just doesn't make any sense. 

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

Whether the US likes it or not, allies and friends in the Islamic World will not always toe the line with Washington. The US looks at these relationships as strategic, for political reasons. However, what is happening in the Islamic World is numerous internal issues that may not always coincide with that of the US. No Islamic Country will toe the line, if it causes a rift with Islamists, who contro Egypy, Tunisia, Turkey etc. In order for Qatar to be relevant, they must a) be anti-Israel, b) pro-sunni c) pro-sharia and d)anti-secular. What legitimizes Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in a troubled Middle East is a clear demonstration that they support the Islamist agenda. This explains why huge funds are being provided to rebels in Syria

thevisionmachine.com
thevisionmachine.com

Funny but nothing here mentioned on the oppressive dictatorship of Bahrain that the US just loves to support and whose US pr companies spend much time

trying to sanitize and legitimate. Qatar is also home to Al Jazeera, the pan Arab news organization that US troops intentionally targeted during the Gulf War,

killing one of their journalists.

mozaismyhero
mozaismyhero

What the article does not mention is this plays well back home and across the gulf. Qatar and Saudi may not be the best of friends but isolating Iran is in both their interests. Qatar wants to control the direction of the Arab Spring and the one advantage it has over Iran is that it has money. That buys a lot of influence and friends.....

New blog in Qatar!

http://llivingfreeinqatarmimh.blogspot.com/

http://llivingfreeinqatarmimh.blogspot.com/http://llivingfreeinqatarmimh.blogspot.com/http://llivingfreeinqatarmimh.blogspot.com/http://llivingfreeinqatarmimh.blogspot.com/

toosketch
toosketch

"Qatar aligns itself with a moderate Sunni Islamist politics exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood" Moderate ?? Forget Israel/Hamas relations, Hamas was a death wish to Gaza residents! Women are totally oppressed there. Same for Egypt!!!! Moderate relative to Salafi's maybe, but certainly not moderate....

"And, of course, Qatar has been at the forefront of promoting the Arab rebellion, through deploying soft-power and hard: Its international TV news station, al-Jazeera, covered the uprisings (except, perhaps, for Bahrain’s)"I don't know what the writer is on, but Qatar does not "promote" the Arab rebellion (if you want to call it that), it simply supports the new face of the Arab world that looks exactly like Qatar- Sunni, extreemist, islamism!!! Al-Jazeera has been extremely biased in Syria and has not covered the rebellion in Bahrain AT ALL!! Are they not Arab?

EVERYTHING Qatar is doing is because they want to make sure that if they cannot control the Arab rebellions, they might as well make sure the outcome looks damn close to what they want it to. One void of Iran, Shia's and full of Sunni extremism.

The writer completely undermines (although mentioned) the significance of counter balancing Iran in all this. Nothing is happening out of Qatar's altruistic good will.

StevenRohan
StevenRohan

We have an old saying in the United States "You Break it You Buy It"  Its a good thing Qatar is rich.  It can afford to bathe, cloth, house, feed the 2 Million Syrian Refugees it has made possible by underwriting, funding a Coup, a Bay of Pigs gone sour.  And now Mr. Money Bags, you can house, feed, and repair what you broke.  Without Qatar & Saudi Arabia there would be no Blood Bath in Syria.  Now you can pay for your mistake dear Emir, dear King for your not so Kingly deeds. 

Yoshi
Yoshi

Wow. A $400 billion "investment" in what is arguably a pair of large refugee camps? A non-country? I'll wager that money will buy a lot of weaponry from Iran......