The war between Israel and Hamas launched by the Hamas massacre of October 7 appears currently to be in a kind of holding pattern. Israel has assembled a large force on the Gaza border and announced its intention to carry out a ground operation to collapse the Hamas governing authority in the Strip. Emerging evidence suggests differences at the top level between the prime minister and the defense minister regarding the feasibility of this goal, and differences also between Israel and the United States. It appears that both the US administration and the Israeli prime minister are not in favor of an immediate major ground maneuver. Instead, the current focus appears to be on the hostages taken by Hamas on October 7, and efforts to secure their release.
The tiny, gas-rich emirate of Qatar is, according to a number of reports, playing a key role in these efforts. Israel's National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi on Wednesday tweeted that he is "pleased to say that Qatar is becoming an essential party and stakeholder in the facilitation of humanitarian solutions. Qatar's diplomatic efforts are crucial at this time."
It is hence appropriate to take a look at the complex, outsize, and contradictory role played in regional diplomacy by this tiny Gulf emirate in order to better understand why it seems regularly to appear whenever contacts between Western and pro-Western powers, and Islamist and jihadi groups come on the agenda.
QATAR IS considered by the United States to be a "major non-NATO ally." The US maintains its main air base in the Mideast at al-Udeid, located within the emirate. Yet Doha has over the last quarter century pursued a regional strategy of alliance with the movements of political Islam, on both the propaganda and practical levels. As a result of this strategy, Doha possesses lines of communication to, and relations of trust with, a variety of Islamist organizations across the region.
Qatar's long-standing strategy of alignment with Islamist and jihadi politics in the region does not derive from Islamist beliefs on the part of the ruling family. In this, it differs from, say, Turkey or Iran, which are controlled by Islamist ruling authorities who fairly straightforwardly back people with similar beliefs to their own (Turkish support for Hamas and for Syrian Sunni jihadi groups, Iranian support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad).
Qatar does not permit Islamist independent organizations within its own borders. Rather, what Qatar has been doing in recent years is to domicile and offer support to Islamist organizations, in order to turn their capacities into tools of pressure by which Doha can then increase its own influence and power.
This has on occasion had clearly destabilizing results. Qatar offered a home and a platform to the late Youssef al-Qaradawi, most influential of Sunni Islamist preachers of recent years, even as he railed against the West, the Jews, and moderate Arab governments. When Sunni Islamism was having its moment across the region a decade ago, during the period of the "Arab Spring," Qatar's mouthpiece Al Jazeera channel fanned the flames of Islamist revolt throughout the Middle East. In this way, it was a direct contributor to the downfall of two pro-Western governments, Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, and their replacement by (short-lived) Islamist authorities.
In Syria, Qatar supported Islamist and jihadi elements among the Syrian rebels, including Jabhat al-Nusra, the former franchise of al-Qaeda in Syria.
Qatar offered refuge to Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks in the US. It also allowed senior Taliban officials to take up residence in the emirate at the height of the Taliban insurgency against the US and its NATO allies.
Qatar also maintains relations with Lebanese Hezbollah. The emirate was generous in its assistance to the movement's efforts at reconstruction in south Lebanon following the 2006 war. The Al Jazeera channel maintained a pro-Hezbollah line throughout that war. The channel's bureau in Beirut welcomed the terrorist Samir Kuntar back to Lebanon and held a party for him, when he was released in a prisoner exchange following the war. Kuntar, who returned to terrorist activities and was killed by Israel in 2015, is known for the murder of a four-year-old Israeli girl in 1979, which he carried out with his own hands. Reports have also emerged in recent years suggesting possible military assistance to Hezbollah by elements within Qatar.
In line with this approach, Qatar allows members of the Hamas leadership to make their homes in Doha. The movement's key leaders Ismail Haniyeh, Khaled Mashaal, and Musa Abu Marzouk reside in the Qatari capital. Azmi Bishara, a former member of Knesset who fled Israel after suspicions arose that he had assisted Hezbollah in the 2006 war, has also made his home there. From Doha, Bishara co-founded the Al-Araby media channel, which maintains a similar pro-Islamist editorial line to that of Al Jazeera. Both channels are actively supporting Hamas in the current conflict.
Aider and Abettor of Terrorism
GIVEN THIS pedigree, it might be expected that Qatar would be regarded by Western countries as an aider and abettor of Islamist, jihadi and terrorist movements and therefore as an enemy of Western and Western-aligned countries. But it is not so regarded. There are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, economic factors play a significant role. Qatar sits on vast natural gas reserves and is a major supplier of liquefied natural gas to European countries. It also invests heavily in political lobbying in Western countries – see the "Qatargate" scandal at the European Parliament in 2019. With Europe seeking alternatives to Russian LNG since 2022, the importance of Qatar is set to increase.
Economic issues are crucial, but do not explain the whole picture. Before the Syrian civil war, it sometimes used to be said that the Assad regime sought to simultaneously play the roles of firefighter and arsonist in the Middle East – first creating problems by its support for Islamist and terrorist organizations and then offering its own mediation in efforts to solve these problems. Bashar Assad has long since been revealed as only a fire-setter. Qatar, however, manages to play this dual role with a finesse and a level of success that the Syrian dictator never came close to.
Doha achieves this because of Western consent. The economic clout of Qatar, plus its willingness to appear to play the "firefighter" role at times of need enable the tiny emirate to first gain regional influence through supporting Islamist elements – backing that it can switch on and off at will and thus gain leverage – and to then multiply this influence many times by offering itself as a mediator between Islamist groups and their victims. This dynamic only works, however, if Western governments agree to play by it. The US used Qatari mediation efforts (and financial commitments) when its citizens were kidnapped by Doha's jihadi allies in Syria.
Israel decided in recent years to adopt a strategy of de facto coexistence with the Hamas authority in Gaza. The Qatari offer of money to the Hamas enclave helped grease the wheels of this policy, and made Doha indispensable to it.
Now, when this approach has produced the disastrous results of October 7, here is Qatar again, offering its good offices in mediation efforts to free the hostages that its ally has taken.
Qatar's strategy has thus succeeded in gaining the tiny emirate a seat at the top table of Mideast diplomacy. On the way, it has also served to strengthen and facilitate a variety of jihadi movements, and to foment unrest and chaos across the region. Qatar is not a "facilitator" of "humanitarian solutions." It is a state that draws dividends from carrying a flamethrower in one hand, and a fire hose in the other. It should no longer be permitted to do so.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter's Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (2018).