Whether in terms of timing or substance, the October 2012 visit of Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to the Gaza Strip defies simple explanation. As so often where Palestinian politics is concerned, a cottage industry of explanations and interpretations rapidly materialized. Thus Qatar was either seeking to ensure the support of Hamas’s Gaza leaders for the re-election of Khalid Mashaal to the leadership of the Islamist movement’s Politbureau; using its considerable influence with the Muslim Brotherhood to help transform Rafah into a normalized and regularized border crossing between Egypt and Palestine; staking a claim to Mediterranean gas reserves on the basis of informal understandings between Hamas and Israel; promoting development in the destitute Gaza Strip to the tune of $400 million in order to vastly increase the cost of militancy within it; furthering an American-Israeli scheme to irrevocably institutionalize the Palestinian schism by laying the diplomatic foundations for a Palestinian entity limited to the Gaza Strip; and/or again challenging Egyptian hegemony over efforts to negotiate Palestinian national reconciliation.
At some level each of the above probably contains an element or so of truth. Yet in this particular instance it just might be the case that Palestine is not––or at least not the only––center of the universe. Rather, as a chief sponsor of Syrian regime change, Sheikh Hamad went to Gaza in order to further isolate Syria’s Assad by mocking his claim to be the region’s sole remaining sponsor of continued Palestinian resistance in the most visible manner possible. It was after all the Wahhabi Hamad rather than Baathist Bashar who was the first Arab leader to launch a motorcade from Rafah to Gaza City. And in doing so he made the break between Hamas and Damascus final and definitive.
That so many theories continue to abound about the Qatari visit reflects the rather extraordinary influence the tiny emirate has managed to project in Palestine. It did not come suddenly, and was nurtured over the course of many years.
Until the mid-1990s Qatar’s place in the political consciousness of most Palestinians rather accurately reflected its miniscule size and population. Its policies were determined by and indistinguishable from those of Saudi Arabia and its foreign patrons, and it was the place where one of the less prominent Fatah leaders, Mahmoud Abbas, had carved a special relationship with the ruling family on account of his residency there since the 1950s and role in its civil service.
As with so much else about Qatar, this began to change after Sheikh Hamad in 1995 overthrew his father and––particularly after the Saudis and Egyptians sponsored a failed plot to restore Al-Thani père––initiated a determined effort to emerge from Riyadh’s shadow and challenge it and Egypt’s primacy in Arab affairs. The primary vehicles for this campaign were Al-Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the two were from the outset related phenomena.
Although Arab media had traditionally enjoyed greater leeway to criticize Palestinian leaders than any of their Arab counterparts, Al-Jazeera set new––professional as well as political––standards in this regard. By the time the Al-Aqsa Uprising erupted on the ruins of Oslo in late 2000, Al-Jazeera was by far the most popular broadcaster in Palestine and in the region on Palestinian affairs. Its wall-to-wall, in-depth, often live and many times fearless coverage of every aspect of the uprising and Israel’s furious efforts to restore the status quo added significantly to Doha’s political capital among Palestinians.
During the same period, and astutely taking advantage of Hosni Mubarak’s reduction of Egypt to a banana republic and the erosion of Cairo’s primacy in Arab politics, Qatar also emerged as a leading regional troubleshooter. In 1999, it provided the Hamas exile leadership temporary refuge after its expulsion from Jordan, but did not hesitate to put them on a flight to Amman after the latter apparently reneged on a pledge to take them back after a decent interval. Qatar’s Prime and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, also played an important role behind the scenes in resolving the siege of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters during Operation Defensive Shield in Spring 2002. A seeming champion of the Palestinian uprising against Israel and its occupation, Qatar’s leaders were equally comfortable meeting their Israeli counterparts and permitting Israel’s liaison office in Doha to remain functional after it was officially closed. Twice.
If Doha had remained more aloof from the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership and closer to that of Hamas than many Arab capitals, crises during the Arafat era rarely graduated beyond punishment of business interests associated with Qatar, such as the imprisonment in Gaza of Issa Abu Issa. The brother of Palestine International Bank Chairman Issam Abu Issa, and hailing from one of Qatar’s most prominent Palestinian families, he was promptly arrested by the PA when accompanying an official Qatari delegation to Gaza in 2000. The delegation had been seeking to resolve a dispute between the PA, which seized Palestine International Bank after accusing it of various irregularities, and Issam Abu Issa, who retorted that his sole crime was a refusal to put the bank at the disposal of the PA. Only after Qatar threatened to sever funding and relations with the PA were the Abu Issa brothers permitted to leave Gaza City for Doha. Al-Jazeera was during these years often in the forefront of Palestinian-Qatari relations, whether through various exposes of PA politics and malfeasance, or punitive measures against it––including vigilante attacks upon its personnel and premises.
The succession of Abbas in late 2004, coupled with the electoral victory of Hamas in 2006 transformed an already tense relationship into one often characterized by mutual and outright enmity.
On the face of it the developments post-2005 do not appear to make sense. Individual Fatah leaders typically cultivated special relations with specific Arab states––to the point where they were seen as representing their interests within the Palestinian national movement––and Abbas was in this respect understood to be Doha’s man. Abbas has, in fact, throughout this period despite fierce political differences according to many observers managed to maintain warm personal relationships with the Qatari leadership––akin to rugby players who batter each other half to death on the field then go out for drinks afterwards.
For Qatar, the issue was ensuring the integration of Hamas into the Palestinian political system and establishing itself as the Palestinian Islamist movement’s undisputed political patron to further augment Doha’s influence and prevent the Islamist movement from joining the rival Iranian camp, in the process steering it in a more accommodationalist direction. For Abbas, the objective was preventing the loss of Fatah hegemony and subordinating Hamas to his own agenda.
Reflecting the enormity of the stakes, Qatari diplomacy was during this period unable to punch very far above its weight. While Al-Jazeera’s coverage continued to subtly promote official policy while retaining professional standards not easily found elsewhere––whether in the region or beyond––the country’s rulers were unable to effectively compete with either Saudi Arabia or Egypt in terms of negotiating Fatah-Hamas understandings before the Islamists’ June 2007 seizure of power in the Gaza Strip, or reconciliation agreements thereafter. The one agreement between Abbas and Mashaal Qatar did manage to broker, in 2012, was effectively still-born.
Nevertheless, Qatar was in subsequent years able to leverage the enormous and abiding symbolism of the Palestinian cause to both enhance its own profile and credentials, and solidify its sponsorship of Hamas. At a time when Qatari-Syrian relations were considerably closer than those between Damascus and any other Gulf state, Doha during Israel’s 2008-2009 assault on the Gaza Strip succeeded in defying much of the Arab world (including the Arab League) and the West in hosting an emergency summit to highlight Arab inaction. And a year later Al-Jazeera’s publication of the Palestine Papers managed to place the Palestinian Authority and its adherence to a negotiated treaty with Israel within the Oslo framework in the worst possible light. Not much sensationalism was required, but it was thrown into the mix nevertheless.
It bears recollection that Qatar’s policy and objectives in this regard were very different from those of Syria and Iran. Where the latter sought to weaken the PA in order to strengthen Palestinian militancy in the context of a proxy conflict with Israel, Qatar sought not conflict but rather a piece of the peace and––whether directly or otherwise––a prominent seat at the table. It is the astuteness and seemingly limitless capacity for opportunism that set Doha so clearly apart from other Arab capitals. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Qatar didn’t much care about the ideological affinities of those it sponsored so long as such organizations, institutions and individuals––who spanned the spectrum of contemporary Arab political thought and activism––could further its own ambitions and agenda. And so, unlike Mubarak’s Egypt, Qatar was consistently willing to maneuver among and between rival camps, and engage in public disputes with close allies and sponsors, in order to further its own policies.
The uprisings that erupted throughout the region in late 2010 appear to have brought Qatari policy full circle. As the main sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood––and one with a very considerable capacity for sponsorship––Qatar is now indisputably in the ascendant, though not unlike Al-Jazeera perhaps more temporarily than many assume. And drawing much closer to its traditional Gulf Cooperation Council allies in the context of the spread of these rebellions––most notably to Bahrain––and the increasingly sharp rivalry with Iran, it has thrown its weight behind the Syrian opposition to its erstwhile ally Bashar. Aside from direct support to the Free Syrian Army, Qatar’s main contribution has been the success with which it has weaned Hamas away from Damascus. Mashaal no longer resides in Damascus, but rather in Doha. Deputy Politbureau Chairman Musa Abu Marzouq has relocated to Cairo, and other Islamist leaders similarly vacated Syria before Damascus went on the offensive against its former Islamist ally.
Upon arriving in Gaza, Sheikh Hamad was thus received by Hamas as a conquering hero rather than perfidious Zionist stooge. The effectiveness with which Qatar has been able to call in favors from those it has supported testifies to the astuteness of its political investment policies of the past two decades. It will be most interesting to see where this leads next: A renewed push for Palestinian reconciliation, or alternatively further support to Hamas to ensure its continued ascendancy within the Palestinian political system, but with a political program eventually indistinguishable from those it seeks to replace.
[This article first appeared in Perspectives MENA #4.]