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Qatar's Strongman Has A Problem, And It's Called Hamas

The emirate of Qatar is tiny, but it wields disproportionate power in the world, where it maintains complicated and often troubling relationships. Just ask Israel.

Supporters of Qatar's Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in Gaza
Supporters of Qatar's Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in Gaza
Daniel Gerlach*

DOHA — Khaled Mashal, political leader of Palestine’s Islamist militia Hamas, can sleep well at night. Despite being a target of the world’s best intelligence services, the man lives in what is a virtual fortress that protects him from almost any attack — the emirate of Qatar.

While Israeli bombs fall on the Gaza Strip, and Hamas continues to fire rockets on Israeli cities, Mashal holds court in Qatar. The Islamist leader lives among crystal candelabra and comfortable divans covered in dark green silk brocade.

Mashal has experienced fear here, but only once. It was a year ago, on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan. His protector, Qatar Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, did something Arab rulers typically don’t do: He stepped down and handed power over to his son Tamim.

Mashal feared the new emir would throw him out, but he didn’t. The Hamas leader isn't, after all, the only dubious guest Tamim inherited from his father.

A place for shady personalities

Qatar is smaller than the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. It has 250,000 inhabitants — fewer than the German city of Bochum. Yet the emirate is a superpower within the global natural gas market, and a key investor in European companies such as Volkswagen. It hosts international sports events and is a sought-after mediator in the Middle East.

But it’s also known for protecting a host of shady personalities and organizations. Anywhere else in the world, Mashal would have had to go underground.

But in Qatar, the Hamas strongman has full access to the palace. The Afghan Taliban maintain a diplomatic representation there, and top members of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) enjoy the emir’s hospitality. So does the former entourage of late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — including his private pilot and son-in-law, Arshad Yassin.

When he took office in June 2013, Emir Tamim, 34, also took over his father’s guests. As crown prince and head of the Qatari intelligence service, he was already involved in his country’s diplomatic relations. Tamim was already seen as a man who could be entrusted with sensitive missions.

Many believe that wherever jihadist movements are active, Qatar has a hand in things. This was confirmed in 2012 in northern Mali, when a revolt involving the jihadist MUJAO movement broke out. This was also true when the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia called for an emirate to be formed in Libya.

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Hamas leader Khaled Mashal — Photo: Trango

U.S. magazine TheAtlantic Monthly recently quoted a Qatari official as saying that the emirate’s connections to the al-Nusra Front — an al-Qaeda branch in Syria — were so strong that Qatari authorities knew each al-Nusra commander personally. Be it in Libya, Tunisia or Egypt, Qatar undoubtedly supported Arab Spring uprisings, although with a clear preference for the Muslim Brotherhood.

With Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, the spotlight is back on Qatar. It is now the last remaining sponsor of Gaza’s ruling Islamist movement, after Hamas leaders came out against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Qatar's “impartiality”

Israel’s right-leaning Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has railed against Qatar, saying it should not host the 2022 FIFA World Cup championship. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the United States have refrained from criticizing Qatar.

And there are very good reasons for that.

A few days ago, the Israeli army faced a nightmare of sorts: the alleged kidnapping of an Israeli soldier who is related to the country’s defense minister, according to the British newspaper TheGuardian. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry didn’t wait to call Doha. According to Qatari sources, Kerry “pleaded” with them to help save the soldier’s life.

Emir Tamim may well be the last person who could influence Hamas. Only later was it discovered that the soldier, Hadar Goldin, had already been killed in combat by the time Kerry called Qatari authorities.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Tamim in Doha, Qatar on July 20 — Photo: Thaer Ganaim/APA Images/ZUMA

The emir has demonstrated in recent months that his ties with radical forces can also prove to be useful — when an American soldier had to be released from Taliban hands, for example, or when hostages were freed in Syria. This is what makes Qatar “impartial” — it keeps its lines of communication open and does business with everyone.

Over the last 10 years, thanks to zealous diplomacy and briefcases full of cash, Qatar has positioned itself as a mediator — in Mauritania, Yemen, Somalia and Lebanon. In 2006, as it was supporting the elected Palestinian Hamas government, the emirate immediately opened an Israeli export office. It received Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni despite protests from the Arab “frontline states.”

Tamim, who was then 26 and crown prince, met with representatives of the Bush administration, and asked them to give Hamas a chance. “They are no longer a group, they are a government,” Tamim said, according to U.S. State Department wire reports disclosed by WikiLeaks.

These documents also show how Qatar ended up in a hubris-driven situation, and what role the emirate plays in the U.S. foreign strategy. It all started during the second Iraq war, after 2003. The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) built a forward headquarters in Qatar, which is now the most important U.S. headquarters in the region. The outcome is a mutual dependency between the tiny principality and a global superpower.

A strategy close to a dead end?

Qataris kept terrorists off their back during the Iraq war by maintaining “good relations,” and possibly by paying protection money to religious foundations tied to al-Qaeda. At the request of U.S. authorities, Tamim activated his contacts with Sunni rebels in Iraq. Keeping relations with fundamentalists of all kinds is a Qatari tradition.

At least one of Tamim’s uncles is a professed Islamist, who supports building a global network of strictly religious mosques. Yet Qatar’s new ruler received his education from Western military academies, and enjoys playing tennis. More than an ideology, what he took over last year is a clear business model — a mediating strategy between terrorists, investors and Western governments.

The tiny desert kingdom shot up like a comet, with its investment funds worth hundreds of billions of dollars, its respected broadcaster Al Jazeera — funded by a company owned by the ruling family — and its endless supply of self-confidence. Qataris made other Gulf countries envious along the way.

Emir Tamim actually wanted to carefully withdraw from Qatar’s cocky policy. But the 2022 World Cup project put him on the defensive. There were accusations of corruption, exploitation of workers and accidents on construction sites. Gulf neighbors took their revenge with scathing media coverage that depicted Qatar as either an American puppet or a terror factory.

Its young leader may now even fear for the country’s security. A few months ago, Tamim enacted a conscription law whereby all men between the ages of 18 and 35 must serve in Qatar’s armed forces.

In mid-July, Doha and Washington signed an $11 billion deal for surface-to-air Patriot missiles. The conflict between Israel and Hamas was already ongoing, but the U.S. still wants to make the delivery.

The Obama administration seems to perceive Qatar's support of Hamas as strategic more than ideological. Tamim also wants to use it to annoy his Egyptian opponents. “As long as the Egyptians take part in the Gaza Strip blockade, they are not credible mediators,” says a Qatari functionary.

As the emir and Egyptians had a falling out, Tamim’s turning away from the militants also failed. Last year, when he took office, would have been a good time to change the course of the situation. Since then, the fronts have hardened. Egypt’s military overthrew the Qatar-friendly Muslim Brotherhood government, brutally persecuting its followers.

Tamim resisted by continuing to support Hamas, but he now faces a dead end. Finding a way out is going to be his most difficult challenge yet.

*Daniel Gerlach is the managing editor of zenith, a German magazine focusing on the Arab and Islamic world.

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