Extreme pragmatism is Qatar’s foreign policy

Qatar’s open-door diplomacy has intensified after the first Gulf War, and is now more than ever embodied in the Hamas-Israel war.

Extreme pragmatism is Qatar’s foreign policy

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Qatar's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammad bin Abdel Rahman Al Thani after their meeting and press conference in Doha, Oct. 13, 2023. (Credit: Karim Jaafar/AFP)

“We can’t stand the Qataris, but they brought the goods” to free the hostages. This statement by Israel’s former ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, reflects the ambivalence and mistrust of Israeli sentiment towards the gas-rich emirate, as well as the role of indispensable mediator that it plays in the Hamas-Israel war.

In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani responded, “We don’t have to like each other ... But at the end of the day, we have a working relationship. We have contacts, we work with them for the good of the Palestinians. And Israel knows how effective this working relationship is.”

Qatar and Egypt were able to bring Hamas, which opened its political office in Doha in 2012 and is considered to be a “terrorist organization” by many Western countries, together with Israel, with which Qatar has no official relations.

As a result, they agreed on a four-day truce, then extended for 48 hours, leading to the release of 81 hostages and 180 Palestinian prisoners in five days.

This occurred in an extremely sensitive context, a month and a half after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, and at a time when Israeli carpet bombing has already claimed more than 14,800 lives in Gaza.

It is also a complex context due to the differences within the parties involved — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was initially reluctant to hold talks, unlike the Israeli intelligence services —, difficulty locating the hostages scattered across Gaza and sometimes held by groups other than Hamas and violations of the truce which delayed the swap process.

First Qatari delegation in Israel

While several Israeli officials, including Mossad chief David Barnea, traveled to Doha several times since the start of the war, the Gulf monarchy sent an official delegation to Israel for the first time on Nov. 25.

“It was important to have a presence on the ground to oversee every stage of the process, with its logistical and tactical setbacks, but also because Qatar is aiming for something much bigger than the simple release of hostages, something that could provide a framework for a ceasefire,” said Andreas Krieg, a professor at King's College London and close to Doha’s line.

“Beyond economic statecraft, its role as an LNG superpower, and its privileged relationship with the US hosting a forward HQ of CENTCOM, mediation is embedded in the state of Qatar’s DNA, an integral part of its foreign policy toolkit which contributes to its indispensable role as one of the region’s primary problem solvers,” said Adel Hamaizia, a researcher on the Middle East at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Qatar has also distinguished itself as a mediator and negotiator in wars launched by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in Israel, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen.

“This war right now probably is the single most serious development in the Middle East in the last 50 years, so yes, it is even more [critical] for Qatar to show the US its importance has increased. This link is very valuable for the US, which unlike countries like France, finds it more difficult to talk directly to their enemies because of domestic political considerations,” said Patrick Theros, former US ambassador to the state of Qatar. 

According to the diplomat, Qatar above all needs to show the United States that it is indispensable and that it represents an extension of its interests in the region. “It’s a matter of survival,” said Theros.

The small emirate, caught between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East turmoil, has bought itself a life insurance policy by housing the US Centcom base at al-Udeid. In 2017, then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on “Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar,” after the Arab Quartet imposed an embargo on Doha, deemed too close to Iran and accused of funding terrorism.

The prospect of an invasion of the emirate by its neighbors had put the region on alert, while the US-led coalition’s operations against the Islamic State (IS) organization continued from al-Udeid.

Open door diplomacy

While the American security umbrella is the priority for Qatar, which has had the status of a non-NATO ally since March 2022, the country has built up relations with a wide range of regional players in order not to alienate any of them. In particular, it enjoys good relations with Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest offshore gas field.

This extreme pragmatism led it to open a trade office with Israel in 1996 while broadcasting the preaching of fundamentalist sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi on Al Jazeera channel. This strengthened its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria and Libya, where it bet that it can support the 2022 popular uprisings unlike its Gulf neighbors, who were more worried that the contagion would spread to them.

By maintaining partnerships with rival players, Qatar prides itself on some neutrality. In 2013, researcher Lina Khatib wrote for Chatham House that this neutrality “makes it easier for Qatar to cultivate credibility among multiple audiences.”

After Oct. 7, however, Qatar drew criticism from Israel and some political groups in the United States for hosting Hamas’s political office in Doha after it left Doha, as well as for Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Hamas-Israel war, which Israel at one point wanted to ban.

Qatar insists that it housed the Hamas office in Doha at the request of the United States. “The opening of a Hamas office in Tehran would have been a terrible development for the United States,” said Theros.

Even the support that Doha is accused of giving to the Islamist movement, paying $30 million a month to Hamas officials in Gaza and supplying the enclave with electricity, is not the result of an individual decision.

“The story you hear in Washington is that the Qataris were financing Hamas because Qatar's financial support to Gaza was at the request of the United States, which I assume was at the request of Israel, and I don't believe they've ever made a single payment to anybody in Gaza without the express permission of the United States,” he added.

However, Israel was quick to silence its critics. After all, Doha’s position places it in a role that is both indispensable and effective. The presence of Israeli, American and Egyptian intelligence chiefs in Doha on Tuesday was aimed at discussing the possibility of transforming the current temporary truce in Gaza into a longer-term ceasefire.

“In short, much of Qatar’s outreach has been occupied in brokering temporary measures that have served to boost the country’s image and standing among other Arab countries and its western allies, but have not always succeeded in changing the political status quo,” wrote Lina Khatib a decade ago.

It is a strategy that the gas-rich state, already a diplomatic winner in this sequence, seems to want to change in favor of a more permanent solution.

This article was originally published on L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Joelle El Khoury.

“We can’t stand the Qataris, but they brought the goods” to free the hostages. This statement by Israel’s former ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, reflects the ambivalence and mistrust of Israeli sentiment towards the gas-rich emirate, as well as the role of indispensable mediator that it plays in the Hamas-Israel war.In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Qatari Prime...