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The maverick state of Qatar

Published on 2019-09-16

The "wild card of the Middle East” persists in going its own sweet way: It backs Islamists while offering itself as a key US ally, has built and severed ties with Israel several times, pours millions into Gaza, and has a thriving economy despite a blockade by other Sunni states.

Qatar – dubbed “the wild card of the Middle East” – makes for an intriguing case study. Not much is generally known about this stand-alone Gulf state except perhaps that it established what is now a global media empire called Al Jazeera, that its national airline is a longtime sponsor of the Sky News TV channel, and that it won the hosting rights for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in somewhat dubious circumstances,

On which matter it should be remembered that when Qatar was awarded that prize, it stated that Israeli players would be allowed to compete – and indeed in March 2019 Israel’s national anthem was played in Qatar after an Israeli athlete won a gold medal at the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup. But will there be any Israelis present in Qatar’s stunning new stadium in 2022 to cheer their team on? That is still unclear. So far Israeli citizens have been unable to apply for visas to visit Qatar.

The nongovernmental organization StandWithUs has formally petitioned FIFA to ensure that the Qatari government will allow Israeli citizens to receive entry visas into the country to attend the 2022 World Cup. FIFA’s code of ethics specifically prohibits banning people based upon their country of origin.

Qatar, possibly the wealthiest nation in the world, persists in going its own sweet way, unfettered by diplomatic norms. Take its relationship with Israel. Since the 1990s, Qatar has both built ties with Israel and severed them, not once but several times. In 1996 Qatar allowed Israel to open a trade office in the capital, Doha. For four years, Qatar was the only Gulf Cooperation Council country to have normalized relations with Israel.

In November 2000, though, following the Second Intifada, Saudi Arabia and Iran threatened to boycott a summit being organized by the Organization of the Islamic Conference unless Qatar broke off relations with Israel. Qatar succumbed, and closed the Israeli trade office.

Just a month later, former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and a Qatari official met secretly in Geneva and contacts were resumed. Over the next few years, then-Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were among the high profile Israelis to visit Qatar, and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with former Qatari prime minister in Switzerland. In 2006, Israel supported Qatar’s bid to become a member of the UN Security Council, a major step in Qatar’s rise as a regional peace broker.

Although Qatar severed trade relations with Israel after the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict, Operation Cast Lead, it twice sought to restore them. It offered to allow the Israeli mission in Doha to be reinstated, provided Israel allowed Qatar to send building materials and money to Gaza to help rehabilitate the infrastructure. Israel refused on the grounds that Qatari supplies could be used by Hamas for military purposes against Israel.

Qatar took matters into its own hands. In 2012 it set up a Gaza Reconstruction Committee, which pledged to invest more than $400 million in humanitarian and infrastructure projects in the Strip over the following six years. It has lived up to its word. It has constructed the Bin Khalifa residential city, encompassing 116 buildings, and more than 2,000 apartments, the Palace of Justice, several sports facilities and stadiums, a reservoir, more than 40 kilometers (25 miles) of roadway, a hospital and rehabilitation center, and several other housing complexes. The GRC works in tandem with other multilateral and international reconstruction groups. All projects go through a rigorous planning and approval process with the Israeli government.

On September 10, 2019, as the six-year funding project reached its end, Mohammed al-Emadi, chairman of the GRC, spoke on Al Jazeera TV, claiming that Qatar has been instrumental in ensuring calm on the Gaza-Israeli border, “despite the occasional flare-up of violence.”

Whatever its rationale, Israel has raised no public objection to Qatar pouring millions of dollars into Gaza. "Life is full of contradictions and strange things,” was how Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research for Israel's Military Intelligence Directorate, described the situation.

An even stranger thing is the fact that, for more than two years, Qatar has been under a siege initiated and operated by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt,

Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists while also offering itself as a key US ally had long infuriated its neighbors. Back in January 2014, Gulf states suddenly pressured Qatar to sign an agreement undertaking not to support extremist groups and not to interfere in the affairs of other states. When the Qatari government flatly refused to comply, they broke off diplomatic relations. Qatar’s 33-year-old emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, had been in power for less than a year and was unable to withstand the pressure. A few months later, the Qataris signed an undertaking known as the Riyadh agreement.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain clearly gained a very different impression of what had been agreed than the Qataris. Expecting Qatar to curtail its support for extreme Islamism, they were soon to find that it had no intention of meeting their expectations. Finally, their patience exhausted, the Gulf states and Egypt took drastic action. On 5 June 2017, without any sort of warning, they broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar and, suspending all land, air and sea traffic, imposed a trade blockade.

With most trade routes closed off, Qatar has been sustained by continuous shiploads of food and other goods from Iran and Turkey. But its vast global export market for liquefied natural gas has been maintained. As a result, the country has weathered the blockade and seems able to sustain itself indefinitely. In fact, in 2018, Qatar’s economy showed one of the fastest growth rates in the region. Its gross domestic product grew by 2.2% and is expected to maintain that growth into 2020.

So Qatar continues on its capricious way regardless. Recently it has been wooing US Jewish American leading figures by way of meetings with the emir and funded trips to the Gulf state. These overtures, to which some distinguished individuals have succumbed, sit uneasily alongside Israel’s fragile, developing, and vitally important relationship with the Sunni Arab world that initiated the blockade of Qatar in the first place.

Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Qatar is close to meriting the same epithet.


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