U.S./Canada, Hamas, and Iran all find common ground on the Arabian Peninsula in Qatar

October 19, 2023 in News by RBN Staff


Source: CBC.ca


How tiny Qatar hosts the leaders of Hamas without consequences

While ordinary Palestinians suffer and die in Gaza, Hamas leaders live in comfort 2,000 km away

On October 7, as Hamas gunmen rampaged across southern Israel, a group of middle-aged men in a luxury suite in Doha, Qatar gathered in front of a camera.

Hamas leaders, led by Ismail Haniyeh, recorded themselves showing surprise about the attacks from the news on a large-screen television, and then kneeling to give thanks to Allah for the success of the operation.

This episode served as a reminder that while innocent civilians in Gaza die in their hundreds from aerial bombing and tens of thousands more are rendered homeless, Hamas’s leaders exist above the fray in air-conditioned comfort 2,000 kilometres away as guests of Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.

But they are not the only guests of Qatar.

Just a few minutes drive away from the hotels and villas housing Hamas leaders is Al-Udaid Air Base, home to the U.S. military’s Central Command. Washington’s relationship with Qatar is so close that last year the White House officially designated the tiny emirate a “Major Non-NATO Ally” of the United States.

For a small country with fewer than half a million citizens, Qatar manages to squeeze in a lot of contradictions.

Trudeau calls the emir

On Monday evening, according to the government of Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a phone conversation with Qatar’s Emir Al-Thani.

Those who cover Canadian foreign relations have learned not to give much weight to Ottawa’s anodyne readouts (descriptions of official calls), which often omit important information and are sometimes misleading. The account from the Qatari side is equally opaque.

Neither the Canadian government readout nor the Qatari one mention anyone raising the presence of Hamas’ leadership in Qatar during the call.

CBC News asked the Prime Minister’s Office if Trudeau had indeed spoken with the emir without mentioning the issue of Hamas’s presence in Qatar, but did not receive an answer.

An official in Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly’s office told CBC News that “it has not been raised by the minister.”

Qatar’s embassy in Canada did respond, although it did not reveal details of the Trudeau-Thani conversation.

The embassy told CBC News that Qatar condemns “all forms of targeting civilians” and that “killing innocent civilians, especially women and children, and practising the policy of collective punishment are unacceptable.

“Since the first day of the confrontations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the State of Qatar has been keen to reduce escalation and calm down with aim to reach a complete cessation of the fighting in order to stop the bloodshed and prevent the region from sliding into a wider cycle of violence.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Qatar's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani arrive for the statements to the media in Doha, Qatar, Friday Oct. 13, 2023.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani arrive for the statements to the media in Doha, Qatar, Friday Oct. 13, 2023. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also included Qatar in his whirlwind tour of the Middle East, where he gave a joint news conference with Qatari PM (and royal family member) Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani on Friday.

Blinken was asked if he had pressed Qatar to close the Hamas political bureau in Doha. He didn’t answer the question directly but did say, “There can be no more business as usual with Hamas.”

Qatar’s PM defended Hamas’s presence in his country. “This was started to be used as a way of communicating and bringing peace and calm into the region, not to instigate any war,” he said. “And this is the purpose of that office.”

The message was echoed by Qatar’s embassy in Ottawa. “Regarding the Hamas office in Doha, it has been used from the beginning as a channel of communication and a means to bring peace to the region and that is in coordination with our western allies, particularly the United States,” the embassy told CBC News in a written answer.

‘Qatar talks to everyone’

Thomas Juneau, an expert in Middle Eastern politics at the University of Ottawa, said that embassy statement actually explains the West’s tolerance of Qatar hosting groups it considers enemies.

“On the surface this looks like a set of contradictions, but there is a very clear common thread that makes all of this coherent,” he said. “Qatar’s entire foreign policy, its brand, its identity, is premised on the idea that it talks to everyone.

“It talks to the Taliban, it talks to Hamas, it talks to Libyan rebels, and so on.

“And its logic is that as a small vulnerable state, by being indispensable, by having all of these networks, all of these contacts, the U.S. needs it and it works for it. On a regular basis, the U.S. becomes frustrated by that, and if I had to guess, I would say that the U.S. is frustrated by the fact that some of Hamas’s political leadership is in Qatar right now.

“That’s true. But when the U.S. needs to talk to Hamas, when the U.S. needs to talk to the Taliban, then Qatar becomes extremely useful.”

The embassy in Ottawa told CBC News much the same: “Qatar believes that the only way to reach a peaceful and immediate solution to this crisis is to keep all channels of communication open with all concerned parties, and that resolving this crisis requires continuous and intensive cooperation.

“Qatar is committed to its role as a partner in peacemaking and a mediator in resolving conflicts, which should not be used to harm its reputation by levelling accusations that were proven to be false.”

Hotels for pariahs

Hamas leaders such as Ismail Haniyeh are not the only international pariahs who have come to know the swanky hotels of Doha very well.

Even as the Pentagon used Qatar as its centre of logistics and planning for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, those same Doha hotels also played host to the leadership of the Afghan Taliban.

It was at the Sheraton Grand Doha in February 2020 that the U.S. and Taliban negotiated the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, leading to the fall of Kabul seventeen months later.

Qatar has even acted — successfully — as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine.

And Qatar frequently has acted in hostage negotiations, including for its own royalty.

The Taliban delegation arrives for Afghan peace talks in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Aug.12, 2021.
The Taliban delegation arrives for Afghan peace talks in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Aug.12, 2021. (Hussein Sayed/AP)

All of this may explain why Israel itself has been somewhat muted in its criticism of Qatar, compared to its language on Iran, which does not host senior Hamas leaders (though it has helped to arm the organization).

Qatar’s role as a go-between and host for the most difficult negotiations was evident within 48 hours of the Hamas assault on southern Israel, when its foreign ministry announced that it would act as mediator in negotiations for the return of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas.

“We are in constant contact with all sides at the moment. Our priorities are to end the bloodshed, release the prisoners and make sure the conflict is contained with no regional spillover,” Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari told Reuters news agency on October 9.

Rags to riches

No country in the world has undergone a more rapid and dramatic transformation than Qatar. Prior to the start of its oil industry in 1949, it was a sleepy and impoverished peninsula of Arabia with an economy that revolved around fishing and pearl-diving.

It has since become tremendously wealthy. Its 315,000 citizens enjoy a per capita income more than twice that of their Saudi and Kuwaiti neighbours. For each Qatari citizen, there are about nine guest workers to lighten their daily burden.

But Qatar is also a vulnerable country, said Juneau — sandwiched between two regional superpowers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with few natural defences.

Skyscrapers in a city at dusk.
A view of hotels and other buildings at the West Bay area in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. (Darko Bandic/AP)

“To be clear, the Qatari government has genuine and real sympathy for the Palestinian cause,” he told CBC News. “That being said, what explains Qatar’s decision to host the political, or some of the political leadership, of Hamas?

“There is some affinity, but here it’s not what matters. It’s a ruthless pragmatism on the part of Qatar to position itself as that indispensable mediator, as the best way to assure its survival as a regime given its vulnerabilities.”

‘We’re the good guys’

The same considerations drive Qatar’s hugely expensive public relations efforts, which were crowned with the successful 2022 FIFA World Cup and continue this year with Expo Doha 2023.

“Its extraordinary prosperity is based on this idea that we’re the good guys as a destination for foreign investment, a destination for tourism, a destination for mediation, and so on,” said Juneau.

Perhaps the most famous form of Qatari outreach is the Al Jazeera television network, which revolutionized Arab television starting in 1996.

Al Jazeera won over Arab audiences and infuriated Arab governments with its critical reporting on the dictatorships and monarchies of the region. Yet there was one absolute monarchy it never criticized: its patrons, the Al-Thanis of Qatar.

Al Jazeera was a major factor in one of the biggest crises Qatar ever had to weather, when in June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain all severed relations with Doha and the Saudis imposed a blockade on Qatar’s only land border.

Their governments accused Qatar of fomenting radicalism throughout the Arab world.

Qatar made it through four years of blockade with help from Iran and Turkey, and arguably emerged stronger. Saudi Arabia normalized its relations with Qatar in 2021 and Al Jazeera stayed on the air. But many analysts have noticed that it has toned down its criticism of other Arab governments somewhat.

Atrocities test Qatar’s tolerance

Although Qatar has reasons to believe its approach works, Juneau said Hamas’s atrocities in southern Israel test the limits of what the Al-Thanis are willing to tolerate.

“It’s a safe assumption that it’s on the minds of the Qatari leadership that this is not what they signed up for,” he said.

Qatar may yet face demands from other countries to expel or even extradite Hamas leaders, he said, “because the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel was so apocalyptically violent and brutal.”

“”That being said, by and large, there is that argument that it’s in the interest of the U.S. to have Qatar remain as it is, a mediator who talks to everyone.”

Blinken’s comments in Doha on October 13 suggest that’s the U.S. view.

“I really thank Qatar for the work that they are doing to try to help secure the release of hostages,” he said. “This is something that we deeply appreciate.”

The US government closely watches the movements of the Hamas leadership in Qatar. On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on one of them, Muhammad Ahmad ‘Abd Al-Dayim Nasrallah, whom it described as having “close ties to Iranian elements” and being “involved in the transfer of tens of millions of dollars to Hamas, including Hamas’s military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassim Brigades.”

Crying, a woman holds her child on the floor, surrounded by others at al-Shifa hospital, following Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City.
Wounded Palestinians lay at the al-Shifa hospital following Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Abed Khaled/The Associated Press)

The Qatari Embassy in Ottawa told CBC News its government also wants to see relief for the people of Gaza.

“When the crisis began, HH the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, and [the] Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign [Affairs] established many contacts with many regional and international officials to seek de-escalation of the situation, hoping that the war will stop and humanitarian corridors will be secured to pass aid to Gaza, as well as the issue of civilian prisoners … Qatar is working with its partners for their return to their families in the end,” the embassy said.

“Qatar hopes that all the detained hostages and prisoners will return and Qatar is doing everything in its power for their safe release.”

Juneau said Qatar’s services will likely be required again.

“Unless you think that Israel is able to destroy Hamas, of which I’m skeptical, Hamas will survive, even if it will be weakened,” he said. “And there will need to be talks with Hamas at some point. And somebody has to host these talks, somebody has to coordinate these talks, somebody has to initiate these talks.

“If it’s not Qatar, then you are stuck with somebody else doing it, which may not be as useful as Qatar.”