By Bilal Y. Saab
For anyone who has been following Qatari foreign policy over the past decade, or has had a chance to read Article 7 of the country’s 2003 constitution, which explicitly states that the country should strive to be an international peacemaker, Doha’s recent attempts to mediate between Israel and Hamas should come as no surprise. Mediation has been the stock-in-trade of recent Qatari foreign policy; it made similar diplomatic forays in Yemen in 2007 and 2008, Lebanon in 2008, and Sudan in 2009 and 2010.
The political context underlying Qatar’s latest diplomatic intervention, however, has exposed the risks inherent in its broader strategy. Doha’s foray into Gaza comes amid a heated Saudi–Iranian proxy war across the Middle East and an ongoing dispute within an unprecedentedly polarized Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Qatar is a part. Although Qatar’s foreign policy has not changed, it is no longer going to be able to pose as a neutral arbiter.
Doha is clearly motivated by a belief that, at a time when the influence of traditional regional powers — Egypt and Saudi Arabia above all — is thought to be waning, it can gain ground on, or even surpass, its peers. Qatar’s goal has been to endorse and sponsor the rise of political Islamists (specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates), which it sees as the region’s largest and deepest political force, and thereby increase its own influence. Its public strategy for accomplishing that goal has been to present itself as a tireless mediator in the region’s most pressing conflicts.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have serious issues with Qatar’s regional politicking. Rather than an honest broker, they consider Doha an interloper intent on undermining the regional status quo — and their political and security interests. Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani understands that these countries consider the Muslim Brotherhood a major political threat, and are doing everything they can to crush it. That is why he has taken measures to ensure that Qatar is not diplomatically isolated: He has partnered with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; kept Washington apprised of his diplomatic plans; stabilized relations with Iran; and improved ties with Oman. Moreover, Thani, like his father who preceded him as Qatar’s ruler, believes that the potential rewards of his assertive foreign policy outweigh the risks of alienating other regional players.
This is not the first time Qatar has dabbled in Palestinian politics. In October 2006, it mediated between Hamas and Fatah, although a year later Riyadh upstaged Doha by brokering the Mecca Agreement, which formed a Palestinian unity government, itself short-lived. Soon after the Syrian civil war started, Khalid Meshaal, Hamas’ political chief, departed Damascus, where he had been hosted by the Syrian government, and settled in Doha. From there, under the guidance of the Qatari leadership, Meshaal continued to coordinate his group’s political and military activities in Gaza.
But now, Qatar is openly seeking to take over Egypt’s traditional role as mediator between the Palestinians and Israel. Egyptian officials suspect that Hamas only rejected its recent ceasefire plan because Qatar claimed it could broker a better deal. Hamas (and Qatar) now claim that any ceasefire accord must include lifting of economic blockades imposed by Israel and Egypt on the Gaza Strip and a return to an understanding that ended the previous round of fighting in 2012, which promised to halt Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel and ease border crossings.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian military — who already harbor a grudge against Qatar because it bankrolled Mohammed Morsi, the previous Egyptian president — will not surrender the Palestinian file to Doha without a fight, especially as events in Gaza, which borders the Egyptian territory of Sinai, directly affect Egypt’s security. But Cairo’s political battle will be complicated by the fact that half the Egyptian people support the Muslim Brotherhood, and an even larger number sympathize with the Palestinian people’s suffering and support the opening of the Egyptian–Palestinian border.
These considerations have tied Sisi’s hands, which is why Saudi Arabia’s intervention with Qatar on Egypt’s behalf is crucial. It’s hard to know exactly what transpired when Thani met with Saudi King Abdullah on July 22 in Jeddah, although theprevious time, several months ago in Riyadh, he met with the Saudi ruler it was an unpleasant experience. At that meeting, Thani was scolded and instructed to stop aiding radical Islamists in Syria, and to sever ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Since then, Qatar’s role in Syria has waned in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s, although its Egypt policy and backing of the Muslim Brotherhood has not changed at all — and may even have intensified. (Earlier this month, Emirati authorities were said to have raided a Qatari intelligence cell trying to regroup the disbanded Al Islah group, which is allegedly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.)
Sources close to the Saudi government have leaked that the most recent meeting between Thani and Abdullah was anything but cordial. Abdullah and his national security team are said to have told the Qatari leader that his country’s border with Saudi Arabia was at risk of being closed and that its membership of the GCC was likely to be suspended before the group’s 35th annual summit (to be hosted by Doha) later this year, although these rumors have been subsequently disputed in private by senior Gulf officials. What’s clear is that they discussed Gaza and that the Saudi position is unlikely to have changed: Abdullah has always emphasized that all roads to mediation in Gaza must go through Cairo.
Mehran Kamrava, a professor of political science at Georgetown University, has aptly described Qatar with the phrase “small state, big politics.” Doha feels that this is the moment to expand its influence in the region by presenting itself as an honest broker. But unlike Oman, whose style of mediation is unbiased and much more low profile, Qatar, as perceived by its rivals, is anything but impartial, let alone a successful peacemaker. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi strongly believe that Doha’s interventions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria are designed to back Islamist proxies rather than sustainably resolve conflicts. That hardly makes it unique, however. Other Middle Eastern powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, have been doing the same for a long time. Therefore, Qatar should not be surprised that others in the region are treating it as a rival who is elbowing for influence, rather than as a mediator who is above the fray.