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Why Qatar is the go-to mediator in the Gaza war, and beyond

Why Qatar is the go-to mediator in the Gaza war, and beyond
7 min read
29 April, 2024
Analysis: Qatar has long served as a diplomatic bridge for regional and international foreign policy challenges.

In Washington, there are differing opinions about Qatar. But this gas-wealthy country, which is home to the largest American military presence in the Middle East, is probably the US’s closest ally in the Gulf.

Over the years, Washington has worked with Doha in relation to many hotspots, including Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

Across many domains, including counterterrorism, investment, trade, economics, diplomacy, culture, education, and health, the US-Qatar relationship is deep and multifaceted. With unique diplomatic capabilities, Qatar has helped Washington deal with many foreign policy challenges in the Middle East.

Since the Hamas-led incursion into southern Israel on 7 October and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza, Doha has invested much diplomatic energy into trying to secure the release of hostages, address Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophes, and bring the two sides to a ceasefire.

Doha’s diplomatic work has produced positive and concrete results for Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians. Indeed, had it not been for Qatari efforts, no hostages would have been released by this point.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has visited Doha on numerous occasions since the Gaza war erupted last year and praised Qatar for its efforts.

Qatar has much experience playing its diplomatic cards vis-à-vis Israel/Palestine. In previous conflicts between Israel and Gaza-based factions, such as those in 2014 and 2021, Doha served as a diplomatic bridge between the US and Israel, on one side, and Hamas, on the other.

Also, over the years, Qatar, in coordination with Israel, has used its resources and diplomatic clout to help Gaza deal with its humanitarian challenges and energy issues.

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“Given Qatar’s previous connections with the concerned parties, its long-standing role in Gaza, and its well-established track record of delivering concrete outcomes in previous Israel-Gaza wars and other cases, Doha’s role in mediating between Hamas and Israel is formidable,” Dr Ali Bakir, an assistant professor at Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldon Center and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, told The New Arab.

“All the involved parties recognise this fact. However, the personal interests and goals of Netanyahu, in particular, make it challenging for Doha to broker an agreement. If Israel, Hamas, and the US had a better mediation option, they would not hesitate to shift the mandate from Qatar to another country,” added Dr Bakir.

“Nevertheless, they know Qatar is their best chance, and asking another country to mediate would put them in a much more difficult position.”

Beyond Israel/Palestine, Doha has been a mediator and facilitator of dialogue in relation to other conflicts throughout the Islamic world such as those in Afghanistan, Chad, Lebanon, Sudan, and Yemen.

Had it not been for Qatari efforts, no hostages would have been released by this point. [Getty]

The Qataris have played an important bridging role between the US and Iran, underscored by the September 2023 prisoner/hostage exchange. Earlier this month, Doha brokered a deal between Russia and Ukraine to reunite children with their families.

Although many analysts expected the US-Qatar relationship to suffer during Trump’s presidency, it actually strengthened. That was arguably an unintended outcome of the Emirati- and Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, which lasted from June 2017 until January 2021.

Then, with Biden at the helm, Washington’s ties with Doha have only deepened further. Qatar’s help with the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and Washington’s decision to designate Qatar a major non-NATO ally in early 2022 highlight this point.

Qatar's critics

Nonetheless, there are all elements in Washington’s political scene who believe that Qatar is a problematic actor which harms US interests. Especially among neo-conservatives, there is constant criticism of Doha for its relationship with Hamas, the Taliban, and other actors in the Islamic world.

Rather than seeing Qatar as a useful diplomatic bridge to Hamas, these anti-Qatar voices in Washington maintain that Doha is a sponsor of the Palestinian group and is actively seeking to empower it for ideological purposes.

As Israel struggles to achieve its wartime objectives in Gaza, these figures in Washington have been pointing their fingers at Doha and arguing that much blame belongs on Qatar’s doorstep.

One of the main reasons why Doha has received a significant amount of criticism from certain elements within Washington’s political arena and think tank space pertains to the fact that Qatar has hosted Hamas’ exiled political leadership since 2012.

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Although the Obama administration requested that Qatar host Hamas’ politburo after the Palestinian group and Syria’s government had their falling out in 2011/12, there are voices in the US capital who see it as unacceptable that some Hamas leaders are based in Doha.

Throughout this year, Qatar has started to assertively push back against these accusations. On 16 April, the Qatari embassy in Washington released a statement responding to a press release put out one day earlier by Congressman Steny Hoyer which addressed Doha and the Gaza hostage ordeal.

The Democratic lawmaker said that Hamas has used Qatar to “exact greater concessions from Israel” and that Doha needs to “make it clear to Hamas that there will be repercussions if it continues to block progress toward releasing the hostages and establishing a temporary ceasefire”. Hoyer’s statement also declared that if Doha “fails to apply this pressure, the United States must re-evaluate its relationship with Qatar”.

The Qatari embassy’s statement said that “blaming and threatening the mediator is not constructive”, reaffirming Doha’s continued commitment to not give up on the hostages, and also emphasising that Qatar is “only a mediator” that can’t control either Hamas or Israel.

Across many domains, including counterterrorism, investment, trade, economics, diplomacy, culture, education, and health, the US-Qatar relationship is deep and multifaceted. [Getty]

Until and unless the hostage crisis in Gaza is unresolved, it seems extremely unlikely that the Biden administration would pressure Doha into expelling Hamas’ political leadership from Qatar.

“As long as the negotiations are active, it is hard to imagine the Hamas leadership moving out of Doha for whatever reason. However, if they were to theoretically do this, it would certainly undermine US interests in particular given Doha’s primary role and commitment in securing these interests. The prospects of reaching an agreement would likely be diminished with the current dynamics,” said Dr Bakir in an interview with TNA.

Yet, at some point after the hostage standoff is in one way or another over, it is not necessarily unthinkable that the US leadership - either with Biden or his successor in the Oval Office - would apply such pressure on Doha.

It is also possible that the Qataris would make that decision on their own to go the extra mile in terms of preserving good relations with Washington. Nonetheless, some experts believe that such an outcome would not bode well for Washington.

Noting that Hamas’ presence in Doha has been at the behest of Washington and that US CENTCOM’s forward headquarters are in al-Udeid, located southwest of Doha, Dr Mehran Kamrava, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Qatar, explained that the US “has eyes and ears everywhere [in Qatar] and can keep close tabs on Hamas”.

He also told TNA that “Hamas’ potential move to another country is likely to greatly reduce the US ability to keep abreast of the organisation’s moves and initiatives”.

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Looking ahead, while some US lawmakers and think tanks will continue bashing Qatar, it appears that Washington and Doha’s alliance will remain strong.

“Unless the current anti-Qatar sentiments in the US Congress turn into law, which would then force the US president to initiative changes to the nature of the relationship between the two countries, the relationship is quite solid,” offered Dr Kamrava in an interview with TNA.

“US-Qatari relations are based on four dimensions: cultural, with US universities in Qatar; economic, with the massive amounts of investments by US firms in the country; political, with close collaboration in a number of political and diplomatic areas; and security, with a sizeable presence of the US military in Qatar. The foundations of these relationships are unlikely to change,” he added.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero