US President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, January 31, 2022

Qatar’s Game Of Catch-22

Thursday, 11/16/2023

The world is well aware of Qatar’s critical mediating role for the release of Israeli and foreign hostages taken by Hamas during its October 7 attack on Israel.

President Biden and the Qatari emir spoke over the phone on November 12 about Qatar’s mediation with Hamas and Biden thanked the emir for his intervention on behalf of the hostages. The phone call took place just after the November 11 joint Arab League-Islamic (OIC) Conference summit in Riyadh.

The summit, a display of Arab and Islamic fraternity, nonetheless, seemed to have achieved little practical outcome. A year ago, no one foresaw that Arab leaders would welcome two “rogue” (per the common parlance of the US foreign policy apparatus) actors into their midst: Iran (Raisi) and Syria (Assad), aka the Axis of Resistance, along with Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad. In fact, between 2017 and 2021, the Saudis and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) treated Qatar, a founding member of the club, like a “renegade.”

Arguably, Hamas’ 7 October attack and the abduction of Israeli and foreign national hostages, was the historic event that placed Qatar’s sovereign prince, Tamim bin Hamad on par with Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia at the Riyadh summit and underscored the key role that they both play at this critical juncture.

Qatar’s participation at the Riyadh summit raised hopes that the Arab leaders would be able to set a practical path forward about the Israel-Gaza war. The last time that Arab leaders arrived at such a practical consensus was at the 2002 Beirut Summit when they set up a comprehensive “agenda for peace” in the Middle East. The Arab Peace Initiative’ called for the implementation of UNSCR 242, offered a rather nuanced revision of the Oslo Accord, reiterated its commitment for a two-state solution, and called for normalization of relations with Israel.

A general view of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November,11, 2023.

In 2002, Qatar was a collegial member of a cohort that wished to set out on a productive path in the ever-stalling Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. Two decades later, Qatar exalts in a diplomatic purgatory between anti-Israel, ultra-right Islamist “rogue” actors like Hamas and the Taliban, and the rest of the world. Qatar’s evolving foreign policy has thus broken with the standards of Arab conservative monarchies’ statecraft.

Qatar’s wish to be a master of its own house and commander of its own fate is no secret. Since the mid-1990s that emir Tamim’s father, emir Hamad, took control of the small monarchy in a coup, scholars and experts have been grappling to make sense of the many “contradictory” paths that Qatar has been taking. Some even called Qatar a major player in an emerging Arab Cold War.

Despite all the ups and downs in Qatar’s foreign policy, the year 2015 was a pivotal year. With the civil war unraveling Syria and Libya, Qatar proactively aligned itself with Turkey’s Erdogan and sought to consolidate her place as a patron of Hamas. Qatar’s ability to assert itself could not have happened without its growing status as a contender in global energy security that controls about fourteen percent of global natural gas reserves. This newly found independence as an energy superpower may have to do with its increasingly assertive tone vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and the GCC.

Research and commentary on Qatar’s rise and its “contradictory” foreign policy paths has been confusing and contradictory. Indeed, Qatar studies’ enterprise uncannily resemble the making-sense-of-Iran industry in DC’s beltway. Notwithstanding concerns that Qatar and other Gulf countries could be influencing research on their foreign policy through generous donations to US universities, two camps have risen to explain and critique the evolution of Qatar’s foreign policy over the past twenty years.

The first school argues that Qatar’s eccentric foreign policy diplomacy should be understood in the wake of several transformational shifts that revolutionized the region’s power dynamics between 1992 and 2010: Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and its eventual expulsion, the fall of Saddam as a result of the 2003 US invasion, and the Arab Spring. Since 1990, they argue, Qatar has endeavoured to achieve a status equal to that of Saudi Arabia. Qatar apologists cite its indispensability to any future Middle East Peace considering the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani upon his arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 10, 2023.

Qatar critics consider Qatar’s regional influence, acknowledge its domestic challenges and insecurities, and point out its regional and transnational aspirations. They cite Qatar’s catalogue of nonconformities as evidence of a state seeking hegemony through collusion with a rogue regional state (Iran) and the patron of non-state actors (Hamas and Hezbollah), as well as Libyan and Syrian armed factions.

Qatar has slowly pivoted toward, in order of importance, the US, Iran, Turkey, and has sought to be the patron of Hamas, the Taliban, and several armed Sunni Islamist factions in Syria and Libya. Despite Qatar’s opposition to Assad’s regime, its very rivalry with Saudi Arabia has brought it closer to Iran that is at once Hamas’ other patron and Saudi Arabia’s rival in the region.

This is not a policy of keeping “your friends close” and “your enemies closer.” Qatar’s national security doctrine seems to hinge on one pivot: to elevate Qatar into a global middle power above the fray of an ever volatile interplay between Qatar’s neighbours and their regional adversaries. Meanwhile, Qatar declares itself the friend of everyone, taking for granted the good graces of the US, its chief geostrategic and security ally.

Such a stance indeed allowed Qatar to play an important role as a mediator between various parties and ostensibly as a “devil’s advocate.” Qatar hosted the US-Taliban negotiations between, first, Trump, and, then Biden’s administrations in Doha. As a result, the Biden administration’s rushed and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fall of the country back the Taliban. Qatar played a similar mediating, “Devil’s’ advocate” role between the Mullahs of Iran and the Biden administration in the case of the release of US dual nationals from Iranian prisons. During those negotiations the US allowed South Korea to release six billion dollars of Iranian funds from its banks to be funnelled back to Iran through Qatar.

Nurturing such a comradery with “rogue” actors like Iran and Hamas has hardened Qatar’s approach towards normalization between Israel and her GCC neighbors. Qatar’s reservations against the Abraham Accords must thus been seen in light of its historical paranoia, the 2017-2021 blockade, and the Kuwait War syndrome combined. The events of 7 October and their aftermath, however, have revealed that Qatar’s unease with the Abraham Accords as well as its patronage of Hamas has more significant repercussions than that of a small state seeking global middle power status.

Whether one lambasts Qatar or accepts it as an egocentric cousin, the remedy that both schools of thought seek is the same: Qatar must be engaged to reduce risks to a resolution of the Arab Israeli conflict.

Qatar’s longstanding paranoia towards Saudi Arabia as well as its Kuwait War Syndrome fears are certainly key in determining the contours of its national security doctrine, that needs further exploration. Such a deep seated, and very well founded, sense of insecurity does dictate henceforth Qatar’s foreign policy decisions, but it could be emboldening anti-status quo actors such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. In the final analysis, Qatari foreign policy is driven by paranoia, aiming to liberate Qatar from the influence of all regional hegemonic actors in a volatile region. Drawing on John Heller's wisdom in Catch-22 ("Just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you"), Qatar's foreign policy appears to be a "Catch-22" diplomacy, with its ultimate outcome only discernible in hindsight.

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