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President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with the Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Unfairly Maligned? The Cost of Mediation on Qatar-U.S. Relations

Following the Hamas attack against southern Israel on October 7, 2023, calls have risen in the Republican Party to scrap America’s strategic partnership with Qatar over its ties to the Gaza-based group. The pressure on Doha comes without offering an alternative communication channel or a mediator with leverage over the group, risking the ceasefire and hostage release talks. The Qatari leadership, which has long sought to establish a close partnership with the United States, is predictably dismayed by this push, and are struggling with how to push back against it. This marks the second time in only a handful of years that Qatar’s relationship with the United States has come under strain, with immediate consequences for Doha’s national security.

Ultimately, the GOP criticism is not fully warranted. The links between Qatar and Washington’s adversaries is not  as strong as some commentators have suggested. Unlike its strong relations with the U.S.—affirmed by its designation as a “major non-NATO ally,” a status awarded by President Biden in 2022 in gratitude for Qatar’s assistance during the Kabul Airlift—Qatar does not enjoy a strategic partnership with Hamas or Iran, and its engagements with both seem to be selectively issue-based. When Iranian delegations visit Qatar, their hosts carefully monitor the Iranians’ activities to ensure they have limited opportunities for illicit information-gathering. By contrast, America’s Al Udeid air base grants the United States unrivaled strategic presence in Qatar. Doha reportedly may have also issued an ultimatum to Hamas to accept a truce in Gaza amid the fighting there, even threatening to expel its leaders if it failed to come to an agreement with the United States and Israel. Though Qatar does not wield as much influence with Hamas as its opponents claim, because the group engages with multiple other countries and regional actors in the Middle East, it is fundamentally pulling in the same direction as the Biden administration on a key foreign policy issue, i.e. to build a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

As tensions rise across the Middle East, Qatar’s fate hinges on maintaining its partnership with the United States while pragmatically engaging with America’s adversaries. This gives Qatar a unique role to negotiate with a wide range of actors—a benefit that successive American administrations have recognized. By virtue of its position as a go-between or go-to mediator for all regional parties, Qatar necessarily is viewed as a country willing to negotiate—or even sympathize—with rogue regimes and terrorists, but this could be an occupational hazard of carrying out diplomacy with unsavory parties. Currently, the fact remains that Iran is one country with which the United States could negotiate to build some stability in the Middle East, and GCC states seem to be better suited to negotiate with the Islamic Republic and its proxies or allies in the absence of direct U.S.-Iran diplomacy. Moreover, many of Qatar’s past actions toward Gaza that voices within the United States and Israel now denounce were implemented at the behest of officials in Washington and Tel Aviv. A look back at Qatari mediation in Gaza over the past decade could remind U.S. policymakers of Qatari maneuverability in the region when crises erupt.

Qatari Engagement in Gaza

Qatar has long played a role in Gaza, often in lock-step with Israel and usually in the interest of the United States. In spite of the ferocity of the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), and the U.S. State Department’s designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization in 1997, Israeli and Qatari officials met frequently in the 1990s. After the Second Intifada (2000-2005), Qatar reportedly opened a communication channel with Hamas, once again at Washington’s request. When Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative election but failed to exert control over the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, it split with the PA and turned its attention to controlling and governing Gaza. To solve the immediate problem of ensuring stability in Gaza and its residents’ ability to access basic services, Qatar pledged $50 million in aid to Gaza with Israel’s explicit approval.

The same diplomatic channels that strengthened after Hamas relocated its political bureau to Qatar in 2012 would prove critical when Israel sought to establish a ceasefire during the Israel-Hamas conflicts that erupted in 2014, 2021, 2022, and 2023. In each war’s wake, Qatari funds helped to rebuild Gaza. In October 2012, the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani visited Gaza to launch a series of investment projects. In October 2014, Qatar pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to help with reconstruction efforts—the largest single aid package for this purpose from any donor. When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas flew from the West Bank to Doha to meet Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in August 2014, Qatar’s new leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani stepped in to help reconcile the two Palestinian leaders.

As an Arab country with an influence over events in Gaza, Qatari policies also challenged Iran’s ties with Hamas through 2017. The militant group seemingly vacillated between embracing relations with Iran, which insisted on aligning Hamas interests with Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or the Sunni Arab governments of the region. In 2018, Israel once again gave Doha the green light to provide aid to Gaza in order to improve the humanitarian situation there. When the United States, Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE announced the 2020 Abraham Accords, which sought to normalize Arab-Israeli ties, Qatar avoided joining the deal until a two-state solution could be reached. But when violence erupted between Israel and Hamas in 2021, Qatar moved to suspend its financial assistance to the group—resuming it later following a deal with Israel in which Doha agreed that funding would be only used to send fuel and construction materials to Gaza.

Pressure Mounts

In spite of its record of cooperating with Israel on the Gaza issue, Qatar bore the brunt of criticism for aiding Hamas after the group attacked Israel on October 7. Israel insisted that the aid flow Tel Aviv had once encouraged had opened channels to finance and strengthen Hamas’ leadership, a point that Doha continues to dispute.

For the most part, the United States has defended Qatar’s mediation role—President Biden and Secretary Blinken have each thanked Qatar for its diplomacy and mediation efforts. Still, tensions and frustrations have lingered. On October 13, Secretary Blinken traveled to Qatar to deliver the message that there could be no more business as usual with Hamas. However, the Secretary declined to say whether the United States would push Doha to close the Hamas political offices in the country—an office which allows for some level of indirect negotiations between the group and its Western opponents.

In the months since October 7, Qatar has helped secure the release of several hostages from Gaza, including two Americans, and negotiated the evacuation of injured Palestinians and foreign nationals through the Rafah crossing into Egypt. By January 2024, the U.S. had received Qatar’s assistance to craft a humanitarian aid deal for Gaza.

In recent weeks, Republican legislators have pressured the Biden administration to force Qatar to extradite Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Groups inside Israel, however, have stressed that they view Doha’s mediatory role as a solution to the Gaza war. Nevertheless, pressure has mounted on Doha, forcing its Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, to reevaluate the state’s role as a mediator.

The alliance between Qatar and the U.S. has its costs for Doha. Iran’s hardline position and significant operational military capabilities across the Middle East make Qatar particularly vulnerable because it is home to a major U.S. military base and bears the title of “major non-NATO ally.” Iran and its allies see the American-Qatari partnership as yet another U.S. move to contain the Islamic Republic. But with ambiguities surrounding Qatar’s reluctance to break its engagement with Hamas or Iran, this Gulf state may have been asked to take on more than it may have signed up for.

Calls to evict Hamas’ leadership from Qatar and end the engagement with the group that previously served the United States—and Israel—could hinder progress in American foreign policy if and when it should decide to restore the peace by engaging with multiple regional actors despite their diverse interests. Achieving the outcomes in Gaza that Washington desires, and above all a humanitarian ceasefire, could require talking to hostile states and groups, with help from countries like Qatar, if a larger war with Iran and Hamas were to be averted. This would not be the first time that America would be negotiating with actors on the international scene that pursue interests diametrically opposed with America’s. But this time, U.S. policymakers are facing the possibility of having to reconcile America’s important goal of helping defend Israel with the need to sometimes negotiate with its adversaries. This undesirable position, and the U.S. partnership with Qatar, no matter how challenging, may continue to constitute a hallmark of America’s foreign policy approach to the region for the time being.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: U.S. – Gulf Policy
Country: Qatar

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Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush is a scholar of international affairs, an international geopolitical consultant, and the President of MidEast Analysts. She is a former Fellow at the International Institute for Iranian Studies, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and a team member at the Carnegie-funded Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation Project. She also served as the Vice-Chair of the Middle East Forum at the Commonwealth Club of California. Her other professional experiences include advisory, public affairs, and analytical work for government agencies, international organizations, policy centers, and private companies across a multitude of sectors. An academic for over thirteen years, she has conducted fieldwork in the Middle East for two decades, including in Saudi Arabia and Iran, was a visiting scholar at Princeton University, and a visiting fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. She received her Ph.D. from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and completed her coursework at The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.


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