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23 October 2023

Was Israel wrong to trust Qatar?

Doha hosts Hamas as part of a cynical geopolitical game.

By John Jenkins

Amid the horrors of the attack in ­Israel, it has been common for commentators to talk about the relationship between Iran and Hamas, the Islamist militant movement that is the de facto government in the Gaza Strip. There is a perfectly reasonable concern that Hamas’s performative savagery and Israel’s thirst for vengeance will precipitate a wider conflict. Iran and its friends in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq have all gleefully threatened Israel’s imminent destruction and warned of direct retaliation if Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, orders a ground invasion of Gaza – as, of course, he will.

Iran is undoubtedly important for Hamas, not least for the enormous sums of money it reportedly disburses every year. The pair had a temporary estrangement over Bashar al-Assad’s bloodbath in Syria. But now that they have agreed that the only bloodbath that matters is in Israel, any clouds have cleared.

There is, however, one tiny Arab state whose uninterrupted support for Hamas is of longer standing than Iran’s and yet mostly (but not always) manages to avoid the critical scrutiny it deserves. If all you knew of Qatar was its excellent airline or the Qatar Tourism Authority’s slick adverts, you might wonder why anyone would want to question Qatar’s good faith. After all, hasn’t it offered to mediate the conflict? Aren’t the US and other Western countries even now trying to instrumentalise Doha’s ties with Hamas to see if some sort of broader deal might be possible?

Yet in other ways Doha’s ties with Hamas are deeply problematic. It has helped Hamas survive and prosper as a movement with its roots in Gaza and the West Bank, but much of its leadership safely and comfortably ensconced elsewhere. Doha serves as one of two main external bases for Hamas (the other is in Turkey). The Israeli government has helped too. Over the past five years it has allowed Qatar to fund Hamas’s oppressive and often brutal rule in Gaza through transfers of cash – around $30m a month – and fuel. Israel has done so principally to avoid taking responsibility for the welfare of people living there, but also in the hope that by sustaining Hamas in Gaza it would widen the split between Gaza and the West Bank, undermine the Palestinian Authority (PA) and make the prospect of a unified Palestinian position impossible.

That Hamas is – and was – regarded as a terrorist organisation by the US, the UK and many European countries added to the attraction. No one was going to put pressure on Israel to negotiate with a group that rejected “peaceful solutions, initiatives and international conferences”, thought Jews the enemies of mankind and Israel an abomination that needed to be violently destroyed.

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These beliefs, as we have recently seen, were not fundamentally altered by the organisation’s 2017 Document of General Principles. And if Qatar paid, then maybe Hamas would not need Iranian money quite so much. In any case, Hamas would be too busy trying to run Gaza to do anything more ambitious. There might be periodic exchanges of fire. But then there would be another temporary deal, and the status quo affirmed.

[See also: The Middle East on the brink]

All that has, of course, been shown to be a lethal illusion, which should really have been clear long before the current crisis. Hamas has not changed. It offers the prospect not of a political settlement to the Palestinian question but only endless conflict. And that raises the question of what Qatar has hoped to gain from hosting the group.

Was Israel wrong to trust Qatar? It could have asked the Saudis and the Emiratis, the Libyans who suffered from Qatar’s sponsorship of Islamists after 2011, or the Lebanese who saw Qatari mediation in 2008 result in Hezbollah gaining a structural power of veto in the cabinet that has enabled it to hold the entire political process there – such as it is – to ransom.

Israel could have asked why Qatar has devoted such enormous amounts of money to promoting varieties of highly conservative, often separatist, and socially disruptive Islamism across Europe. It could have looked into what exactly Fifa’s awarding of the men’s football World Cup to Qatar tells us about the probity of the country’s government, and what more recent allegations of hacking attacks on Qatar’s critics tell us about Doha’s desire to prevent anyone questioning its motives.

To understand Qatar’s relationship with Hamas it is helpful to reflect on the reasons behind the major Gulf Cooperation Council split in 2014; when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain sought to punish Qatar for what they saw as its unacceptable and ­uncollegiate grandstanding.

The principal cause of the dispute was the Muslim Brotherhood, the role it and its ­affiliates – including Hamas – had played during the so-called Arab Spring, and the significant Qatari support for it and other Islamist groups (which did not extend to support for Islamist groups or indeed dissent and investigative journalism in general inside Qatar itself).

Other Gulf states had given huge material and moral support to the Muslim Brotherhood and related groups for decades. In each instance, however, the driver was raison d’état not ideological convergence. The Saudis, for example, wished to harness the Brotherhood as an instrument of statecraft in the battle against other more immediate and obviously revolutionary threats, particularly Nasserism, Ba’athism and communism.

The trouble was that the presence of committed Muslim Brothers and the mighty support provided to them and other Islamists by Saudi religious institutions produced an ideological ferment, combining political activism and intolerance with an intense Salafi focus on issues of doctrine and personal conduct. From the 1960s this produced a regional movement – known as the Islamic Sahwa (“Awakening”) – which came in the 1990s to pose a powerful challenge to existing political dispensations across the Gulf, and indeed more widely.

When the Arab uprisings erupted in late 2010, it brought into sharp focus a fundamental policy divergence with profound implications for the future of the Gulf (and the Arab world as a whole). Qatar and Turkey thought Islamists were the future. By supporting them across the region they would, in the case of Ankara, build a network of co-believers who would welcome Turkish leadership. Doha wanted a network of clients guaranteeing support for a tiny but spectacularly wealthy state that sought to distinguish itself from its neighbours through performative and highly personalised activism. Saudi Arabia and the UAE understood Islamism as a threat.

As it turned out, the Saudis and Emiratis made the better bet. Polling across the Middle East and North Africa in the past ten years – and most election results – show that pluralities and often majorities of young people (who constitute in turn a demographic majority across the region) prefer security, economic growth, jobs, services and certain social freedoms to the millenarian promises of Islamism. It is true that Hamas continues to poll well in the West Bank and Gaza (often better in the former than the latter, which suggests that direct experience of Hamas rule makes people more sceptical). But the numbers tend to hover around 50 per cent –  which in turn suggests that, even given their disgust with the political alternatives of Fatah and the PA, and despair about the absence of a political horizon, many Palestinians remain reluctant to trust Hamas.

Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu via Getty Images

The two great material success stories of the past decade or so have not been Qatar or anywhere Islamists are in power. They have been the UAE and now Saudi Arabia. For Sheikh  Mohammed bin Zayed and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the choice is a controlled aggiornamento – a modern mirror of the centuries when the multicultural trading towns of the Gulf flourished in the interstices of empires – or a religious closure. However sceptical one might be about Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, the model both countries promote of a neo-patrimonial Arab and Islamic, highly securitised and segmented, but also socially permissive modernity is clearly appealing to young Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Shia, Sunnis, Christians, and others across the region.

MBS and Sheikh Mohammed are also engaged in the delicate task of constructing national identities based on loyalty to dynastic rulers and their reading of Islam, as well as a set of defined – if also constructed – territorial and historical characteristics, an instantiation and incarnation of Islam in rather than against the world.

They still face serious opposition. Islam offers a powerful tool for framing issues of social justice, equity and legitimacy. Harsh repression will not simply make this go away. And transnational issues such as Palestine, although they have lost much of their valency among policy elites, retain a significant emotional claim on ordinary people. This too will not simply disappear. That is why political freedom is not on offer.

But then again, Doha’s support for Islamists was never about political freedom. Islamists have little time for it. And freedom has never been on offer in Qatar. Its support for Hamas, like its one-time relationship with Israel, was designed as a positional good – to advertise Doha’s apparent willingness to engage with everyone. If you’re everybody’s friend, you have no enemies.

The trouble is, as the current situation in Gaza shows, there really isn’t any way in the modern Middle East to avoid picking sides. Saudi Arabia and the UAE recognise this –which is why they want to keep their distance, precisely in order to preserve their options.

For them, the choice is between an old Middle East of entrenched conflict, Islamist ideologies, the struggle for absolute regional dominance and a hatred of Israel and the US; and a newer one in which modernisation, globalisation and collective prosperity and security are the priority. It remains unclear whether these goals can be achieved. Groups such as Hamas stand in their way. So does Iran, the revanchist power par excellence. Iran may certainly try to escalate if Israel launches a ground invasion. But it is far from clear that this would be a winning strategy. Already, the Biden administration has offered more wholehearted support for Israel than ever before.

In addition, those Israelis who had previously refused to serve have returned to the armed forces. War can be unifying, especially when the threat seems existential. No significant Arab state, whatever the feelings of sections of their populations, the threats of militias or the empty statements they issue, wants to go to war on behalf of Gaza.

If Hezbollah does so, Israel will rain down destruction on Beirut and Damascus (Israel has already struck the airports in the latter, as well as in Aleppo). Everyone loses. And a Palestinian state is no nearer. In truth, a negotiated settlement has always been necessary. Hamas cannot deliver it. But nor can Qatar – unless it joins with others to repudiate the violent political nihilism that Hamas offers, and seeks a collective way through the mayhem towards the better future for all that its neighbours have glimpsed, and would like to deliver, but now fear to lose. Israel must play its part too, hard as it will be. The time when individual states such as Qatar could pretend to exercise influence through their sponsorship of disruptive groups has passed.

This article was originally published on 18 October. John Jenkins is a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Burma. He also served as a senior diplomat in Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Malaysia, and as director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign Office in London

[See also: The strange discord of being British and Jewish]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts