from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

How Brave Is Qatar?

August 25, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Qatar has acquired a reputation for sharp, quick responses to crises in the Arab world and for modern and unorthodox thinking.

It is undeserved.

Qatari diplomatic activity is designed to advance the interests of the tiny country and of its ruling family. Its adoption of the Libyan opposition, for example, is not based on any principle (such as liberty, democracy, or free elections), for the Qatari government and its TV station, Al Jazeera, have been notably silent about the crisis in Bahrain. There, they have backed the royal family and the Saudi-led GCC armed presence.

A reasonable test of the Qatari ability to provide real leadership and new thinking is Qatar’s relations with Israel, which are getting worse and worse. According to press reports, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has concluded that “Qatar has stepped up its activity on behalf of Hamas and other Gaza terror groups. Qatar has been one of the chief backers of the PA’s bid to declare an Arab state in PA-controlled areas of Judea and Samaria, and has been a major funder of anti-Israel groups abroad. Qatar also promised to fund all legal action Turkey might take against Israel in international courts over the deaths of Hamas-affiliated Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara last year.” Moreover, the story goes on, “Qatar’s activity included significant involvement in the legal preparations of the Palestinian request to the UN, and it has been pushing the PA towards the unilateral move of declaring Palestinian statehood in September. The report states further that Qatar maintains intense ties with Hamas, which include, among other things, frequent visits by Hamas Political Bureau Director Khaled Mashal to Doha.”

As a result, Israel has closed its one-man commercial office in Doha and is now blocking Qatari activities with Israeli Arabs and in the Palestinian territories, including by the giant Qatar Foundation. Qatari representatives will henceforth not be permitted to visit Israel or the West Bank.

In this context it is worth asking why, if Qatar is so supportive of the Palestinians, it gives them so little money. Today Qatar announced a gift of $50 million to the Palestinian Authority, to help pay salaries. This will be extremely helpful to the PA, but it  brings its donations to the PA in 2011 to….well, to $50 million. This, from a country that runs a multi-billion dollar budget surplus each year, has an $85 billion sovereign wealth fund, and plans to spend $4 billion on new stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. The priorities are clear.

Backing the royal family in Bahrain, supporting Hamas but then giving some money to the PA, and financing the rebels in Libya shows Qatari flexibility, but not courageous leadership. What does Qatar seek, beyond influence? Influence for what? If one judges by the programming on Al Jazeera, the royal family seeks a Middle East where American influence is diminished and radical groups are more powerful. But that would be a Middle East with little room for fabulously wealthy kings, sheiks, and emirs. As ye sow....

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