Argument

Qatar Is Using the Palestinians to Assert Its Regional Influence

It probably won’t work out well for either party.

Palestinian men line up to receive Qatari cash aid outside the post office in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, on March 31, 2020.
Palestinian men line up to receive Qatari cash aid outside the post office in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, on March 31, 2020. Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

Although Qatar has been one of the most steadfast supporters of the Palestinian cause, Palestinian-Qatari relations have generally been a one-way street. With Doha’s involvement in the Palestinian territories primarily centered around the provision of financial aid to the Gaza Strip (exceeding $1 billion between 2012 and 2018, according to some reports), Hamas has become increasingly reliant on Qatar to stave off humanitarian crisis and ensure its continued stranglehold on Gaza’s population. This aid has ensured that thousands of Palestinian families have homes through Qatari construction projects and allowed for the continued functioning of the education system as well as the steady supply of fuel and even the distribution of charity to families in need.

As with many things in Gaza, whose borders are controlled by Israel and Egypt, such external support has not just been coordinated with Israel, but has largely taken place at the Israeli government’s behest. In the absence of formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Qatar, coordination has taken place through Qatar’s Gaza envoy, Mohammed al-Emadi, who is responsible for both facilitating the flow of Qatari funds and, when needed, arranging security coordination. Although Qatar and Israel are members of opposing informal regional alliances (Qatar is a close ally of Turkey and has of late developed its relations with Iran), Israel has long seen it as an actor instrumental for stabilizing the region.

The stable relationship between the two countries, though, is now facing a reckoning. This month, the Gulf Cooperation Council lifted its blockade on Qatar, imposed in 2017 over accusations that Doha was cozying up to Iran and supporting terrorism across the region. The country’s neighbors are now seeking to bring Qatar back into the fold. Although the blockade’s imposition took Qatar by surprise, its negative impact on the country was minimal. It didn’t significantly hinder Qatar’s growth and rather pushed its drive towards self-sufficiency. Where the blockade did have a significant effect is in the way it underscored for Qatar the need to maintain other regional connections.

Qatar understands that the best place to reassert its importance as a regional actor is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Clarifying his country’s position that the recent wave of normalization agreements undermine the integrity of the Palestinian cause, Qatar’s foreign minister stated in November 2020, “I think it’s better to have a united [Arab] front to put the interests of the Palestinians [first] to end the [Israeli] occupation.” As a country vehemently against normalization and that maintains extensive under-the-table communication with Israel alongside formal ties with both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), Qatar recognizes that it will be most indispensable when relationships among all the sides need to be brokered by someone else.

The perceived betrayal of the Palestinian cause by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the first countries to board former U.S. President Donald Trump’s normalization train, has left PA Authority President Mahmoud Abbas scrambling for allies. Despite reducing international travel due to both his advanced age (Abbas turned 85 in November) and the COVID-19 pandemic, Abbas made his way to Doha in December and “praised Qatar’s position in support of the Palestinian people’s right to regain their undiminished and full rights,” according to a statement released by his office.

Recent efforts at normalization have left the PA more reliant on actors who have disavowed forging ties with Israel and who can be counted on as staunch supporters of the cause. Abbas, however, understands that he has newfound leverage over a post-blockade Qatar. With its rivals in Saudi Arabia already framing the lifting of the blockade as “a gift for [U.S. President Joe] Biden” and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman using as a sign of his “pragmatism,” Qatar understands the need to begin broadcasting signals—especially to the new U.S. president—of its own.

So what does this mean for Qatar and the PA? The PA has, to date, been the direct recipient of a very limited amount of Qatar’s largesse, with most funding going to assuage humanitarian crises in the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave. This should be expected to change in the post-blockade reality. Qatar’s past support for Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas, alongside other radical actors in the region, is something it must now be significantly more wary of. The same can be said of Doha’s relations with Tehran, which deepened during the blockade but may have to be put on pause now.

Instead of bankrolling Hamas, then, Qatar’s financial aid may shift to the West Bank, currently in dire economic straits thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and four years of limited support from Washington, which under the Trump administration cut off millions of dollars of aid to the PA. Registering its lowest economic growth rate in almost 10 years and with unemployment at almost 20 percent, a much-needed cash influx is exactly what Abbas requires to keep the West Bank economy afloat.

The long anticipated inner-Palestinian reconciliation between the PA and Hamas is another issue where Abbas can be expected to seek out Qatari support. Qatar also sees brokering reconciliation as a tremendous opportunity to communicate its effectiveness as a regional mediator, succeeding where others, such as Egypt, Turkey, and even Russia, have failed. It is no coincidence that after his recent meeting with the PA president, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s emir, released a statement in which both underscored “his country’s position in support of the Palestinian issue and the Palestinian people right to regain their rights and establish their independent state, with Jerusalem as its capital,” and later, he “stressed the importance of Palestinian unity.”

The promotion of Palestinian reconciliation and the subsequent formation of a unity government between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah has been 15 years in the making. It is one of Israel’s preconditions for returning to the negotiation table. Successfully brokering a unity government acceptable to Israel and in which Hamas’s role is limited to technocrats is precisely the kind of foreign-policy win Qatar needs.

As welcome as peace may be, peacocks don’t change their feathers. Qatar’s masquerade as a moderate third party seeking to promote internal Palestinian reconciliation alongside encouraging cooperation with Israel should not be seen for more than it is: an attempt at rebranding. Meanwhile, this newfound reality in which Qatar needs the Palestinian cause almost as much as the Palestinian cause needs Qatar will certainly embolden the PA leadership. Although in desperate need of Qatari help, Abbas risks putting a lot of effort behind an attempt at reconciliation that has no greater a chance of succeeding than previous failed attempts. Such a failure will necessarily be at the Palestinian cause’s expense, as it is sure to be pinned on the failure of Palestinian leaders to see beyond their differences. In that way, it is doubtful that the new two-way street in Palestinian-Qatari relations will grant Doha or Ramallah the diplomatic wins they so urgently need.

Shlomo Roiter Jesner is the president and co-founder of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum. He is also the CEO of London-based F&R Strategy Group, a geopolitical consultancy at the intersection of politics and business.