Qatar is a country on the Persian Gulf that shares its only land border with Saudi Arabia. Qatar is home to around 2.7 million people, only 300,000 of whom are Qatari citizens. The remaining residents of Qatar are mostly South Asian migrant labor workers, who have few rights. Qatar also houses the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.
Despite its small size and population, Qatar wields outsized international influence. It is one of the richest countries in the world as measured by GDP per capita and one of the world’s largest suppliers of liquified natural gas. Over the past several decades, Qatar has used its energy wealth to support its rise on the diplomatic stage, becoming a key middleman in fractious international disputes.
Qatar’s status as a “diplomatic broker” is made possible because of its perceived neutrality, which has been cultivated by maintaining relations with all sides in a wide range of international conflicts — including collaborations with and support of some really bad people — along with using its economic wealth to offer financial incentives for peace to feuding parties. Over the years, Qatar has brokered negotiations between the United States and the Taliban; Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and Sudan’s military and the Rapid Support Group, among others.
Despite challenges, Qatar has managed to maintain channels of communication with Israel. Qatar became the first Arab Gulf state to establish formal ties with Israel when it opened a de facto Israeli embassy in Doha (called a trade office) in 1996. The office was closed in 2009 following a military conflict between Israel and Hamas. Nonetheless, Qatar has retained a working relationship with Israel — including receiving Israel’s encouragement for many years of Qatar’s funding of Hamas in Gaza.
Qatar’s relationship with Hamas has recently become the subject of intense scrutiny. For the past dozen years, Qatar has hosted the leadership of Hamas and backed Hamas by contributing billions of dollars to support the Hamas government in Gaza and ongoing propaganda promotion through the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera television network. As a result, Qatar unquestionably has significant influence over Hamas. But what is Qatar’s end game? And for whose benefit is Qatar using its middleman position?
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the U.S. to exert serious pressure on Qatar to convince Hamas to release the 136 hostages held in Gaza. In response, Qatar’s foreign ministry said that it was “appalled” by Netanyahu’s criticism, which it said was more focused on Netanyahu’s political interests than saving the hostages.
Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich then shot back, calling Qatar “the biggest obstacle to returning the hostages” and accusing it of keeping the hostages as a bargaining chip to stop the fighting and preserve Hamas’ rule in Gaza.
Public insults and political bombast will not secure the release of the hostages. And military force hasn’t gotten the job done. A credible interlocutor is needed. Qatar’s dirty relationship with Hamas presents what appears to be the best hope of quiet diplomacy to help orchestrate a new hostage deal. We don’t have to admire everyone with whom we do business.