Simon Henderson Q&A: Qatar’s Outsized Role in the Middle East

July, 30 2014

“Qatar does not support Hamas, Qatar supports the Palestinians,” Qatari Foreign Minister Dr. Khalid Al Attiyah declared in a CNN interview that aired this week. Yet some questions remain. The small Middle Eastern country–which now-former Israeli president Shimon Peres recently called “the world’s largest funder of terror”–has been singled out for playing an outsized role in many of the region’s current conflicts, including the war between Israel and Gaza. Simon Henderson, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of the Institute’s Gulf and Energy Policy Program, answers a few questions about the country’s involvement with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and more.

Why did Qatar reportedly give Hamas $400 million in 2012?

The 2012 visit to Gaza by the then-emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was the first real evidence that Qatar had decided to support Hamas in preference to Mahmoud Abbas. Hamad deliberately didn’t visit the West Bank. The $400 million was reportedly for two housing complexes and work on improving three roads, as well as for a prosthetics center. Ostensibly, the purpose of the 2012 visit was to inaugurate some Qatari aid projects, so there must have been earlier transfer of funds.

What are the origins of this relationship?  

It would seem that after Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood took over in Egypt in 2011, Qatar decided the Muslim Brotherhood was the way of the future in the Arab world. Qatar gave money to the Morsi regime, and Cairo facilitated Sheikh Hamad’s 2012 arrival in Gaza by road from Egypt.What are Qatar’s motives?

Qatar’s motives are to be a player in Middle Eastern diplomacy. By “Qatar” I mean the al-Thani ruling family, in particular the emir Sheikh Tamim and his father Sheikh Hamad, who abdicated in his son’s favor last year.

How does Qatar’s recent purchase of billions in US military equipment relate?

Qatar provides the U.S. Air Force with the run of the giant al-Udaid air base outside the capital Doha. The base has been crucial to U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be important in any confrontation with Iran. However, it is vulnerable to Iranian aircraft and missiles so the just-announced Patriot surface-to-air missiles are to improve its defenses. For Washington, it is a balance between U.S. military requirements and tolerating some unpleasant friends of Doha.

Why does Qatar support the Muslim Brotherhood?

Qataris are deeply observant Muslims, rather like the Saudis, though the Saudis fear the Muslim Brotherhood because they consider it a threat to their rule. The Qataris are more tolerant, though they restrict Muslim Brotherhood activity just in case! I suspect the average Qatari sees being a strict Muslim at home as a way of preserving national identity when there are so many non-Muslims in it, working in services and construction.

How has Qatar impacted the situation in Egypt? 

Qatar was very generous to the Morsi regime which replaced Mubarak, providing billions in aid as well as some natural gas cargos to make up for export contracts to which Egypt was committed but couldn’t fulfill. Since the overthrow of Morsi, Qatari money to Egypt  has stopped but has been replaced by billions from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and also Kuwait.

Does Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood conflict with the country’s attempts to create an Arabic-language TV station?

Not particularly. The Muslim Brotherhood wants its word to be broadcast and is grateful that Qatar allows a weekly show by Yousef Qaradawi, the leading Muslim theologian who takes a Muslim Brotherhood line.

Does Al-Jazeera have a goal of press freedom?

In the mindset of the al-Thani leadership, Qatar has press freedom. Formal censorship was abolished soon after Sheikh Hamad deposed his father in 1995. In reality, Qatar doesn’t need censorship because the Qatari media self-censor probably even more than they need to.

Arabs in Israel and the Middle East get their news from Al-Jazeera. What do Arabs see of the Gaza war? How is that different from what Jews are seeing? 

Al-Jazeera Arabic takes a view which is wholly sympathetic to the Palestinians. Al-Jazeera English is probably more restrained–its journalists are ex-BBC and Sky types, so retain that professional approach. Also, Al-Jazeera English competes with BBC World and CNN so wants to be similar to them, and is plausibly professional and apparently objective.

What other countries are sending money and/or weapons to Hamas, and why?

Money and humanitarian aid–Turkey, Arab countries, private Arab citizens. Money and weapons–Iran, Syria.

What can be done to cut off support for Hamas? 

Try to make sure that the aid to Gaza cannot be diverted to the political coffers of Hamas. Difficult at the moment, but the diplomatic plan should be for the Palestinian Authority to regain control in the Gaza Strip and show itself to be more competent administratively, while also not provoking Israel into military action.

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