Hamas’ brutal October attack on Israel has shined an uncomfortable spotlight on Qatar, a Persian Gulf state rich in oil and gas. Qatar hosts Hamas’ political leadership, and critics of the country naturally wonder how much of the operation might have been planned there.
Qatar dismisses responsibility, arguing that Doha acts as a go-between for Hamas on one hand and Washington and Jerusalem on the other, and that it performs this role with the full buy-in of the White House and the Israeli government.
That may be true, and Qatari officials can show enough official correspondence to back their claims, but there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario: Did Qatar become involved with Hamas because Western officials asked, or did Western officials ask for Qatari mediation because Doha was already involved?
In the short term, the Biden administration is in a bind. The U.S. State Department cannot demand Qatar expel Hamas while continuing to rely on Doha to mediate hostage release. Even Republicans in Congress may be muted in their Qatar-bashing if American hostages come from their districts. At the same time, the United States should not reward Qatar for resolving a situation for which it may be indirectly responsible.
Congress will have a serious discussion about Qatar’s Major Non-NATO Ally status. While the Pentagon will defend Qatar because of the cut-rate deal it gets on the Al-Udeid Air Base, the forwarding headquarters for US Central Command, the base is not so essential to American operations that it should be used to excuse Qatar’s relationships with the worst terrorist organizations. While Qatar may look at the status as a badge of honor, it is not necessary to the relationship, nor is it wise given Qatar’s permissive attitude toward Iran.
There are American fans of Qatar, like retired Gen. John R. Allen, and critics of Qatar, like Sen. Ted Cruz. What they all should do is work to provide Qatar with an off-ramp. Perhaps Doha once liked the attention it received as mediator on some of the world’s toughest issues. The entire citizenry of Qatar is smaller than the population of Cleveland, Ohio, but the country’s wealth has helped it punch far above its weight.
The reality, however, is the cost of associating with the world’s worst Islamist regimes degrades Qatar’s reputation and offsets any benefits Qatar gains from being the focal point of diplomacy. It also overshadows the good work Qatar does elsewhere. Qatar was not always on the forefront of these issues, so a demand that they stop cooperating with such regimes is not unreasonable. It is merely a request that Qatar return to the more moderate policy it had embraced for decades.
I have previously written about Qatar’s role in freeing Djiboutian POWs and hostages seized by Eritrean forces. Buried in the headlines about Israel and Gaza has been word of Qatari success in freeing Ukrainian children kidnapped by Russia. Cynics may argue Qatar seeks to shift the story, but the Ukraine-Russia talks preceded the Hamas attack on Israel by weeks. Frankly, if Armenia would cast aside Hungarian mediation for Qatari assistance, Yerevan might have already freed the Armenian prisoners Azerbaijan holds, and stop them from taking more.
Washington should not continue to excuse Qatar’s relationship with extremists because of the possibility of Qatari mediation. So how should the United States approach Qatar? Perhaps it is time to suggest Doha use its good offices to address problems in which neither party can claim Doha has ideological investment. Qatar neither sponsors Eritrea nor Russia, yet it managed to win not only their trust, but also that of Djibouti and Ukraine. There are adversarial relationships that Qatari mediation could mitigate, for example, that between Venezuela and Guyana, or between Ethiopia and pretty much all its neighbors. Mediating these disputes might bring the appreciation Qatar seeks. But to advocate for the Taliban, Hamas, or other groups seeking the elimination of their adversaries will never bring a solution that will reflect positively on Qatar.
Qatar should expel Hamas. Whether its political leadership knew in advance of the attack on Israel, or whether the Qatar-based Hamas leadership was surprised, is irrelevant. Hamas used Qatari good offices for insincere purposes and should be sent packing. But while there may be political gain in Qatar’s punishment, a longer-term solution would be to provide Qatar with a way to remove itself from association with radical groups. Such a move would be in both the American interest and that of broader peace, especially as other regional countries like Oman and Kuwait unwisely seek to follow Qatar’s model.
Qatar can define its own interests and make its own calculations, but it should be clear to Qataris today that the status quo is no longer tenable, and that the costs of its current approach are far greater than the benefits Doha might hope to accrue.
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).