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Qatar Can’t Go On Like This

As Israel and Hamas sink deeper into conflict, Doha finds itself in a delicate position. As a long-standing backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar has huge influence over the movement’s Palestinian affiliate, Hamas. That offers a significant opportunity in the short run. Doha’s deep connections with the Gaza-based Islamist group make Qatar a central player in the current diplomatic game. But for exactly the same reason, Doha faces the looming risk of being called to account over its record of support for such radical Islamist groups, and especially for Hamas.

Doha has a long history of serving as a broker, and in the past, this has often worked well for the Gulf state. By allowing the Taliban to establish a Doha office, Qatar provided the U.S. with a channel for negotiations with the group. Doha thus facilitated the agreement to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan concluded under the Trump administration and carried out by President Joe Biden in 2021.

Qatar hopes to play a similar role now. Doha has provided a home for much of Hamas’s exiled political bureau, including its de facto leader, Ismail Haniyeh. Qatar has also been a major underwriter of Gaza’s economy ever since Hamas seized control of the area, in 2007. With the consent of Hamas’s adversaries—including the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, the United States, and even Israel—Qatar has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars each year to the enclave. Among other things, that cash covered the payroll for government employees, which put food on the table for a crucial number of Gazan families despite a virtual blockade by Israel and Egypt.

At the same time, Qatar has long been a key U.S. partner in the Middle East. And before the Abraham Accords, which normalized Israel’s relations with some of Qatar’s Gulf Arab neighbors, the main Israeli diplomatic presence in the region was a trade office in Doha that operated for several years in the late 1990s. In the present crisis, neither Egypt nor Turkey has displayed enthusiasm for acting as a go-between with Hamas. So Qatar is trying to maintain its privileged position of being a useful interlocutor to both sides.

But that diplomatic advantage may prove short-lived. After the hostage situation concludes—whether it ends in tragedy or with negotiated releases involving possible prisoner swaps—Qatar is likely to face severe pressure and criticism. Because of the brutality of its attack on southern Israel, Hamas has forfeited even the pragmatic acceptance it formerly had among Western countries, which now widely view the group as an extreme terrorist organization akin to al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Qatar’s dalliance with Islamist groups has long been the primary means for Doha to project influence in the Arab world, particularly through state support for Al Jazeera Arabic. After 2011, Qatar came to believe, and Al Jazeera Arabic confidently predicted, that a wave of Islamist governance would sweep in with new Arab democracies. Instead, the elected Brotherhood government in Egypt proved even more unpopular than the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. Islamists lost elections in Libya and Tunisia. In Syria, the Brotherhood was reduced to the margins.

With the Brotherhood’s decline in prestige and power, Qatar’s bet has yielded precious few returns. And now Hamas’s disastrous rebranding in Western eyes could well force a reckoning with Doha’s irresponsible strategy. The Qataris may be forced to choose between their precious ties to Washington and their long investment in Hamas. American pressure could even push Qatar to expel the Hamas leaders and cadres living in Doha.

But Qatar still holds one trump card: its connection to the Pentagon. During the regional dispute that began in 2017 and resulted in a three-year boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, President Donald Trump initially accused Doha of financing terrorism. But the Department of Defense saw things very differently: Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base, which is home to the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command, was the hub for the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eventually, the Pentagon’s perspective prevailed, and the U.S. pressed for an end to the boycott.

Qatar’s leverage is straightforward. The country financed the building of, and largely funds the maintenance of, the base at Al Udeid, yet it agreed to allow the U.S. to operate the facility under de facto extraterritorial jurisdiction—as if Al Udeid were sovereign American territory and not Qatari. Small wonder, then, that the Defense Department regards this as an irreplaceable asset, strategically vital for U.S. interests.

In the probable reckoning, Doha will again rely on this indispensability to avoid accountability. But after Hamas’s horrifying killing spree in southern Israel, even that may not be enough. And it will not help Qatar’s case that its official statement after the October 7 attack on Israel put the whole blame for the bloodshed on Israel and did not criticize Hamas. This was in stark contrast to almost all of the other Gulf Arab countries.

Ultimately, Qatar could actually benefit from being compelled to abandon a failed regional policy of backing religious and populist radicals that, like Hamas, have proved to be reckless allies willing to embrace political violence. Other regional powers—notably Turkey and Iran—have made highly effective use of foreign proxies, but they have done so by exerting far more direct control than Qatar has attempted or could exercise over the Brotherhood-aligned movements. For too long, Doha has danced between its Islamist allies and its Western and Arab partners. The music just stopped.

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