Qatar is famous for its extremely flexible diplomacy, and as Allen J. Fromherz shows, no example demonstrates this better than its dealings with Israel.
In October 1993 Israeli officials leaked a report that they were in secret negotiations with Qatar to bring billions of dollars of natural gas through Israel and export it throughout the Mediterranean zone. Qatar immediately denied the existence of the deal. Nevertheless, the commercial and economic ties between Qatar and Israel have a long and fascinating history. The history of Qatar and Israeli relations is a history of the limitations of a foreign policy of mediation and openness. While Qatar’s tacit recognition of Israel may have pleased its Western protectors, especially the USA, it caused disgust in other Arab states determined to hold out the prospect of Arab recognition of Israel as a bargaining chip in regional negotiations on a peace deal.
The fact that Qatar shut the Israeli interest office in Doha in January 2009 after the Palestinians had endured months of blockades in Gaza shows that even Qatar’s extremely flexible diplomacy has its limits. In March 2009 Sheikha Mozah even hired a US public relations firm, Fenton Communications, to increase awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Fenton will support an ‘international public opinion awareness campaign that advocates the accountability of those who participated in attacks on schools in Gaza’. Sheikh Hamad also recently approved millions of dollars in food aid and supplies for Gaza.
Before 2009 and the Gaza blockade, however, the relations and open business contacts between Qatar and Israel were certainly well outside the norm for the Arabian Peninsula. The origins of Qatar’ relationship with Israel were largely related to its increasing dependence on American power and protection – especially after the Persian Gulf War and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait revealed the potential weakness of small Gulf States – and its ambition to shore up its position as a viable mediator between the USA, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait on one side and Iraq on the other. Indeed, it was largely the desire to be considered a flexible and viable mediator, and thus an important player in a whole range of disputes in the region, that led Qatar to accept Israel’s symbolic presence in Qatar. Indeed, as the specialist on Qatari–Israeli relations Uzi Rabi notes:
While it may appear as though Qatar’s relations with Israel constitute an undesirable source of contention between Qatar and its neighbours, Qatari foreign policy is formulated in a manner that not only anticipates an indignant Arab reaction, but also to a certain degree invites it. Maintaining relations with Israel has enabled Qatar to assert its independence in the Arab arena, and compete as a regional actor with not inconsiderable clout.
Qatar’s appeal to Israel to sponsor its 2005 non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council was certainly an example of Qatar’s deft use of a flexible agenda in foreign policy. Israel and the USA agreed to sponsor Qatar but were quickly dismayed when Qatar became the only member of the Security Council to oppose setting a deadline for the cessation of Iran’s nuclear enrichment in 2006. Having achieved its position on the Security Council through diplomacy, Qatar found ways of protecting its interests: using Iran as a counterweight to Saudi influence. Qatar also used its special relationship with Israel to increase its clout as a negotiator between the rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. In fact, it could be argued that Qatar has been at least as welcoming to Hamas, Israel’s clear enemy, as to Fatah and other parties. After Jordan closed the offices of Hamas in 1999, Qatar offered to allow Khaled Mishal and some of his deputies to relocate to Qatar as long as they did not engage in overt political activities. It is reported that Khaled Mishal regularly shuttles between Doha and Damascus. Although he described his ‘relationship’ with Sheikh Hamad and Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim as ‘personal’, Qatar’s relationship with both Hamas and Israel should be seen largely within the context of its wider policy of forming contacts with highly divergent groups in order to increase its clout and position as a potential mediator.
Uzi Rami indicates that Qatar’s relations with Israel were largely the result of the strategic independence it adopted in its foreign policy. Nevertheless, the relationship between Qatar and its US military protector cannot be underestimated. In fact, Qatar’s abrupt repudiation of its relations with Israel in January 2009 may have had more to do with the changing political landscape in the USA – the inauguration of a US President less reflexively supportive of Israel (Barack Obama) – than the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. After all, Qatar had maintained its relationship with Israel throughout the humanitarian crisis of the Second Intifada but a very different US administration was then in power. ■