Asad Mirza

Qatar: The Regional Mediator

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 In a region besieged with internal squabbling’s, tribal and regional superiority, false pride and mostly hollow pompous statements not followed by any ground action, Qatar has emerged as a powerful mediator.

This is not the first time that the tiny and wealthy Gulf nation has stepped in as a crisis mediator or a facilitator of talks between archenemies. In the past it has successfully worked on deals that relate to Yemen in 2007, Lebanon in 2008, and most recently in Afghanistan in 2021, besides those in Syria, Sudan, Chad, and Eritrea. It has also brokered talks between Russia and Ukraine, securing the return of several Ukrainian children.

The emirate has spent nearly two decades deploying its oil and gas wealth, the powerful Qatari-owned television channel Al Jazeera, and a significant portion of its increasingly skilled diplomatic corps, to make itself one of the world’s most indispensable fixers.

A Qatari official speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP that mediation and conflict resolution is an essential part of Qatar’s foreign policy, so sizeable number of personnel are actively engaged on this part of the diplomacy.

It has carved out an unusual niche as a key American ally – it hosts a major U.S. military base – with extensive Islamist connections, strong enough for Washington’s bitter enemies to feel comfortable living in Doha not far from U.S. troops.

Qatar’s rise as a mediator achieved global prominence a decade ago, when it allowed establishment of  “political offices” for Hamas and the Taliban – embassy-like bases for senior figures of the organisations – to set up in Doha under U.S. auspices, to facilitate negotiations.

Qatar’s role as a mediator and a close U.S. ally offers obvious strategic dividends for a small country surrounded by large, well-armed neighbours in a volatile region. It shares its only land border with Saudi Arabia, and it sits across the Gulf from Iran.

Qatar essentially bolstered its soft power image through the phenomenal reach of Al Jazeera, which also helped it counter negative coverage against the country in the western media about migrant labour, particularly during the run-up to the football World Cup last year, and other rights issues such as its treatment of women.

Allegedly, Doha serves as one of two main external bases for Hamas, the other is in Turkey. In this regard the Israeli government has helped too. Over the past five years it has allowed Qatar to fund Hamas in Gaza through transfers of cash – around $30 million a month – and fuel. Israel has done so principally to avoid taking responsibility for the welfare of people living there, but also in the hope that by sustaining Hamas in Gaza it would widen the split between Gaza and the West Bank, undermine the Palestinian Authority (PA) and make the prospect of a unified Palestinian position impossible.

Commenting on Qatar’s ties with Hamas, Bader Al Saif, a professor of history at Kuwait University told APR that Hamas has different ties with Qatar. Qatar has been a very key interlocutor when it comes to presenting aid to Gaza’s infrastructure in the past. Gaza has been decimated a few times by Israel in the past, and that required a lot of reconstruction. And the reconstruction has been largely veiled by various parties in the region in the Middle East, but by Qatar as well.

Al Saif presented another perspective of the Qatari foreign policy saying that as a small state, it requires a secure region for it to thrive. So it would like to see peace and prosperity become the mainstream in the region. That hasn’t been the case, unfortunately, for the Middle East. In addition, Qatar has also been a victim of a Gulf rift in the past few years when Saudi Arabia, UAE and others blockaded it in the region. But through gritty tenaciousness it emerged as a winner in that situation too, proving the capabilities of its rulers.

In the current conflict, the Qataris claim their close ties with Hamas have enabled them to help secure the release of an American mother and daughter from Chicago, who were visiting the Nahal Oz kibbutz less than two miles from Gaza when Hamas terrorists launched their attack, captured them and took them into captivity. The release of the two women prompted U.S. President Joe Biden to issue an official statement thanking the Qatari and Israeli governments “for their partnership” in securing the release of the two Americans

Apparently, signals from Qatar that it may be able to secure the release of more hostages has also been a key factor in Israel’s decision to delay its ground invasion of Gaza as part of the newly-formed Israeli emergency government’s aim to annihilate Hamas.

Qatar began to carve out its role as a credible mediator years ago, beginning in 2008, when it brought the Hezbollah and its western-backed opponents to the negotiating table, when Hezbollah took over key infrastructure installations in Lebanon, including the airport and major seaports. The talks resulted in the Doha Agreement, which prevented the crisis from escalating and plunging Lebanon into another civil war.

Qatar’s working relationships with traditional U.S. adversaries such as Iran and Russia – or non-state groups like Hamas and the Taliban — have made it an invaluable partner for the U.S. and other Western countries.

Analysts say the ability of Qatar to maintain good relations with both non-state armed groups and state actors such as Russia and Iran, while still being a strategic partner to the United States, will continue to enhance its importance on the global stage.

LinaKhatib, director of the SOAS Middle East Institute at SOAS University of London, in an article last week for Barron’s opined that, Qatar is framing this achievement – and associated praise from the U.S. – as proof that it is correct in its strategy of keeping communication lines open with multiple opposing actors. Its role in the current conflict is giving its geopolitical ambitions a boost.

Though its geopolitical ambitions might be a bit debatable, but its approach has proved that a sane and doggedly pursued policy utilising diplomatic and mediation skills can certainly provide you a seat at the high table at the global level.

(AsadMirza is a Delhi-based senior political and international affairs commentator.)

 

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