Qatar won't be pressured by the West

Blinken with Qatar's Prime Minister al-Thani in Doha in Doha on 6 February 2024
Qatar's Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Doha on 6 February 2024 (image: Mark Schiefelbein/ AP/picture alliance)

Criticism by U.S. politicians of the emirate's role in the Middle East conflict have ruffled feathers in Doha. Rulers now say they'll reassess their mediator role between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas – thereby sending a warning to Washington

By Dunja Ramadan

The mood darkened early last week. On the evening of 16 April, the Qatari embassy in Washington posted a long statement on X, a platform usually used to send Ramadan greetings or document meetings between politicians. Comments by Congressman Steny Hoyer regarding negotiations in the Gaza war were read "with interest", said the statement, which also expressed surprise at his "threat to re-evaluate U.S. relations with Qatar".

U.S. Democrat Steny Hoyer, who at 84 is incidentally even older than President Joe Biden, had previously called for greater pressure on Hamas, which doesn't want a temporary ceasefire, but a permanent one. Qatar should consequently cut off funding to Hamas or close its offices in Doha, said Hoyer. The Qatari embassy responded with a smug reprimand: Qatar's mediator role exists only because we were asked by the US in 2012 to play this role since, regrettably, Israel and Hamas refuse to speak to each other directly".

The Qatari embassy's post continued by saying that it shared Hoyer's frustration that negotiations have thus far failed to reach an agreement to free the remaining Israeli hostages. But "blaming and threatening the mediator is not constructive, especially when the target is a friend and non-NATO ally that presently hosts 10,000 U.S. troops and America's largest military presence in the Middle East".

Netanyahu also demanding more pressure on Qatar

With this statement, intended as a reminder to Washington of Qatar's key strategic position, Doha responded to increasingly vociferous views being expressed in the United States. Republican Ted Budd expressed similar opinions just a few days previously. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also insisted that greater pressure be applied on the emirate to exert more influence on Hamas.

Negotiations to secure a ceasefire in the Gaza war and the release of hostages seized during the Hamas massacres of 7 October have been going on for months now. In vain. The humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip has drawn international criticism.

Qatar insists it "does not control" Hamas and that both Israel and Hamas "are entirely responsible for reaching an agreement". 

However, it is questionable whether Doha has really pulled all its billion-dollar levers to ramp up the pressure on Hamas to release the Israeli hostages. On the other hand, recent weeks have also shown just how limited U.S. President Joe Biden's influence is in interactions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is still pushing for the controversial offensive against the border city of Rafah.

In the wake of all this, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani gave a press conference in Doha on Wednesday and used similar language to the elderly U.S. Democrat Hoyer when he said that Qatar also intended to "completely reassess" its own mediator role. 

Press conferences are anything but a daily occurrence in the hereditary monarchy of Qatar, which means they are all the more significant when they do take place.

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Emirate feels "exploited and abused"

Al-Thani, who is also the country's foreign minister, said Qatar's role is being "exploited and abused" by "politicians who are trying to conduct election campaigns by slighting the State of Qatar". This has led to Qatar entering "a process where it is completely evaluating its role". The country remains committed to its role "from a humanitarian context", but such a role also has its limits, he said.

Although critical voices on the Qatari role are being repeatedly heard from the United States, the official stance is quite different. It was only at the beginning of this year that the U.S. government under Biden quietly reached an agreement with Qatar to extend its military presence at the U.S. base in Al Udeid for a further 10 years. 

The base was established in 1996 in the Qatari desert, around 30 kilometres from the capital Doha. U.S. fighter jets left here on various deployments: from 2001 to Afghanistan, 2003 in Iraq and most recently in 2014 to Syria, to carry out air strikes on Islamic State positions, among other things. Defence Minister Lloyd Austin visited Al Udeid just last December, to "strengthen and consolidate bilateral defence relations". He thanked Qatar for its increased investment at the base. Qatar is there for dialogue, said Austin at the time.

Sandwiched between hostile powers

For the small emirate, which quarrelled with its neighbours in 2017, the U.S. presence also serves as a kind of existence guarantee. Qatar shares the world's largest gas field with Iran. Its position, sandwiched between hostile regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, has repeatedly put Qatar in a tight spot.

As long as the Americans retain their largest military base in the Middle East in Qatar, the Gulf rulers will continue to be assigned particular importance. This explains Qatar's abrupt reaction, because demands like these from the U.S. call this security concept into question.

U.S. President Joe Biden classified Qatar as an important non-NATO ally in 2022. This makes it easier for Doha to conclude arms and other economic deals.

Dunja Ramadan

© Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2024

Translated from the German by Nina Coon