Hamas now a lackey of the wealthy Gulf emirate

June 7, 2017
Sarah Benton
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FIFA president Sep Blatter hands over the Jules Rimet trophy to the then (2010) Emir of the State of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Than

Qatar row: What’s caused the fall-out between Gulf neighbours?

By Dr David Roberts, BBC Middle East news
 June 05, 2017

On Monday 5 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the UAE, and the internationally recognised Yemeni government severed their diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism.

In addition, the states announced that they were suspending air, sea, and land transport with Qatar, while Qatari citizens are required to return home within two weeks.

Qatar’s support of the Saudi and UAE-led operations in Yemen is also suspended.

This might seem familiar. These states (aside from Yemen) withdrew their diplomats from Doha in 2014 over a similar set of concerns. That spat was resolved within nine months. But the core issues remain.

On this occasion, though similar motives fuel the dispute, the fact that Qatar’s land border with Saudi Arabia – its only land crossing – will be suspended shows a severe escalation, given just how critical this border is for Qatar’s imports, including food.

Recent escalation

Reports emerged in late May 2017 of a speech given by the Qatari Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, where he was purported to have criticised America, offered support for Iran, reaffirmed Qatar’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and said that Qatar’s relations with Israel were “good”.

Qatar’s official news agency then also reported that Qatar was withdrawing its ambassadors from Saudi, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE after discovering a “conspiracy” against Qatar. Subsequently, Qatari officials furiously denied that there was any truth behind these reports, but the damage was done.The key problem was that these comments simply voiced out loud what many have long understood as Qatar’s true policy positions.

Qatar has long had a tense relationship with the US. On a military-to-military level, the two countries co-operate well generally. But the US has long been angered by what it sees as slanted coverage in the Middle East by Qatar-owned Al Jazeera, Qatar’s apparent support for a range of Islamist groups around the region, and lax anti-terrorist financing laws.

Similarly, Qatar has been bold in its support of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. In May 2017, Qatar used its influence to push Hamas to issue a policy document seen by some as an attempt to soften its extremist image.

But support for Hamas places Qatar deeply at odds with many states, such as the US, who view Hamas as a terrorist organization. And the other Gulf monarchies prefer to deal with its secular rival Fatah as representatives for the Palestinians.

Deeper issues

But the problem is that Qatar is just too bold, too often.

The core issue presently is Qatar’s support of Islamists around the Middle East region, which emerged quite evidently during the Arab Spring. This is as much a result of the personalised politics of Qatar’s foreign policy and elite bureaucracy as it is an active decision by Qatar to support Islamists.

Moreover, Qatar argues vociferously that it does not support Islamists because the state prefers to, but because such groups like the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood enjoy significant public support.

The Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, attends the final session of the South American-Arab Countries summit, in Riyadh on 11 November, 2015. He is alleged to have given a speech in May criticising the US. Photo by Reuters

Either way, the UAE in particular, but also Saudi Arabia, do not agree at all with this approach of emboldening Islamist groups around the region. They tried to get Qatar to stop doing this in 2014, but, a few concessions aside, the broad tenor of Qatar’s foreign policy approach did not change.

Otherwise, particularly under the leadership of the former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar sought to carve out a unique niche for itself and its policies, such as augmenting relations with Israel or Iran, and rejecting the wider consensus of the regional group of the monarchies, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Doha from 2002 to 2008 to try to pressure Qatar to curb its individualistic tendencies. This approach broadly failed too.

What now?

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the leaders of this current move, will not want to fail again. And their position is strong, while Qatar’s is weak.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are emboldened. Leading the intervention in Yemen in 2015 displayed a newfound desire to truly lead on matters of regional security. And the UAE has, not least with a decade’s operations alongside Isaf forces in Afghanistan, forged a reputation for itself as one of the US’s most reliable Arab partners.

Then President Trump unprecedentedly took his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia, and signed the largest weapons deal in history.

The only real card that Qatar holds with Washington is that it has, since the early 1990s, hosted a critical US base at al-Udeid. But this may no longer be enough. Other Gulf states may stand ready to replace this key base, though the logistics of this would not be straightforward.

The HQ of Al Jazeera, Doha, Qatar

The argument to President Trump may be compelling: with US help, Qatar might be persuaded to evict Hamas leadership from Doha and genuinely cut back on funding Islamist groups.

It seems that the time of Qatar’s individualistic foreign policy may be up.

Dr David Roberts is a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. He was the Director of the Qatar office of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi). He is the author of Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City State. Follow him on Twitter @thegulfblog


New ‘rules of the game’ for Israeli-Hamas standoff

The expulsion from Qatar of Hamas leaders and the movement’s reconciliation with Iran has potentially changed the “rules of the game” between Israel and Hamas.

By Shlomi Eldar, trans.Ruti Sinai, Al Monitor
June 06, 2017

Salah al-Arouri is the first senior Hamas figure forced to leave Qatar at the height of the diplomatic upheaval currently gripping the Gulf emirate. He was accompanied on his June 4 departure by Moussa Dudin, a former West Bank resident freed from an Israeli prison in the 2011 prisoner exchange deal with Hamas for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. After his release, Dudin joined the Hamas “bureau” built by Arouri, first operating out of Turkey and then Qatar, to carry out attacks against Israelis in the West Bank.

Hamas’ political bureau set up its headquarters in the oil-rich principality in January 2012, when its top officials abandoned Damascus at the start of the civil war there. Then, as now, the distance between the Gaza Strip and Hamas’ offices abroad was not only geographic. It also had profound repercussions for the movement’s future. When former political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal left Damascus for Qatar, the movement’s entire orientation changed. Hamas transformed from an organization joined at the hip with Syria and Iran into a lackey of the wealthy Gulf emirate, benefiting from its bounty and carrying out its orders.

The rupture with Iran and subsequent move to Qatar’s side brought Tehran’s weapons supply and funding of Hamas almost to a complete halt. Were it not for the lifeline thrown to Meshaal by the Qatari emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, it is unlikely that Hamas would have survived the storm that has swept the Arab world.

Since Hamas’ founding 30 years ago, the movement has been forced to adapt itself to whichever sponsor is willing to pay. The countries that severed ties with Qatar in recent days have accused the emirate of funding terrorism. In the case of Hamas, however, the opposite is true. Unlike Iran, Qatar forced the movement to moderate itself, relatively speaking, of course.

Even before the current Qatari crisis erupted, Meshaal’s successor as head of the political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, had begun making entreaties toward Iran. According to a report in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat, Hamas and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps representatives met in Beirut on May 31 in the presence of Hezbollah officials. The reconciliation resulted in agreement on the renewal of Iranian financial assistance to Hamas.

In September 2016, the newspaper had cited reliable sources as saying that Iran was actively working for Haniyeh’s election to replace Meshaal. Haniyeh was indeed elected, and Iran is once again playing a major role in the Palestinian arena, much to the delight of the heads of Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

After relations were severed with Iran, the leaders of the brigades began urging the political echelon to reconcile with Tehran, if only to ensure the movement’s military buildup. With Mesha’al in office, however, they were unsuccessful (and they did not forgive him for his “treachery”). That is why the meeting in Beirut was probably held after the Qatari tensions erupted. Apparently, the reason for the meeting was not only because Hamas understood which way the Qatari winds were blowing or to respond to the current tensions by restoring Iran to past glories. In fact, the reasons for the meeting run much deeper. Regardless of whether the timing was coincidental or planned, the fact is that Hamas is once again an Iranian proxy.

The Hamas rapprochement with Tehran could evolve into a crisis with Egypt. Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, was summoned to Cairo for talks on June 4 with the heads of Egyptian intelligence. Hamas once again finds itself at a crossroads, but this time the situation is more complex than in the past. If Hamas gives Iran a foothold in Gaza, as demanded by the military wing, it will doom the movement’s attempts to get closer to Egypt and win the trust of President Abdel Fattah a-Sisi.

If, on the other hand, it gives in to Egyptian pressure and turns its back on Iran, Hamas will lose the only sponsor willing to fund its activities. Until recently, the various Hamas factions were deeply divided over the default options regarding what’s better for the organization, Qatar or Iran — that is, Qatari money, primarily designated for civilian infrastructure in Gaza, or Iranian money, allocated for Hamas’ military buildup. Given recent events, this choice is no longer relevant. It would seem that Qatar can no longer keep propping up Hamas, leaving Iran the only option.

According to a report by the Lebanese Al Mayadeen network — the first to report the “outside pressure” on Qatar to kick out the heads of Hamas — the list of Hamas expellees from Doha signals Israeli involvement. All the names were of people mentioned during interrogations of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails. In other words, Israel, whether directly or indirectly through Egypt and Saudi Arabia, exerted pressure on Qatar, which had no choice but to give in.

This is not to say that Israel somehow pushed Hamas into Iran’s arms. Attempts at such a rapprochement had begun much earlier. One thing, however, is clear. Israel is alarmed by Iran’s return to the Gaza Strip, as was the case during the second Palestinian intifada that started in 2000 when the Hamas military wing was the executive arm of Tehran.

Israel’s security agencies, as well as its diplomatic echelons, have been operating on the assumption that Hamas is under threat, experiencing severe economic and military hardship, and thus had no desire or ability to change the “rules of the game” established after Israel’s destructive 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. In other words, Israel’s assessment until now had been that Hamas was not interested in opening a new front against it in the near future.

Now, it seems, Israel will be forced to change its policies toward the Gaza Strip in general and Hamas in particular. Any Iranian imprint will be regarded as a security threat to Israel. On the eve of Operation Protective Edge, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted, “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay,” signalling that Hamas would be held responsible for any rockets fired from Gaza at Israel. This is just as relevant today. If Hamas in the era of Haniyeh and Sinwar opens the gates of Gaza to Iranian military influence, Hamas will pay.

© Copyright JFJFP 2017