There’s been an upswing recently of commentary celebrating what is often termed a welcome "shift" in the policies and behavior of Qatar: away from promoting and subsidizing radical Islamist groups, and towards "deconfliction" and moderation.
This analysis is not only fundamentally incorrect, but plays into Doha’s ongoing attempts to create an illusion of rebranding as a moderating actor in the Middle East and beyond.
The truth is that Qatar’s sponsorship of radical groups has not moderated any of them, and does not reflect a recent "shift" in Doha’s foreign policy. If there has been any shift, it would be Qatar itself switching, some 20 years ago, from moderation to radicalism.
The argument that Qatari investment in extremist groups is "to maintain dialogue with and moderate them" (made in Haaretz, too: In a Shift, Qatar Plays Central Role in Stabilizing Israeli-Palestinian Ties) breaks down upon closer scrutiny. When Qatar was criticized for shuttling top Taliban leaders aboard its royal C17 aircraft from Doha to Kabul in August last year, as they took over the country, Qatari leaders responded that their strong ties with the Afghan group would moderate policies of the new Taliban government.
In September, Taliban announced that the "morality police" would replace the ministry of women. Taliban also reinstated executions and amputations. In March, the radical Islamist group banned Afghan women from flying without male chaperones. This month, Taliban stopped issuing driving licenses for women, and this week decreed all women must veil their faces with the burqa.
If Qatar thought its strong ties with the Taliban would moderate the Afghani group, Doha better think again.
Similarly, Qatar’s policy of "moderating" Hamas has yet to yield results. Despite all the Qatari money, Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar recently called on every Arab Israeli to kill all and every Jewish Israeli they can. "Everybody who has a gun should take it, and those who don’t have a gun should take a butcher’s knife, axe or any knife he can get," Sinwar said in a speech on April 30.
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True that Hamas has reportedly stopped Islamic Jihad from firing rockets onto Israel, but that was unlikely due to Qatari funds or ties and more likely due to Hamas’s calculus that instigating Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, to start a third intifada, would be more cost efficient for Gaza’s autocratic rulers. Full-scale war with Israel only results in large scale destruction in the Strip, which weakens Hamas’s grip, and achieves little to hurt Israel or would deflect its attention away from the Iranian nuclear program.
A year before he became Iran’s Foreign Minister, Amir Abdollahian implied that pro-Iran militias, like Hamas, allow Iran to better counteract Israel.
Doha subsidizes Hamas to the tune of $360 million to $480 million a year. With one third of that money, Qatar buys Egyptian fuel that Cairo then ships into Gaza, where Hamas sells it and pockets its revenue. Another third goes to impoverished Gazan families, while the last third pays the salaries of the Hamas bureaucracy.
Qatari spending in Gaza might look humanitarian, but in reality, Doha is funding Hamas’s coffers through oil sales. Doha is also bankrolling Hamas’s social services, the main vehicle of the organization’s rentier network that helps Hamas maintain support among Palestinians, in the Strip as well as across the West Bank and Jerusalem. Without Qatari money, Hamas’s governorship of Gaza would have become untenable and its popularity among Palestinians would have collapsed.
In 2002, I was reporting on the Arab League Summit in Beirut, during which the Saudis presented Israel with what came to be known as the Arab Peace Initiative. If Israel withdrew from the 1967 territory and East Jerusalem and allowed for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state over this land, all Arab countries would ratify peace with Israel and normalize relations.
At the time, Syria’s Bashar Assad instructed his Lebanese puppet president Emile Lahoud, the summit’s chair, to insert a clause that caused the initiative to implode: The "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
Besieged in his Muqata and aware that Assad was undermining his position in Beirut, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat asked his delegation to keep the "right of return" out. Assad and the radicals, however, prevailed. To counter the radicals, Arafat addressed the Arab summit in Beirut through Qatar’s Al-Jazeera.
The Qatari network went further by allowing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to address the Arab summit live and articulate a vision of peace similar to the Saudi proposal: Withdrawal for peace.
Throughout its live coverage of the summit, Al-Jazeera invited Israeli guests to argue their country’s points. One of them, Victor Nahmias, was an articulate retired diplomat whose foolproof arguments still ring in my head.
Annoyed by Al-Jazeera, Hezbollah and Hamas journalists at the summit’s media center protested next to the network’s live position and tried to sabotage its coverage. This was Qatar’s foreign policy two decades ago.
Over the past few weeks alone, Al-Jazeera has described terrorism that killed Israeli non-combatants as "martyrdom" operations. Al-Jazeera even posted articles describing Israel as "the Zionist entity," arguing that armed "resistance" is the only way forward.
Over the past two decades, Qatar’s foreign policy has shifted, but not toward moderation. To give Doha a standing ovation for endorsing and sponsoring radicalism is misplaced, misinformed and dangerously naïve.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Twitter: @hahussain