David B. Roberts is a Lecturer at King's College London. His book Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City State will be published in 2014.
Cutting deals with the enemy is a part of American – and Western – history. America has negotiated with terrorists and guerrilla fighters since the days of William Howard Taft. The UK, too, has conferred with the violent Irish Republican Army and Spain with its domestic terror group ETA.
But some policy pundits argue that Qatar’s latest negotiating behavior is different. Sinister, even. In the past few weeks, Qatar successfully brokered the release of U.S. reporter Theo Curtis and U.S. service man Bowe Bergdahl from the Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra and the Taliban. Along with the homecoming celebrations came an uneasiness about Qatari motivations, and the nature of those terrorist organization relationships. Aside from these two examples, Qatar’s close relationship with Hamas concerns many. Some of the commentary on these issues makes some valid points that need to be answered, while some are faintly ludicrous. So let’s look at the facts.
The leader of Hamas has long been based in Doha, and Qatar seemed to play an important role in recent discussions regarding ceasefires in Israel. Qatar also has long-held a panoply of links to moderate Muslim Brotherhood associated groups throughout the Middle East. Particularly notable, for example, is Qatar’s hosting since 1961 of one of the leading Brotherhood Imams: Yusuf Al Qaradawi. He vastly expanded his influence under Qatari auspices using Al Jazeera as a vehicle to reach millions of Arabs. Qatar is also one of two states where the austere creed of Salafi, Wahhabi Islam prevails; the other is Saudi Arabia. To some, such links and associations are a context of enough circumstantial evidence to condemn Qatar as some kind of terrorist financier.
But this caricature of Qatar as a Machiavellian nation, secretly and actively supporting terrorism, just does not chime with the reality of the state. Its leadership in recent decades has been arguably the most liberalizing in the Arab Middle East, though granted that’s hardly a difficult title to claim.
When offered several choices of how to reform Qatar’s schools by US think-tank the RAND Corporation, Qatar’s leadership chose the option with the deepest changes explicitly modelled on the US school system. In higher education, six US and three other Western Universities have been established in Doha grafting a font of predominantly US soft power onto Qatari society providing the option of a liberal arts education.
What’s more, Qatar is home to one of the most iconic and powerful female role models in the Middle East. Sheikha Moza, the wife of the former Emir and the mother of the current Emir, is a highly visible stateswoman and the only Gulf first lady to be regularly seen. She is the founder and driving force behind the Education City project (where most Western universities are housed) as well as a raft of domestic social policies and charitable foundations, such as the WISE education awards, seen as the Nobel prize of the education world.
Nor should it be forgotten that Qatar actively cultivated relations with Israel in the early 1990s. There was an Israel trade office in Doha from 1996 to the late 2000s as Qatar actively sought (but eventually failed) to boost relations, such as by selling gas to the Jewish state.
Unless it is being suggested that Qatar undertook these efforts as some kind of a divisionary tactic, which is surely a ludicrous notion, it is difficult to peg Qatar as some kind of retrograde, terrorist-supporting state.
What is more likely is that Qatar wants to use its role with the likes of the Taliban and Jabhat Al Nusra as political gambits to reinforce the critical niche role that it can fulfil for important international allies. In a region that sees a major conflict every decade and where Qatar is a tiny, relatively intrinsically defenceless state, boxed in by historically belligerent, far larger states – Saudi Arabia and Iran – the central tenet of Qatar’s modern foreign policy has been to make the state as important as possible to as wide a range of important actors as possible.
Of course, these policy underpinnings don’t explain the actions and motivations of all Qataris. It is entirely possible if not likely, as some reports have noted, that there are individual Qataris not connected to the government that actively support groups like ISIS and who take advantage of lax Qatari financial controls. Indeed, the US Government has criticized the Gulf States including Qatar for not controlling personally collected, charitable money. Qatari authorities must do more to stop and sanction these individuals.
Some would sensibly counter, however, that the level of support or the freedom that states like Qatar show some apparent terrorist financiers indicates that, secretly, they support their cause. While it is possible that there may be some sympathisers in the elite (there was an example of this in the 1990s, see this summary) there are more persuasive explanations.
To understand the Qatari perspective, you need a realistic view of the Middle East. Hamas may be a violent terrorist organisation by most definitions, but is also an elected political group that commands significant support. Though Qatar’s support facilitates the group, it is a fact on the ground that is not changing with or without Qatar’s help. That many in the Middle East see Hamas as engaging in resistance with what little means they have against one of the most advanced militaries in the world further complicates the issue.
So too with Jabhat Al Nusra. A reprehensible terrorist group it may be by most definitions, but it is often understood as representing a significant force on the ground: it is an actor that needs to be reckoned with.
None of this is an attempt to excuse terrorism or to try to claim that, for example, Hamas is anything other than a terrorist group. But it is to say that there are great swathes of people who would disagree with that characterisation and therefore it is pragmatic in a Kissinger-esque way to deal with the realities as we find them not as we wish they were.
The overarching tone of Qatar’s domestic and foreign policies of recent decades suggests that its interaction with these groups stems not from a blood-thirsty desire to wage war to facilitate the shelling of Israelis. Instead, Qatar acknowledges the realities that, for example, Hamas, like it or not, is a powerful and popular actor in the central conflict of the Arab world or that with more extreme groups like Nusra, it is better to have a contact with them than not.
Not only can these contacts contribute to releasing hostages – without ransoms being paid in this case – but demonstrably without an ideological motivation to support killing, Qatar must be using these links for a future political process. The worst that can then be said of Qatar is that it is supporting regional groups to augment its own regional influence, in which case it joins the list including all Middle Eastern and Western countries trying to do exactly that.