Qatar's Relations with Israel: Challenging Arab and Gulf Norms

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This article focuses on the development of Qatar's unique relationship with Israel, and explains the relationship as just one component of the Emirate's intricate and bold foreign policy. This discussion identifies both the logic behind Qatar's regional policy initiatives as well as the Emirate's ability to adapt to changing regional and international circumstances. As such, this article provides an example of how a small, wealthy state like Qatar can skillfully generate a sophisticated, independent foreign policy agenda that differentiates itself from its larger and influential neighbors, while simultaneously upgrading its international profile and gaining regional prominence.

As the only Gulf state to maintain official relations with Israel, the Qatari government has charted a distinctly independent route in foreign policy. Qatar has steadily improved its relations with Israel since the 1991 Gulf War, and was the first Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state to grant de facto recognition to Israel. Since 1996, Doha has hosted an Israeli trade representation office, which has provoked sharp criticism from neighboring states.

Many argue that Doha maintains its relations with Israel in order to cultivate its relations with the United States, and that these relations contribute to the consolidation of Qatar's political standing and security in a stormy region. Others argue that Qatar strives to sell its natural gas to Israel and that this economic incentive is the prime impetus for their relations. However, it is evident that economic motivations do not constitute a major factor in Qatari-Israeli relations, and the claim that Qatar aspires to strengthen its ties with the US through amicable relations with Israel is also not a sufficient explanation for such a controversial policy.

This article provides a case study of a small, wealthy oil state which employs an independent and nuanced foreign policy in order to promote its regional position as well as upgrade its international profile. The article analyzes the development of Qatar's unique relationship with Israel, and suggests that it should be perceived as part and parcel of the Emirate's complex foreign policy. However, in order to comprehend Qatari motives in its pursuit of relations with Israel, it is imperative to understand Qatar's relations with neighboring countries in the Persian Gulf. This discussion identifies both the logic behind Qatar's regional policy initiatives as well as the Emirate's ability to adapt to changing regional and international circumstances.

Changing of the Gua rd: The June 1995 Palace Coup

Before 1995, Qatar did not have a clearly defined foreign policy agenda, and stood on the sidelines of world affairs. The subsequent dramatic shifts in Qatar's foreign policy are attributable to the present ruler of Qatar, Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who rose to power after replacing his father, Shaykh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, in a palace coup on June 27, 1995. Although the exact motivations for Shaykh Hamad's actions remain unclear, many speculate that he deposed his father due to growing tensions between them that ostensibly stemmed from Shaykh Khalifa's plans to shift power to other members of the Al Thani family.1

The changing of the guard also may have had generational causes. When Shaykh Hamad assumed power he was only 45 years old, the youngest ruler in the GCC and the first of a new generation of rulers that has since emerged in several Arab countries. A graduate of Sandhurst, the British Royal Military Academy, Shaykh Hamad was also the first Western-educated leader to come to power in the Gulf since Sultan Qabus of Oman in 1970. As the Minister of Defense, he controlled the armed forces and accrued substantial influence, as his father delegated much responsibility to him. Consequently, by the mid-1980s, Shaykh Hamad already had become the prominent figure in Qatari politics, and was largely recognized as the effective ruler of Qatar. …