Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres touched down in Qatar
last week - the highest-level visit by an Israeli to the Gulf in
more than a decade. He debated local students, met the emir, toured
the Iranian market, and then got his Israeli passport stamped at the
airport and flew home.
While Mr. Peres's visit passed somewhat quietly, and peace didn't
break out in its wake, the 40-hour voyage did, however, highlight a
key aspect of Qatar's foreign policy - it is original.
Whether it's visionary - or merely iconoclastic - is another
Until 1995, Qatar did not have a distinguishable foreign policy
to speak of, and instead took cues from Saudi Arabia and stayed on
the sidelines of world affairs. But ever since reformist Sheikh
Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father in 1995, Qatar has
been charting an increasingly distinctive path.
"Qatar is a player now," says Chase Untermeyer, the US ambassador
to Qatar. "You don't have to be a very big to be a player if you
have talented team members - with the desire to play and ability to
A desert of 4,500 flat square miles jutting into the Persian Gulf
and controlling the third-largest gas reserve in the world, Qatar
seems to be involved in everything lately. It has presided over OPEC
(three times), is bidding for the Olympics, and bankrolls Al
Jazeera, the controversial satellite TV channel.
Controversy seems to be the order of the day here. Qatar is the
only Gulf country to maintain any sort of official relations with
the Jewish state, allowing a "trade representation office" to remain
open in Doha since 1996 and dismissing complaints by neighboring
But this relative openness to Israel does not stop Qatar from
funding the militant group Hamas, which controls the Palestinian
government and calls for the destruction of Israel.
The emir recently transferred $22 million to Hamas as the first
installment of a promised monthly assistance. And, in his meeting
with Peres on Jan. 29, the emir asked Israel to be "pragmatic" and
start talking with Hamas, according to Peres's office. Peres
responded that negotiations would be impossible as long as Hamas
continued to deny Israeli's right to exist.
Qatar's support of Hamas, meanwhile, does not mean that he isn't
closely allied with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah
Party, which is engaged in a bitter power struggle with Hamas. Mr.
Abbas owns a home in Doha and is said to be personally close to the
emir. Hamas political leader Khalad Mashaal also owns a home here
and is a palace friend.
The Israeli-Palestinian story is not the only one in which Qatar
is playing a multiple hand. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad are welcome guests here. Saddam
Hussein's wife was offered political asylum. Still, this does not
interfere with the extensive economic ties between Qatar and the US,
or the close coordination between the two countries on regional
diplomatic and security initiatives. Qatar has, since the spring of
2003, allowed the US to make use of bases here for its central
command and control of the Iraq war. …