Condemning Qatar is Counterproductive

Condemning Qatar is Counterproductive

Going after the region’s most essential diplomat is a mistake the Middle East—and the United States—cannot afford.

The tiny Gulf state of Qatar is again capturing headlines for its role in mediating between Israel and Hamas. While a fresh deal for the release of hostages being held in Gaza is yet to be concluded, these efforts have produced the only successful outcome so far in Israel’s nearly four-month campaign that has left Gaza in ruins and tens of thousands of civilians dead. On November 24, Qatari diplomacy produced a breakthrough seven-day window allowing for 105 hostages and 240 Palestinian women and children imprisoned by Israel to return to their homes, the exit of foreign passport holders trapped in Gaza, and the entry of humanitarian aid into the besieged territory. Most recently, intensive backchannel negotiations resulted in an agreement for the delivery of vital medicine into Gaza, including for the hostages.

Despite these achievements, however, Qatar has been subjected to criticism and threats for its relationship with Hamas, including from members of Congress, Washington-based think tanks, and the media.

On November 26, for example, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) said on the social media platform X that “Qatar has blood on its hands” and that if the government does not arrest Hamas leaders and seize their assets, “there should be consequences.” This echoes other statements from Senators Ted Budd (R-NC), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Congresswoman Carol Miller (R-WV), to name a few, who have all tried to implicate the Gulf state in the atrocities of October 7.

Yet, at best, these statements reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of Qatar’s relationship with Hamas and, at worst, a shortsighted attempt to punish Doha for its broader role in supporting the Palestinian cause. By doing so, Doha’s critics risk alienating America’s most effective diplomatic partner in the Middle East and a key non-NATO ally that hosts the largest U.S. military base in the region. Such attacks are also a deterrent to any party engaged in serious diplomacy at a time when the region can ill-afford more militarism as it hurtles toward a large-scale, open-ended war. 

A Relationship of Purpose 

Since 2012, Qatar has hosted a political office for Hamas after the group’s external leadership was kicked out of its previous base in Damascus for criticizing the Assad regime’s violent repression of demonstrators at the start of the Arab Spring. What Doha’s detractors miss is that the Obama Administration asked Qatar to play this role so that it could maintain an indirect channel of communication with Hamas, which is deemed a “foreign terrorist organization” by the State Department. This proscribes U.S. officials from communicating directly with Hamas, which makes having an intermediary able to engage pragmatically on issue-specific points, especially in times of tension, all the more critical.

In recent years, the Qatari government has also provided significant financial aid to Gaza to pay wages for civil servants, deliver assistance to needy families, finance the UN refugee agency operating schools and hospitals, and support construction projects. As a New York Times investigation confirmed, this money was provided at the behest of the United States and Israel, who wanted to stabilize Gaza amid Israel’s crippling blockade but were unable to allocate funds themselves. That does not mean, however, that Israel has not had a direct role in the dispersal of these funds. At times, money was literally hand-carried through Israel’s Erez Crossing into Gaza and escorted by Israeli intelligence officers. Later, it was dispersed through United Nations aid mechanisms at the discretion of the Israeli government.

Indeed, mere days before October 7, Qatar was asked to increase its funding to Gaza to mitigate an escalating economic crisis and calm discontent, according to reports in the Israeli press. In parallel, the Israeli government was also set to announce an increase in permits for Gazans to work in Israel. Qatar had not yet approved the increase at the time of the Hamas attack.

Critically, no other party has been able to play this role before or after the October 7 attack. This includes the United States, despite decades of engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the lead broker of the peace process.

Still, just days ago, Senator Budd demanded on the Senate floor that Qatar “either pressure Hamas leaders to release hostages now or expel them from your land.” But does Qatar even have that type of leverage when Hamas leaders have relocated several times in the past? If Qatar made such an ultimatum, would its constructive relationship with Hamas’ political leadership be broken, halting any further ability to mediate between the group and the outside world?

It is this type of heavy-handed approach that has left the United States hamstrung in its own diplomacy, even beyond Israel-Palestine. For years, Washington has cut itself off from crucial parties to conflicts in which it is also engaged. At the same time, Congress has heavily prioritized defense spending at the expense of the American diplomatic corps. As a result, U.S. global engagement has become far more militarized or sanctions-based, especially since September 11, 2001. But for most crises, there is no military solution. At some point, diplomacy and mediation become necessary to support a political resolution, however unseemly, as with the Taliban that ended the “forever war” in Afghanistan.

Qatar has, in effect, stepped into America’s diplomatic void. So far, it has mediated between the United States and Iran to free American prisoners and between the United States and the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan—that includes helping vulnerable civilians left behind after a hasty and messy American exit in August 2021. Last year, Qatar also negotiated the return of Ukrainian children taken captive in Russia, as well as between political actors in Venezuela, to secure a fair playing field ahead of the 2024 elections.

In each instance, the United States was incapable of such negotiations because it did not talk to Iran, the Taliban, Russia, or Venezuela. On the other hand, Doha maintains a policy of neutrality and openness with a wide range of political actors. This is a requirement for effective mediation, which must build upon the development of relationships and trust. That includes Israel, with which Qatar has maintained an informal relationship since the 1990s, a decade that saw Israel open a trade office in Doha. Through this policy of relationship building and mediation, Qatar has come to play a more effective role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than any of its peers, even those that now have normalized relationships with Israel.

That doesn’t mean Qatar does not have red lines. It does not deal with actors like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (indeed, Al-Udeid airbase outside Doha, the forward headquarters of CENTCOM, plays a key role in supporting U.S. operations against both groups). But in general, it has remained open to engaging with a wider array of regional entities, including political Islamist groups viewed as a threat by some of its neighbors. Qatar has already paid a price for this policy of balanced pragmatism. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt initiated a blockade against Qatar that lasted until January 2021.

While seeking to punish anyone connected to or associated with Hamas in the aftermath of October 7 is understandable, seeking to punish Doha for a role endorsed by the United States and Israel is misplaced and dangerous. It poses a chilling effect that makes diplomacy, which, to be effective, entails difficult negotiations with adversaries and enemies to identify points of compromise even more difficult. Going after mediators is a surefire way to sideline political efforts to end the war and leave only military options and endless conflict on the table.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. Follow him on X ​​@Dr_Ulrichsen.

Omar H. Rahman is a Nonresident Fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy and a Research Fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs in Doha. Follow him on X @omarrahman