Doha’s downfall: Qatar frozen out in Gaza, Syria, Lebanon
In the wake of an acute diplomatic standoff with Saudi Arabia – and Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE – that began in June, Qatar's regional power and influence is being eroded
At his landmark address to the UN General Assembly in September, the emir of Qatar, Tamim Bin Hamad, failed to mention either Palestine or Syria, two cornerstones of all his previous speeches since 2013.
Tamim simply said: “Qatar will remain, as always, a safe haven for the oppressed and will continue its mediation efforts to find just solutions to conflict zones.”
Since coming to power four years ago, the young emir had carefully positioned himself as a patron of the Palestinian military group Hamas and an entire wing of the Syrian Opposition, which includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But in the wake of an acute diplomatic standoff with Saudi Arabia – and Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE – that began in June, he has found himself increasingly frozen out of regional power-broking.
For years, both Tamim and his father – Hamad Bin Khalifa – were outspoken supporters of the “Islamic resistance” in Gaza, backing Hamas’s self-rule in the city since 2007. They opened the studios of their powerful al-Jazeera television network to the group’s leaders, giving them unrestricted access to the airwaves. Tamim and his father were ardent admirers of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – the mother organization from which Hamas was born in the 1980s – and its hardline interpretation of Islam. They backed the Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt in 2012-2013 and generously bankrolled its proxies in Palestine and Syria. When Egypt’s current president Abdul Fattah el-Sisi staged his coup four years ago, Doha sparked a diplomatic crisis with Cairo, claiming that the Sisi government was “illegitimate.”
Egypt is now striking back at Qatar, dismantling its fiefdom in Gaza City, with UAE funds. In May, it sponsored talks between the Dubai-based Mohammad Dahlan, a former security chief in Gaza, and Hamas’s newly elected leader in Gaza, Yihya Sinwar, who has shown more independence from the Qataris than his boss Ismail Haniya or the ex-chief of the organization’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal.
Previously sworn enemies, Dahlan and Sinwar pledged to work together, agreeing to set up the Palestinian Joint Liability Committee, which is aimed at helping Gazan families in need following years of being under siege from Israel. Dahlan was in effect sending Qatar a message. Back in October 2014, Tamim’s father was hosted by the leaders of Hamas in Gaza and pledged US$400 million to rehabilitate the city’s destroyed infrastructure.
The new fund, administered by Egypt and bankrolled by the UAE, will provide each family with US$50,000. Obviously, Doha was left out of the agreement: its emir was not even consulted by the Palestinians. For their part, the 1.8 million residents of Gaza are badly in need of help and don’t much care about its source or any of the inter-Arab feuds that come with it.
According to a World Bank report, unemployment stands at 43% among the general population and at a staggering 60% among Gaza’s youth. Egypt is now promising to change that and to re-open the Rafah Border Crossing, a feat that would greatly elevate the suffering of the people of Gaza, and one which it would not be in Qatar’s power to enact anyway. Moreover, with winter ahead, Egypt just sent one million liters of fuel to Gaza, topping a three-month grant from Doha to restore electricity to Gaza City.
Three major players in the Syrian conflict – Turkey, Iran, and Russia – divided their spheres of influence in the war-torn country, while Doha was left with nothing
In Syria, meanwhile, Qatar’s influence has virtually disappeared. When the Syrian conflict started back in 2011, Qatar was the single most influential player on the Syrian battlefield, bankrolling the insurgency with US$3 billion in the first two years of the war. Seven years later, all territory once held by Qatar-backed militias has been re-taken fully by the Russian and Syrian armies.
Qatar was purposely left out of the Astana process, which produced the now famous “de-conflict zones” agreement in May. Three major players in the Syrian conflict – Turkey, Iran, and Russia – divided their spheres of influence in the war-torn country, while Doha was left with nothing. At a forthcoming conference Syrian opposition conference in Riyadh, scheduled for mid-October, all Qatar proxies will be forced to stand aside.
The same situation is being repeated in Lebanon, where Saudi Arabia and Iran neatly divided the country among themselves in 2016, giving the premiership to Riyadh’s all-time favorite Saad al-Hariri and the presidency to the Hezbollah-backed Michel Aoun.
Qatar had previously tried to operate as a broker in the Lebanese conflict, lending its name in 2008 to a famous agreement that ended a mini-civil war on the streets of Beirut. At the time, billboards sprang up all over Lebanon emblazoned with the words “Thank you Qatar.” They have now been torn down and replaced with photos of King Salman and his Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
All of this will change almost overnight when and if Qatar reaches an agreement with Saudi Arabia: its previous role as problem solver and friend would be restored instantly. There is nothing, however, about this five-month-old crisis that suggests it is about to be resolved soon.