Both the United States and European Union have designated Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization. Indeed, the group continues to conduct attacks against Israel, mostly in the form of rocket strikes. Though the group has rejected calls to renounce radicalism and violence, it has recently shown an inclination toward a more pragmatic approach to governance in the Gaza Strip and in its relationships with Israel and the West.
Hamas' desire to be taken seriously as the legitimate government of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip helps explain the increased pragmatism. But another reason for the turn has been the group's declining fortunes over the past year, which makes the timing of the emir's visit fortuitous. Hamas' political bureau, once headquartered in Amman and later moved to Damascus, left Syria as the regime's war against a predominantly Sunni-led insurgency escalated. Since then, Hamas has turned to Egypt and Qatar for support.
Hamas traces its roots back to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which recently took power in Cairo. While the West remains apprehensive about Egypt's new Islamist-led government, Cairo faces nowhere near the level of scrutiny that Hamas does. By emphasizing its similarities with its parent organization and following the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's path toward moderation, Hamas has an opportunity to break out of its international political isolation.
Qatar has maintained ties with Hamas for at least a decade. As a country that also keeps strong ties to the West, Doha can act as a mediator, promoting dialogue between Hamas and the international community. Qatar's role in the Palestinian territories extends beyond politics into economic support. Just days before the emir's visit, Qatar pledged to invest $254 million in roads, a hospital and a new city that will bolster Gaza's fledgling economy, adding hundreds of jobs at a time when the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is struggling to pay public sector salaries due to mismanagement and declining international aid. While there is no guarantee that the funds will materialize, the sums are small for an oil-rich state like Qatar, and Doha has an incentive to strengthen Hamas' economic position in the Gaza Strip.
A Bid to Manage Islamism's Rise
Expanding its support for Hamas serves Qatar's goal of influencing the rise of Islamist groups in the region while also pulling Hamas away from Iran, previously its main patron. Unlike Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, which feel threatened by the rise of the various Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups across the Middle East, Doha sees it as an opportunity.
Qatar has a population of less than 300,000. Domestic political opposition is highly circumscribed and mostly concentrated within the royal family. The Brotherhood has no roots in Qatar through which to mobilize a threat to the monarchy. Underscoring its extensive ties to Islamist groups, Doha has long provided sanctuary to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a popular Islamist theologian close to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and it also has links with Brotherhood-affiliated parties in Jordan, Libya and Tunisia.
By serving as a patron for Islamist groups, Qatar hopes to use its leverage over them to prevent the groups from pursuing destabilizing activities in the region on issues such as relations with Israel. Doha hosted a controversial Israeli trade office until 2009 when it was suspended following the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Qatar reportedly sought to reopen the office in 2010 but Israel refused. Though Egypt is facilitating the Qatari emir's visit, Qatar and Israel are in regular diplomatic contact and Israel was certainly consulted about the high-profile trip.
Qatar's Regional Ambitions and Limitations
Wedged between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar has long been an outlier in the Middle East's political landscape and has sought to position itself as a regional mediator. Qatar's tiny size places natural constraints on its geopolitical clout, but it can support and ally with other groups — especially emerging Islamists. And the vast wealth Qatar can deploy allows the country to compete on some level with Egypt and other regional players.
Competition between Egypt and Qatar over Hamas is likely to intensify. Egypt shares a border with Gaza, controls several supply routes into the territory and has blocked Qatari aid, including fuel supplies, in the past. Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood also share the aforementioned ideological roots. However, Egypt's weak economic situation has given Qatar an opening to exploit through additional monetary aid. Cairo also cannot overtly embrace the Islamist group because it wants to avoid jeopardizing its relations with Israel.
While Qatar will pursue all available opportunities, its strategic reach will be limited. Its support for Syrian rebels is a case in point. Qatar, along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, has been among the rebels' staunchest regional allies. But as the Syrian conflict intensifies and stakeholders position themselves for negotiations, Doha has been noticeably absent from most of these talks. It can take on a supporting role — for instance by working with France to accelerate the downfall of the Syrian regime through expanded support for the rebels. Qatar cannot, however, be the decision-maker.
Despite these constraints, several factors have allowed Doha to play a role in regional affairs that belies its size. First, no other country in the Middle East has been in a position to serve as a regional mediator, or had the desire to play such a role. Egypt, the traditional leader of the Arab world, has been consumed by domestic political turmoil for several years, even preceding the 2011 ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. Newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader, has tried to revive Egypt's historical leadership role, but Cairo remains distracted by its internal concerns.
Second, few in the region want to see Saudi Arabia take on a greater leadership role. The kingdom's aging leadership and its typically overly cautious responses to regional changes make it ill suited to deal with the new political environment in the Middle East.
Finally, Qatar works alongside rather than against regional powers whenever it can. While competition with Egypt and Turkey exists, Doha has also worked with Cairo and Ankara on helping Hamas by offering support in Gaza and seeking to reduce Iranian influence.
The role Qatar seeks — and has been slowly building toward — is nuanced and indirect. Doha knows it cannot be the regional hegemon. Instead, Doha wants a more discreet influence, the ability to sway leaders and governments without appearing to do so, or at least without becoming a target for regional animosities or opposition from rival powers. Just as it has leveraged al Jazeera as a tool of influence, Doha is now seeking to leverage the relationships with Islamists it has spent years building. The Qatari emir's visit to Gaza is a step in that direction. Granting Hamas the legitimacy no other Arab leader has, Doha has positioned itself as a primary patron for the region's rising Islamists.