Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh (R) and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani arrive at a cornerstone laying ceremony in the southern Gaza Strip.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Reports emerged in the Arab press on Sunday that Qatar would expel Hamas officials based in its capital, Doha.
According to Al Mayadeen, a channel considered close to Iran and the Syrian regime, Qatar regretted the decision, but said “external pressure” had been placed on Qatar to reduce its relationship with Hamas.
This pressure has come from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s Riyadh speech, where he urged the country to “drive out” extremists. Khaled Mashaal, the former head of Hamas, has resided in Qatar since 2012.
On Monday the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt broke ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism.
The pressure on Qatar is part of its wider war of words between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, which accuse Qatar of destabilizing the region through support of Islamists.
“The countries in the region can be divided into two camps, one that seeks to advance its foreign interests through the support of Islamists and one whose foreign policy is guided by opposition to the rise of Islamists,” wrote Hassan Hassan at The National in the United Arab Emirates.
He sketched out an Islamist-supporting block that spans the region from Iran to Qatar and Turkey.
Hassan’s paradigm may be a bit contradictory, since Qatar, Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict, but his article published in the UAE is part of a larger new war of words between Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Doha.
They portray Qatar as a source of regional instability. Qatar-based Al Jazeera was blocked in the UAE and Saudi Arabia on May 24.
According to Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Qatar has been a “support base for Islamists from across the Middle East. It hosts the political headquarters of Hamas” and other groups.
Schanzer agreed with accusations that Qatar’s softening of its approach to Iran “appear[s] to be one of the issues at the heart of the current Gulf rupture.” He also said the recent war of words comes after Trump urged countries to “drive out” extremists like Hamas. “There are conflicting reports as to whether Qatar actually followed through here [expelling Hamas]. I think the likelihood of Qatar ejecting Hamas is low.”
Qatar has gone on the offensive against its accusers. On June 4, Al Jazeera reported that leaked emails from the UAE ambassador the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, “reveal [the] Emirati ambassador played [a] role in [the] campaign to tarnish Qatar’s image.” The report quoted The Intercept, noting “there is a growing axis between some of the Gulf countries, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Israel.”
Some of this dispute may seem petty, such as claims that Al Jazeera “posts a tweet insulting [the] Saudi king,” but the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash warned Sunday that Doha’s behavior was a danger to stability in the Gulf.
This has implications for Israel. Reports in late May claimed that Iran will resume funding Hamas. Several days later, Al Mayadeen claimed that a Qatari envoy gave Hamas officials a list of names of its members who must leave Doha.
The Qatar-Hamas connection goes back years. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the former ruler of Qatar who abdicated in 2013, visited Gaza in 2012 and pledged $400 million in aid to the Strip. “I haven’t seen Hamas officials looking so pleased with themselves since they managed to free more than 1,000 Palestinian political prisoners last year [in exchange for Gilad Schalit],” said the Al Jazeera correspondent in Gaza at the time.
When Sheikh Hamad’s son Tamim came to power in 2013, expectations were that he would moderate Qatar’s role and reduce funding for Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Gaza.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia and others haven’t seen enough improvement, and they hope to squeeze and isolate Qatar. The question Doha faces is whether its claims that Arab states are choosing Israel over one of their own, will work to deflect criticism, or whether the Gulf can successfully rein in the Qataris.