arab foreign minister298.
(photo credit: AP)
Qatar's foreign minister headed to Gaza on Monday for talks with Hamas leaders as part of a new and aggressive role for the tiny Gulf nation: pushing Arab mediation efforts on Mideast issues from Sudan to Palestinian peace talks to the stalemate over Israeli prisoners.
Qatar's efforts are expected to infuriate regional heavyweights such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which the United States had been relying heavily on to try to stifle Hamas and other radical groups.
On Sunday, Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassem al Thani traveled to Damascus to meet exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to try to end the standoff between the two Palestinian factions - the ruling Hamas militant group and the Fatah faction in the Palestinian territories.
If it were to succeed in its efforts, Qatar would push aside Egypt, which has been mediating for months to get Hamas to agree to a deal that includes releasing Shalit and forming a unity government.
Qatar is also making a bid to defuse the crisis in the war-torn Darfur region in Sudan, another Mideast hotspot. On Monday, Sudan's presidential adviser, Mustafa Osman Ismail, said Qatar will initiate a mediation effort over Darfur including inviting warring factions to a conference in Doha.
In both cases, Qatar is believed to use checkbook diplomacy to buy influence. The oil and gas rich emirate is a major supplier of cash for Hamas and is a major investor in Sudan's impoverished economy.
The new initiatives come at a time when Qatar has been at odds with many Arab neighbors.
At an Arab foreign ministers' meeting in June, al Thani fiercely opposed Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which had accused the Lebanese Hizbullah of triggering the summer war with Israel.
Earlier this month, Qatar also angered Jordan when it voted against a Jordanian prince to head the United Nations. Jordan recalled its ambassador to Doha in protest over Qatar's move, which it said violated an Arab agreement to vote for Prince Zeid al-Hussein who was among five candidates to succeed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Qatar apparently is trying to reassert itself as key player in the region in the face of challenges from other major powers, especially Saudi Arabia. Relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are cool and several times this year their foreign ministers have exchanged unfriendly gestures.
Saudi Arabia complains that Qatar is using its widely watched Al Jazeera news channel to broadcast anti-Saudi programs, and Qatar is preparing to launch a pan Arab daily newspaper soon that is expected to rival Saudi-owned papers like Al Hayat.
"Qatar feels squeezed by the Saudis and obsessed with fear that the kingdom will swallow it one day," said Mohammed Saeed Idres, of the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies.
Saudis, meanwhile, accuse Qatar of undermining Arab unity.
Last week, Israeli media reported that Israel's prime minister had met with a top Saudi official to discuss regional issues, an encounter widely seen as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to counterbalance Qatar, which hosts an Israeli trade mission and whose foreign minister frequently meets with Israeli officials.
"What the Qataris are doing does not serve the Arabs interests but rather serves others," wrote Jamil al-Thiabi, a columnist in the Saudi-owned Al Hayat paper. "To deal with the challenges it faces, the Arab world needs more coherence ... not political hypocrisy."