Can Israel and Qatar learn to be friends again?

Can Israel and Qatar learn to be friends again?

The world’s richest country had relations with Israel until 2009. In a shifting Middle East, alliances can always be revived

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

File: The Doha skyline, in Qatar (photo credit: Shutterstock images)
File: The Doha skyline, in Qatar (photo credit: Shutterstock images)

DOHA, Qatar — The tiny oil-rich nation of Qatar is a lesson in contradictions. It is an absolute monarchy angling to become a major player in global politics; a nation of staunchly conservative Muslims in native dress whose malls teem with Louis Vuitton and Ferragamo outposts. Its landscape is equal parts barren sand and burnished skyscrapers, with a number of the gleaming futuristic towers of downtown Doha revealing, upon closer look, that they lack interior floors and are simply hollow placeholders in a masquerade of commerce.

Qatar is the richest country in the world, per capita, and also one of the most perplexing. And its complexity is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in its relationship with the Jewish state.

Qatar ordered its Israeli consulate and trade mission shuttered in January 2009, at the height of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, but on a recent visit to the Gulf nation, several locals said that in Qatar, in the case of Israel as in all things, nothing is ever quite as it seems.

When they shuttered their Israeli mission in 2009, “the Qataris probably reluctantly followed through on what was an Arab League position,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “The Qataris still try to maintain relations with everyone in this region in that respect, even with the Israelis.”

In 2010, Qatar offered Israel the chance to reopen its trade mission in Doha, offering to brush off the welcome mat in exchange for permission to send construction materials to Gaza. It also wanted the Jewish state to issue a public statement hailing its role in the region, and grant it de facto leadership of rebuilding efforts in the Gaza Strip. When Israel scoffed at the idea, Qatar tried again four months later. It was rebuffed a second time.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his stance by explaining that the construction materials could easily be turned into bunkers and rocket launchers to be used against Israel, analysts said the real reason for the rejection was a desire to keep Egypt as the primary actor on the issue of Gaza. Publicly lauding the Middle East influence of the emirate, which is known to be cozy with both Hamas and Iran, was deemed foolhardy.

So official contacts between the nations remain blocked, and there are no direct flights between Tel Aviv and Doha, but unofficial lines of communication are open. Israelis with second passports are known to visit Qatar regularly, with a handful even living and working in Doha on long-term gigs. Israeli journalists such as Smadar Perry and Akiva Eldar have covered the annual international conference that is the Doha Forum. Shaikh, who calls Shimon Peres a good friend, regularly attends the Herzliya Conference, a move that he says often stirs up the Arabic-language media in other countries but for which he has never heard a peep about from the Qatari government.

The Doha skyline by night. (photo credit: Shutterstock images)
The Doha skyline by night. (Doha Skyline.)

In a highly fractured Middle East, the Qataris seem to want to keep relations warm with as many parties as possible, a stance that earned former emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani the label of two-faced. His 33-year-old son Tamim, to whom he handed over power on June 25, has a lot to juggle.

Qatar’s growth has been swift and staggering, going from a sleepy, sand-washed Bedouin outpost to an economic colossus in under four decades. Construction in the pocket-sized nation, barely half the size of Israel, moves at a staggering flurry. By the time the World Cup reaches its shores in 2022, the nation will have five new, climate-controlled stadiums, all built by foreign laborers under questionable conditions. Doha’s roads, which are lined with construction barriers and potholes, will have been smoothed, manicured and expanded.

As Qatar has opened up to the world, its people – Sunni Muslims who are vastly outnumbered by the foreigners who live among them – have responded with both enthusiasm and a return to conservatism. Hubs of Doha nightlife, including the waterfront cultural village Katara and the squeaky-clean marina and shopping hub The Pearl, have recently banned alcohol, leaving its world-class chefs scrambling to create new menus. More and more of its women are donning the burka with a full-face veil, but pairing the black robes with Jimmy Choo stilettos and $6,000 Chanel handbags. So it’s not out of character that in their relations to Israel, their arms are outstretched but their hands are not quite open.

World cup construction in Qatar. (photo credit: Shutterstock images)
World cup construction in Qatar. (World cup construction.)

“This is a very proud nation, and they know who is their enemy and their friend, but they go out of their way to never offend anyone,” says one Doha expat, a friend of former Israeli trade mission head Roi Rosenblit. Like many people in Doha, including Israelis and American Jews living and working in the city, as well as foreigners who are friends of Israel, she asked to remain anonymous. “There are pockets of ignorance, definitely, but when the embassy was here, there were no problems.”

The ex-pat says that some of the fondest memories from her 20-plus years in Qatar took place when she held dinner parties and brought her Syrian friends and her Israeli friends together for a meal. Israelis have always felt surprisingly welcome in Doha, she explains, because the native culture values hospitality above all other traits. Any guest — even one whose heritage is hated — will be treated with kindness.

“The embassy was expelled as the result of a political situation, and whether it’s possible to re-establish that contact or not, it will be played out on a different level,” she says. “On both sides, though, at the end of the day what everyone really wants is peace.”

As the United States opens nuclear negotiations with Iran, however, and old alliances that once seemed invulnerable are now starting to fray, Qatar is capitalizing not just on its oil riches but also on its stance as newfound power broker.

“With the Qataris, I think increasingly you’ll see as part of their foreign policy, their approach of being able to speak to as many sides as possible,” says Shaikh. “And certainly in terms of their relationship with Washington, it’s probably never been as good as it is today.”

For the Qataris to truly welcome Israel back into their fold, with no pre-conditions, Shaikh says it will need to come to a lasting peace with the Palestinians. And as peace talks drag on, Shaikh agrees that there has perhaps been no better time for Netanyahu to take an uncharacteristic risk.

“In terms of transformation in the region, Israel can contribute mightily, and I think you’ll find it has friends in the region who are willing to engage with it in ways there were once unthinkable,” he says. “So if the Iranians are doing the unthinkable, why is that other countries can’t do the unthinkable, too?

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