Inside story'Their goal is to topple secular regimes'

How Qatar, the Gulf’s ‘enfant terrible’ and sponsor of Hamas, is also an ally of the West

The petrostate has taken flak for harboring terror leaders and enabling them to plan Oct. 7. Experts discuss what drives Qatar’s long history of support for Islamist extremists

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (R), ruler of Qatar since 2013, in a meeting with Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and official Khaled Mashal in Doha, October 17, 2016 (Qatar government handout)
Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (R), ruler of Qatar since 2013, in a meeting with Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and official Khaled Mashal in Doha, October 17, 2016 (Qatar government handout)

The tiny petrostate of Qatar has been making daily headlines since October 7 for its role as a mediator in the conflict between Hamas and Israel, with negotiations resulting in the release of over 100 of the about 240 hostages taken by the terror group in its onslaught.

As the intelligence community has attempted to figure out how the horrific attack of October 7 could have been plotted under Israel’s nose, the oil- and gas-rich Gulf monarchy has also come under increasing scrutiny as one of the most prominent sponsors of Hamas.

While Qatar has harbored top Hamas leaders in luxury hotels in the capital Doha and contributed billions of dollars to maintain the terror group in power in Gaza, it is increasingly also seen as a player punching above its weight on the diplomatic scene, including in negotiations for the return of Ukrainian children from Russia.

Today, “Doha has become an influential player. It’s the go-to mediator for the big powers, mainly in the West,” said Ariel Admoni, a Qatar expert and a doctoral student at Bar-Ilan University. “It has facilitated talks between Washington and Tehran before October 7, and recently mediated between the US and Venezuela.”

Qatar — unlike “rogue state” Iran, which has armed, trained and bankrolled Hamas — is fully integrated into the Western capitalist system. Since the mid-1990s it has used its fabulous wealth to acquire recognition and prestige, for example by hosting the World Cup in 2022, an event marred by graft allegations.

The United States and its institutions have benefited from Qatar’s largess: In 1996, Doha invested $1 billion for the construction of a military base, Al-Udeid, which today hosts 8,000 US troops, forging an inextricable alliance with the world’s greatest superpower and ensuring protection from outside invaders.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim ibn Hamad Al Thani in Doha on October 13, 2023. (US State Department)

Doha has also donated $4.7 billion to US colleges and universities between 2001 and 2021, according to the US National Association of Scholars, in what the academic body describes as a “large ethical and security concern.”

Qatar’s ruling family, the Al-Thanis, owns billions in prized assets in the West, notably in London and New York. The collective net worth of the extended clan is estimated at around $335 billion.

A history of circumventing the rules

Behind the veneer of a modern, business-oriented member of the international community, the Gulf monarchy has a history of circumventing the rules, bribing its way to diplomatic stature — such as paying off European Parliament officials to abort unfavorable resolutions — and, more disturbingly, supporting instability in various Muslim countries through terror groups.

Qatar has backed and bankrolled Islamist insurgent groups with ties to al-Qaeda in northern Mali and Libya, sheltered Taliban warlords, armed Syrian rebels, and helped the Houthis launch attacks against Israel from Yemen.

Ariel Admoni, a Qatar researcher and PhD student at Bar-Ilan University, Jerusalem, December 2023 (courtesy)

In addition to relative newcomer Hamas, the Gulf monarchy has a long history of playing host to disreputable actors, in what may be regarded as a national tradition.

Admoni noted that the country’s founding leader, Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, decided in the 19th century that Qatar was to become “a kaaba for the persecuted,” a reference to Islam’s holiest shrine, “a refuge where they could hide and would be welcomed in line with Arab tradition. But today, that is obviously just an excuse to give refuge to terror leaders.”

He maintained that the main driver of Qatar’s foreign policy is to gain clout on the international stage, saying, “Supporting terrorism is one way to achieve that goal.”

“Ultimately, by fostering terror groups in places as far-flung as Mali, Qatar manages to draw attention to itself and have a say in the global agenda,” Admoni added.

The problem child of Gulf states

Until the mid-1990s, Qatar was a marginal regional player under the patronage of Saudi Arabia, and its foreign policy was aligned with that of its giant neighbor, Admoni explained.

In 1995, Prince Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani dethroned his father in a bloodless coup. With his rise to power, Doha’s foreign policy took a dramatic turn. The new leader strove for autonomy and to achieve regional and international recognition for his small country as a “special and unique” actor, in Admoni’s words.

Among the most notable examples of its new direction in diplomacy, Qatar boasted of maintaining relations with both Israel and Iran, at a time when no other Gulf country had open relations with the Jewish state.

Qatar established informal trade relations with Israel in 1996, and the Jewish state maintained a trade mission in Doha from 1995 to 2000 when it was shut down during the Second Intifada. Diplomatic ties were formally broken off in 2009 over Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

Israel’s then prime minister Shimon Peres, left, is received by the then Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, in Doha, April 2, 1996. (AP Photo/QNA)

“The other Gulf monarchies have been attempting to restrain Doha,” Admoni said. “They are not sure they can trust the Qataris, who come across as unreliable and hungry for attention but uninterested in tackling real issues. Qatar is viewed as an enfant terrible who tries to attract attention and gain influence at their expense.”

A major shift in the Gulf’s dynamics occurred when Mohammed bin Salman, the young crown prince of Saudi Arabia, became the de facto ruler of the regional powerhouse in 2017. Among various groundbreaking policies the new ruler adopted domestically and abroad, he resolved to bring Qatar back into the Saudi sphere of influence. “But after 20 years spent pursuing an independent foreign agenda, Doha would not give up so easily,” Admoni said.

Qatar is viewed as an enfant terrible who tries to attract attention and gain influence

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing Doha of meddling in the internal affairs of other Arab countries, of supporting terrorism, and of maintaining relations with Iran.

Qatar’s airspace, sea routes, and land border crossing with Saudi Arabia were blocked, leaving the Qatari peninsula almost entirely isolated bar a maritime border with Iran.

The drastic measure, however, did not bring about the expected result: Qatar managed to thrive even under a blockade, and eventually, the Saudis realized that the embargo had backfired, so it was lifted.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani upon his arrival in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, January 5, 2021. (Saudi Royal Court via AP, File)

“The embargo imposed between 2017 and 2021 highlights the fact that Qatar’s neighbors, unlike the West, realize its destabilizing role,” said Yigal Carmon, a former adviser on terror to prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin.

“Similarly, Egypt has banned Al Jazeera [which is mostly funded by the Qatari government] from operating and broadcasting on its territory, because of Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that is banned in Egypt and considered a threat to the regime,” Carmon added, noting that the news corporation is still permitted to operate freely in Israel.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an international organization whose stated goal is the gradual Islamization of society, under the slogan “Islam is the solution.” Hamas was born out of the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.

‘A terror organization pretending to be a state’

Carmon, founder of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), where this reporter was formerly employed, has launched a crusade against Qatar, in an attempt to warn the US government and the West not to treat Doha as a reliable partner and a neutral player.

“Unfortunately, Americans tend to look at the rest of the world as a mirror image of themselves. In the case of Qatar, they see a business-oriented country, and a mediator,” Carmon said. “They don’t understand that their perception is flawed.”

Qatar is a story of American negligence that has brought terrorism to America itself and to the rest of the world

America’s troubles with the Qataris began in the mid-1990s, Carmon explains, after Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani dethroned his father and rose to power. The expert claims that the coup was masterminded by Abdullah bin Khaled al-Thani, another member of the royal family who at the time was minister of Islamic affairs. Carmon describes him as the royal family’s first link to terror.

The erstwhile minister gave refuge on Qatari soil to terrorist Khaled Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), a Pakistani al-Qaeda leader named as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks” by the commission that investigated the attacks.

This March 1, 2003, file photo obtained by the Associated Press shows Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, shortly after his capture during a raid in Pakistan. (AP Photo, File)

In January 1996, the US demanded from Qatar the terrorist’s extradition after discovering his involvement in a plot to blow up 12 American airliners over the Pacific.

Abdullah Bin Khalid al-Thani had been sheltering KSM at his farm in Qatar, and tipped him off to the arrival of the FBI and CIA teams coming to arrest him, according to a 2004 Congressional Research Service report. The terrorist managed to escape to Afghanistan and was eventually captured in 2003. He is currently detained at Guantanamo.

“Qatar is a story of American negligence that has brought terrorism to America itself and to the rest of the world,” Carmon stated. “In the same way that Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was harbored by Qatar before he planned the 9/11 attacks, Hamas leaders were sheltered by the emirate as they plotted October 7.”

For Carmon, Doha’s support for terrorists, however, is not to be ascribed merely to its desire for publicity. Rather, he see it as a deliberate attempt to generate instability around the Muslim world and foster radical Islam.

“Qatar is driven by a specific ideology and has a clear goal: The spread of Wahhabism through the use of money and terrorism. Ultimately, Qatar wants to become the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. They built all those skyscrapers so that everybody in the West would think they are like us. But they are not.”

FILE – Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders leading a prayer before hosting an Iftar Ramadan fast-breaking dinner in Qatar with Qatari officials and international diplomats, April 13, 2023. (Hamas.ps)

Wahhabism is a puritanical Islamist movement that insists on a literal interpretation of the Quran and calls for a return to the original form of Islam as it was practiced in 7th century Arabia.

It is today the official version of Islam practiced in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “While the Saudi regime managed to tamp down the influence of the Wahhabi ideology, the Qataris adhere to it, in the aim to restore the glory of the Islamic past,” Carmon explained.

“Members of the Al-Thani royal family even boast to be descendants of Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab,” he added. “Their goal is to topple secular regimes and to instate theocratic ones that will apply Wahhabism.”

Doomsday scenarios – and equivocations

The view that holds Doha’s ultimate goal to be the spread radical Islam is not unanimous.

“Doha sponsors Islamist groups, but it does not have a religious agenda. It is driven by political ambitions masqueraded as religious motives – this also helps to harness support domestically, in a highly conservative society,” Admoni said.

“It is true that in 2011 the largest mosque in Qatar was inaugurated and named after Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab,” Admoni said, referencing the founder of Wahhabism, “but three years prior, the imposing Church of our Lady of the Rosary was opened” — the first built in the country since the Muslim conquests in the 7th century — “and that would not be tolerated under strict Wahhabism.”

Inside view of Our Lady of the Rosary, the first church built in Qatar since the Islamic conquest in the 7th century, inaugurated in 2008 (from Facebook)

But for Carmon, there should be absolutely no tolerance for Qatar or its media outlet: “On October 7, Al Jazeera broadcast [Hamas military wing leader] Mohammed Deif’s declaration of war against Israel. Al Jazeera is the mouthpiece of Hamas,” Carmon argued.

In his view, Israel should stop viewing Doha as a partner and begin treating it as an enemy on a par with Iran. “The Israeli leadership is hostage to Qatar. It praises Doha for its mediating role in freeing the hostages. The head of the Mossad goes to Doha for talks with Qatari officials. It’s unacceptable.”

Al Jazeera is the mouthpiece of Hamas

“What we should be doing instead of cozying up to Qatar is conducting cyberattacks to destabilize its economic infrastructure,” Carmon suggested. Over the past weeks, he has launched appeals to Israel’s tech giants to carry out malicious attacks against the Gulf country.

Qatar delenda est,” Carmon said, citing a Latin phrase meaning “must be destroyed.”

With the city skyline in the background, migrant workers work at the Doha port, in Doha, Qatar, Nov. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

“It is a country of 300,000 citizens and 2 million foreign residents, who have moved there to work and profit from its wealth. The moment the Qatari economic infrastructure is targeted by Israeli cyberattacks, the bonanza will grind to a halt, and the foreign workforce will disappear within a week,” he claimed.

“Were that to happen, there would be nobody to run the country, and Qatar would be forced to change course. And then, we would see that the Israeli hostages will immediately come out of Hamas captivity,” he predicted. “Qatar is the lifeline of Hamas, and has absolute influence over it.”

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