The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, made history on Monday by becoming the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control of the coastal territory in 2007.
For the past five years, Gaza has been a virtual no man’s land in the eyes of much of the world, including some of the very same Arab states that consider the cause of Palestinian freedom a moral one of their own. The Qatari leader has broken that impasse to the delight of senior Hamas officials and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who are struggling to make do in any area with no natural resources and decrepit public infrastructure.
Before Sheikh Hamad was scheduled to enter the strip, officials in the Hamas movement made sure that the visit would be a memorable one. Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ prime minister, personally greeted the emir as he crossed into Gaza from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The monarch received a red carpet welcome with an honor guard at his side. Qatari flags were slapped to road signs, electrical cables, telephone polls and along the territory’s major roads to show just how much the sheikh’s trip was appreciated among the Palestinian public.
The official purpose of Sheikh Hamad’s foray into Gaza was to inaugurate $400 million dollars worth of Qatari donations to improve the territory’s dismal economic situation. The money will reportedly be used to build a housing complex that will consist of some 1,000 apartments, improve upon two major highways that are riddled with potholes, break ground on a new medical facility and to refurbish schools that have been damaged.
The visit is also symptomatic of what Qatar, a small but wealthy country with rich natural resource potential, has become: a powerful and influential player in the diplomatic world.
From its sheer size, one would not be quick to consider Qatar a regional powerhouse. Before the country’s natural gas reserves were tapped in the 1990s, it was nothing but a blip on the map, overshadowed by its much larger and more powerful Iranian and Saudi neighbors. Yet as wealth started pouring in, and a television channel called Al Jazeera got off the ground, Doha transformed into a center of the Arab world’s most important financial transactions. Sheikh Hamad, who overthrew his father in 1996 to claim the thrown for himself, has opportunistically used that influence to increase Qatar’s geostrategic significance.
In just over a decade, Qatar has relished its role as a regional mediator, regardless of how hard the dispute is or where the conflict is occurring.
Doha played an integral role in trying to gain the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured in 2006 and held by Hamas for years until he was released earlier this year.
In 2008, Qatari diplomats pushed Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and rebels from the al-Houthi tribe to stop firing on each other. The truce broke down but cemented Qatar’s role as a peace broker. After leading a multiyear effort to secure a peace agreement in Darfur, Darfuri and Sudanese negotiators were finally able to sit down and sign an agreement in Doha that ended at least some of the conflict in the wartorn region.
Add to this Qatar’s integral role in arming and training Libyan rebels during their successful 2011 revolt against Muammar al-Gaddafi as well as its arming of the Free Syrian Army and what was once an insignificant nation in the heart of the Persian Gulf is a rising power in the Middle East, vast approaching the status of a Saudi Arabia or formerly Egypt.
Sheikh Hamad’s state visit to Gaza is the latest iteration of a Qatari foreign policy that consists of a hybrid of generosity, pragmatism and at times aggressive realism. Israel and the United States may not particularly care for the fact that Qatar’s leader is meeting face to face with an internationally-recognized terrorist group but those concerns are unlikely to effect the emir in any substantial way. In his worldview, it’s better to make friends with everyone than limit one’s options.