Why Qatar is opening its cheque book in Gaza
So small and yet so rich.
The tiny gas-rich Gulf state of Qatar boasts the highest per capita wealth in the world, and Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani has international ambitions to match.
He founded the international TV network Al Jazeera. His government has hosted talks with the Taliban, brokered deals in Lebanon and provided weapons to rebels in Libya and Syria. Qatar also manages to be a close ally of the US, hosting an American airbase, at the same time as maintaining close links with Islamist scholars and politicians.
Today he has become the first Arab head of state to visit Gaza since Israel occupied the strip in 1967. He was mobbed by enthusiastic crowds because for the Gazans, this is a major breakthrough. Since the Islamist group Hamas was elected in 2006, their government has been shunned by the world and blockaded by the Israelis. Israel bombed Gaza in 2008, destroying much of the infrastructure. Sheikh Hamad has come with £250m worth of construction projects, which will help rebuild the territory and also provide jobs.
The visit also has symbolic meaning. Hamas is an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in neighbouring Egypt. It was therefore unpopular with Egypt’s former rulers, which had signed a peace accord with Israel and suppressed the Brotherhood. After last year’s Arab Spring revolution, and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood President, relations between Gaza and Egypt have warmed and the border is no longer permanently closed.
Instead of looking to Damascus and Tehran, Hamas is looking to Cairo and the Gulf. The Islamist movement closed its offices in Syria, and cooled relations with Iran. They said that was because of the cruel behaviour of the Syrian government towards its own people, but it was also because of a major realignment in the region.
Gazans are Sunni Muslims. They have more in common religiously as well as ideologically with Egypt and the Gulf states than with Shia (and Persian) Iran or the Alawite-led government of Syria. They only looked there for support before because no-one else would help them.
The Israeli government likes the idea of Gaza getting closer to Egypt — they would prefer that the strip was absorbed into some great amorphous Arab land. But they are deeply worried that these power-shifts are beyond their control. They used to play off one Arab leader against another. Now the region is re-ordering itself — for better or worse — without Israeli intervention.
The Gulf has been important twice in its history – first when Mohammed founded Islam, and secondly when they found oil. Its importance could easily wane, as western countries become less dependent on the Middle East for energy.
Qatar wants to be the essential nation in a changing world, the place both western and Arab nations go for mediation, support, brokering deals and peace talks. Sheikh Hamad is an ambitious man, and today’s visit to Gaza is part of his strategy.