23 Oct 2012

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.

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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.

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6 reader comments

  1. sarah says:

    I so hope that this is the start of something positive for the people of Gaza, after a day visit to the area in late 1990s it has always troubled me to how it would go forward. I so hope that Mr Sheikh Hamad commitment will help these peopl and build a path to peace in the region. I remember one young girl walking in the middle of the road who took no notice of us in the car, the person i was with says she knows she was important. In a country with very little but so much human spirt it so deserves a positve future.

  2. Philip D Hawker says:

    Does the increasing closeness of the Hamas government in Gaza with the Qateri government of Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, foreshadow an increasingly crystalized sectarian divide in the Middle East as a whole between a resurgent Sunni led Arab spring bankrolled by Qatar and an increasingly marginalised shiite movement led by an increasingly bankrupt Iranian-Syrian axis ??

  3. Philip says:

    Ad maybe the Middle Eastern & Muslim states can sort out their own problems a whole lot better without Western interference, which doesn’t seem to have achieved a lot.

  4. Mark says:

    Thanks Lindsey for the analysis. What’s going on in Gaza is a tragedy and I hope this is the faint beginnings of a new approach.

    My hope is that behind the scenes a push can be made to make Israel look further than targeted killings (with civilian casualties) and a blockage which denies exports and prevents basic goods going in.

  5. Oniel Samuel says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t Gaza also blockaded by their ‘brothers’ ie. Egypt? Funny how that wasn’t mentioned

  6. peter says:

    Well all that good will and investment will be rubble now. Thanks to Israeli military….again. When will the world stop this cycle and stop this blockade and make Israel abide by the geneva convention.

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