Condemning Qatar is Counterproductive 

Going after the region’s most essential diplomat is a mistake the Middle East—and the United States—can ill-afford.  

February 15, 2024
Omar H. Rahman, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

This article was originally published in The National Interest on February 6, 2024. 

The Gulf state of Qatar is again capturing headlines for its role in mediating between Israel and Hamas. While a fresh deal for the release of hostages being held in Gaza is yet to be concluded, these efforts have produced the only successful outcome so far in Israel’s nearly four-month campaign that has left Gaza in ruins and tens of thousands of civilians dead. On November 24, Qatari diplomacy produced a breakthrough seven-day window allowing for 105 hostages and 240 Palestinian women and children imprisoned by Israel to return to their homes, the exit of foreign passport holders trapped in Gaza, and the entry of humanitarian aid into the besieged territory. Most recently, intensive backchannel negotiations resulted in an agreement for the delivery of vital medicine into Gaza, including for the hostages.  

In spite of these achievements, however, Qatar has been subjected to pernicious criticism and threats for its relationship to Hamas, including from members of Congress, Washington-based think tanks, and the media 

On November 26,  for example, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) said on the social media platform X that “Qatar has blood on its hands,” and that if the government does not arrest Hamas leaders and seize their assets, “there should be consequences.” This echoes other statements from Senators Ted Budd (R-NC), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Congresswoman Carol Miller (R-WV), to name a few, who have all tried to implicate the Gulf state in the atrocity of October 7. 

Yet at best, these statements reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of Qatar’s relationship with Hamas, and at worst a mendacious and shortsighted attempt to punish Doha for its broader role in supporting the Palestinian cause. By doing so, Doha’s critics risk alienating America’s most effective diplomatic partner in the Middle East and a key non-NATO strategic ally that hosts the largest US military base in the region. Such attacks are also a deterrent to any party engaged in serious diplomacy at a time when the region can ill-afford more militarism as it hurtles toward a large-scale, open-ended war.  


A relationship of purpose 

Since 2012, Qatar has hosted a political office for Hamas, after the group’s external leadership was kicked out of its previous base in Damascus for criticizing the Assad regime’s violent repression of demonstrators at the start of the Arab Spring. What Doha’s detractors miss is that the Obama Administration asked Qatar to play this role so that it could maintain an indirect channel of communication with Hamas, which is deemed a terrorist organization by the State Department. This proscribes U.S. officials from communicating directly with Hamas, which makes having an intermediary able to engage pragmatically on issue-specific points, especially in times of tension, all the more important.  

In recent years, the Qatari government had also provided significant financial aid to Gaza to pay wages for civil servants, deliver assistance for needy families, finance the UN refugee agency operating schools and hospitals, and support construction projects. As a New York Times investigation confirmed, this money was provided at the behest of the United States and Israel, who wanted to stabilize Gaza amid Israel’s crippling siege but were unable to allocate funds themselves. That does not mean, however, that Israel has not had a direct role in the dispersal of these funds. At times, money was literally hand carried through Israel’s Erez Crossing into Gaza escorted by Israeli intelligence officers. Later it was dispersed through United Nations aid mechanisms at the discretion of the Israeli government.    

Indeed, mere days before October 7, Qatar was asked to increase its funding to Gaza by Israel and Hamas leaders, in order to mitigate an escalating economic crisis and calm discontent, according to reports in the Israeli press. In parallel, the Israeli government was also set to announce an increase in permits for Gazans to work in Israel. Qatar had not yet approved the increase at the time of the Hamas attack. 

Critically, no other party has been able to play this role before or after the October 7 attack. This includes the United States, despite decades of engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the lead broker of the peace process.  

Still, just days ago, Senator Budd demanded on the Senate floor that Qatar “either pressure Hamas leaders to release hostages now or expel them from your land.” But does Qatar even have that type of leverage, when Hamas leaders have relocated several times in the past? If Qatar made such an ultimatum, would its constructive relationship with Hamas’ political leadership be broken, halting any further ability to mediate between the group and the outside world?  

It is this type of heavy-handed approach advocated by US officials that has left the US hamstrung in its own diplomacy, even beyond Israel-Palestine. For years, Washington has cut itself off from key parties to conflicts to which it is also engaged, while Congress has heavily prioritized defense spending at the expense of the American diplomatic corp. As a result, US global engagement has become far more militarized or sanctions-based, especially since September 11, 2001. But for most crises there is no military solution. At some point diplomacy and mediation become necessary to support a political resolution, however unseemly, as with the Taliban that ended the “forever war” in Afghanistan.  

Qatar has, in effect, stepped into America’s diplomatic void. So far, it has mediated between the US and Iran to free American prisoners, and between the US and the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan—that includes helping vulnerable civilians left behind after a hasty and messy American exit in August 2021. Last year, Qatar also negotiated the return of Ukrainian children taken captive into Russia, as well as between political actors in Venezuela to secure a fair playing field ahead of 2024 elections.  

In each instance, the US was incapable of such negotiations because it does not talk to Iran, the Taliban, Russia, or Venezuela. Doha, on the other hand, maintains a policy of neutrality and openness with a wide range of political actors. This is a requirement of effective mediation, which must build upon the development of relationships and trust. That includes with Israel, which Qatar has maintained an informal relationship with since the 1990s, a decade which saw Israel open a trade office in Doha. Through this policy of relationship building and mediation, Qatar has come to play a more effective role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than any of its peers, even those that now have normalized relationships with Israel.  

That doesn’t mean Qatar does not have red lines. It does not deal with actors like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (indeed, Al-Udeid airbase outside Doha, the forward headquarters of CENTCOM, plays a key role in supporting US operations against both groups). But in general, it has remained open to engaging with a wider array of regional entities, including political Islamist groups viewed as a threat by some of its neighbors. Qatar has already paid a consequence for this policy of balanced pragmatism. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt initiated a blockade against Qatar that lasted until January 2021. 

While seeking to punish anyone connected to or associated with Hamas in the aftermath of October 7 is understandable, seeking to punish Doha for a role endorsed by the US and Israel is misplaced and dangerous. It poses a chilling effect that makes diplomacy, which, to be effective, entails difficult negotiations with adversaries and enemies to identify points of compromise, even more difficult. Going after mediators is a surefire way to sideline political efforts to end the war and leave only military options and endless conflict on the table. 


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.  

Issue: Israel War on Gaza, Regional Relations
Country: Egypt, Palestine-Israel, Qatar


Omar H. Rahman is a fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, where he focuses on Palestine, Middle East geopolitics, and American foreign policy in the region. He is the Editor of Afkār, the Council’s online publication providing insights and analysis on current events in the region. Rahman is also a non-resident fellow at… Continue reading Condemning Qatar is Counterproductive 
Fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.