Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, arguably Qatar’s most famous resident, has lost his base of political operations in Doha, the departure marking a deeper geopolitical shift taking hold in the region.
While the reasons for Mr. Meshal’s departure for Turkey in late December were cloaked initially by official denials from both Hamas and Qatar – Meshal’s refuge and base of operations since fleeing unrest in Damascus in January 2012 – Hamas officials and observers now say it was brought about by pressure from Qatar’s Arab Gulf neighbors.
The main force at play in the region is a strengthening of an Egyptian-Saudi axis that is increasingly hostile to Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian chapter.
Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who succeeded ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and regards the Brotherhood as his political enemy, has already made life difficult for the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. And Saudi Arabia has blacklisted the Brotherhood as a “terrorist organization,” a measure later adopted by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Qatar, on the other hand, has spent the better part of the last decade backing the Brotherhood and other Islamist movements across the region to use as proxies to push its political agenda.
Observers say Qatar’s shift toward the Saudis and Egypt and away from Islamists is purely pragmatic.
“Right now the wind of change is blowing in Saudi Arabia’s favor, and Qatar is moving with it,” says Hassan Abu Haniyeh, an Amman-based political analyst and expert in Islamist movements.
Qatar’s political investments had appeared to pay off following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, which saw several Islamist movements rise to power across North Africa, most notably the Brotherhood in Egypt.
With the Brotherhood ruling Egypt and making political gains across the Arab world, Qatar emerged as an influential powerbroker and kingmaker, acting as a liaison between Western governments and Arab monarchies and Islamist movements, particularly Hamas.
Role in Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Qatar’s leadership found itself in a unique position vis-à-vis Hamas, which had been shunned by the bulk of Arab states as a militant movement.
After Hamas relocated its political operations from Damascus to Qatar, Doha used its sway over the group to flex its muscles diplomatically, playing a larger role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and helping facilitate a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. The current emir and then crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, even personally intervened to spearhead a reconciliation between Meshal and Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Yet with the 2013 military coup that ousted the Brotherhood in Egypt and a resurging anti-Brotherhood axis led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar quickly found itself on the losing end of a regional power shift and under growing pressure to cut ties with its former proxies.
In April 2013, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE all withdrew their ambassadors over Doha’s support of the Brotherhood and accused the Qatari leadership of “undermining security” and “intervening in the affairs” of member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. They also threatened to suspend Qatar’s membership in the Council.
For a time, Qatar was able to smooth over the rift with its Gulf neighbors while maintaining “distant ties” with the Brotherhood and fellow Islamist groups in the Gulf, Syria and Iraq.
Yet with the Brotherhood’s influence waning and Saudi Arabia’s ascent, observers say, Qatari leadership has chosen to undergo a strategic realignment, making a realpolitik decision to strengthen its ties with the Saudi-Egypt axis and distance itself from its former Islamist proxies.
“Qatar is taking it slowly, adjusting its policies each day according to the political atmosphere,” says Mr. Abu Haniyeh, the Amman-based analyst.
With the Sisi regime in Egypt as stable as ever, observers say Doha decided also to mend its ties with Egypt – a major trade partner – agreeing to a reconciliation effort pushed personally by the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.
At reconciliation talks in Egypt in late December, held with Saudi participation, deliberations centered on two subjects, say observers and those close to the talks: the fate of jailed Al Jazeera journalists and Qatar’s ongoing asylum for Brotherhood and Hamas officials.
In order to mend ties with Egypt and rejoin the Arab world, Qatar had only one option: give up Hamas.
The results of Qatar’s new realignment have been clear.
Series of restrictions on Hamas
In September, Qatari officials expelled seven high-profile Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including Brotherhood cleric and spiritual leader Wajdi Ghuneim, who said “Qatar is being exposed to external pressures to take decisions against the Muslim Brotherhood – decisions it does not desire to take.”
As weeks passed, Hamas insiders say, Qatari officials imposed a series of restrictions on Hamas leadership as well, proving that the crackdown expanded beyond the Egyptian Brotherhood and that the movement’s Palestinian branch was no longer welcome to operate freely.
According to Hamas officials, Qatari security officials prevented the movement’s political bureau from receiving official delegations in Doha in December and “strongly advised” Hamas officials against traveling or communicating with Iranian officials.
The restrictions escalated into a crackdown in late December after Qatari authorities briefly detained two Hamas financiers under suspicion of “illegal monetary and economic transactions.”
Hamas officials say the arrest sent a clear message: Hamas officials were welcome in Qatar. Their politics were not.
Next stop Turkey?
“There has been clear pressure from outside forces that has changed Qatar’s policy,” says Abu Hamzeh, one of Hamas's officials who relocated to Qatar after leaving Damascus and is now residing in Amman.
He says 20 Hamas officials have left Qatar for Turkey over the past month.
“We may always be welcomed as guests, but we can no longer act politically or even financially or logistically in Qatar.”
It was amid this air of uncertainty in late December, that Meshal and a group of his closest advisers left their refuge and operations base in Qatar for Istanbul with little fanfare or notice.
Hamas officials were coy about the length of Meshal’s stay in Turkey, with senior official Izzat Rishaq disputing reports that Doha had asked Meshal to leave or that he had abandoned Qatar.
Instead, the officials praised Turkey’s “open political atmosphere,” and Meshal personally thanked Turkey at a high-profile congress for the ruling Justice and Development Party for “standing with the Palestinian people and the Arab and Muslim world.”
Swirling speculation over a Hamas-Qatar fallout forced Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled bin Mohamed al-Attiya to deny rumors that Meshal had been forced out, stressing that “Khaled Meshal is a dear guest in Qatar” whose welcome had not been worn out.
But amid the conflicting statements, one message came through loud and clear: the Qatar-Hamas honeymoon was officially over.