Qatari emir comes to Gaza bearing gifts – maybe with some strings attached

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani's visit, pegged to the delivery of a hefty aid package, is the latest iteration of Qatar's efforts to expand its political influence in the region.

Hatem Moussa/AP
Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (l.) and Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh (r.), wave to the crowd as they arrive for the cornerstone laying ceremony of a Qatari funded rehabilitation center in Gaza City, Gaza, Tuesday, Oct. 23. The emir of Qatar received a hero's welcome in Gaza on Tuesday, becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since the Islamist militant Hamas seized control there in 2007.

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The emir of Qatar traveled to Gaza today, becoming the first head of state from any nation to visit the territory since the Islamist group Hamas took power five years ago. The emir is bringing significant offers of aid, furthering the small oil-rich nation's efforts to gain influence around the region.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani's visit is pinned to the launch of an aid package earmarked for $254 million to fund reconstruction projects in Gaza – "symbolic" relief for a territory that has been economically and politically isolated by the West and Israel since Hamas took over in 2007. Reuters noted upon the emir's arrival that the original amount was increased to $400 million.

During the emir's four-hour visit, he will inaugurate several projects, among them a housing project, hospital, and renovation of Gaza's major north-south highway, Salaha-Din Road.

This is the "latest example of Qatar’s use of its oil and gas riches and ties to Islamist organizations to expand its regional influence," reports The Wall Street Journal. It has played an active role in the regional uprisings, leading regional efforts to isolate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – it was one of the first countries to close its embassy there – and overthrow former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party presides over the government in the West Bank, said he welcomed Qatar’s aid package, but stressed that he is the official, internationally recognized leader of the Palestinian people, according to The Associated Press.

The two Palestinian territories have been politically divided since the Hamas takeover, and reconciliation efforts have failed repeatedly. Some Palestinians expressed reservations about the emir’s visit and Qatar’s role, fearing that Mr. Thani's visit could deepen the split, The Wall Street Journal reports.

But many Palestinians have expressed uneasiness about Qatar's role, describing it as aggravating their domestic political feud by favoring Hamas over the secular Fatah Party, which runs the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Fatah representatives couldn't be reached on Monday, but the party's Facebook page contained a photograph of the emir with a red line through his face and a caption reading "You are unwelcome. Gaza is not for sale."

"It's political money. It's not innocent money," said Omar Shaban, director of the Gaza economic think tank Pal-Think for Strategic Studies. "Some people think that it will damage reconciliation. It will encourage Hamas and embolden Hamas'' not to compromise with Fatah.

But the United Arab Emirates' Gulf News writes in an editorial that the emir’s visit is an opportunity for mending ties.  

It is important that Shaikh Hamad takes the opportunity to urge the Hamas leaders to seek the promised reconciliation with Fatah, so that the Palestinians can once again have a single and unified government with which they will be able to face the Israeli aggression more confidently.

It is also important that Fatah works to implement reconciliation. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has officially welcomed Shaikh Hamad’s visit to Gaza, but he should also take the opportunity to stress on restarting the reconciliation process so that Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza can once again re-unite under one government.

Earlier this year Thani attempted to facilitate a reconciliation, hosting talks between Mr. Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, reports Voice of America. Those talks did not bring about a resolution, but they are indicative of Qatar’s emerging role as a mediator, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last spring.

Qatar offers a powerful combination of money, hotel space, and connections – and is largely devoid of historical baggage.

The government, which aims to increase its international stature, spends millions footing hotel bills for rebels. After agreements are signed, Qatar sweetens the deal with reconstruction and development aid. The Qatari emir and the foreign minister personally invest in building relationships with the various parties.

The talks have had mixed results. But for Qatar, playing host has raised its international profile, helped forge allies in the West, and won praise almost universally. Mediation is proving to be a powerful – and fail-safe – way to boost its brand.

Another Monitor report notes that Qatar's pivot from neutrality to a more activist agenda could result in future challenges for the country

“Qatar was long seen as the Switzerland of the Middle East – a small, neutral country friendly to everyone from Iran to the US Central Command, which it hosts,” the Monitor reports.

But according to Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a scholar of Gulf politics at the London School of Economics, "They're losing that [neutral] reputation…. They are playing a very political game, and it could come back to haunt them."

Thani's visit to Gaza riled Israel, which has led the effort to isolate Gaza, imposing strict controls on what can enter the territory.

"We find it weird that the emir doesn't support all of the Palestinians but sides with Hamas over the Palestinian Authority [in the West Bank], which he has never visited," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Telegraph. "The emir has chosen his camp and it is not good."

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