A deeply contrarian streak has taken hold in Qatar these days. Insulated by U.S. security guarantees, eager to use its burgeoning fiscal reserves, and propelled by its elites' reformist zeal, Doha continues to exert a disproportionate influence on regional politics. Emir Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani's latest move was a dramatic visit to the Gaza Strip, becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since Hamas wrested control of it in 2007.
Unlike some of its less imaginative Arab rivals, Qatar saw Hamas's regional isolation as an opportunity rather than a problem. Despite its alliance with the United States, Doha has been nurturing its ties with the Palestinian Islamist group for some time: Its worst kept secret is that Khaled Meshal, Hamas's leader, has had a house there for many years and has been increasingly seen in Doha since Hamas was forced to leave Syria in early 2012. Doha has also opened its pocketbook to Hamas, pledging $250 million in February -- a gift that was increased to $400 million upon the emir's visit.
The injection of funds, however, is not the most important aspect of Sheikh Hamad's trip. By breaking Hamas's regional isolation and explicitly recognizing its rule over Gaza, Doha has strengthened the militant group's hand against its Palestinian rivals. An official from the Palestinian Authority, which is in charge of the West Bank, begrudgingly welcomed the visit while noting that "no one should deal with Gaza as a separate entity from the Palestinian territories and from the Palestinian Authority."
Unlike the Palestinian Authority, Israel felt no need to soften its criticism. An Israeli spokesman carped bitterly about the emir's trip, saying that the emir was "throwing peace under a bus."
The visit further highlights Israel's loss of influence with Qatar. Relations between the two countries warmed with the opening of an Israeli trade office in Doha in 1996 (reputedly close to Meshal's house) as the two sides looked to ship Qatari gas to Israel, with Enron acting as the intermediary. The deal failed, however, and relations ebbed and flowed until December 2008, when Qatar cut ties in protest of Israel's offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Rumors that Doha was attempting to restart relations were finally put to rest with a leaked memo from Israel's Foreign Ministry labelling Qatar as a "leading activist" against Israel, decisively cutting whatever informal relations remained.
The Iranian angle
Iran, with whom Qatar maintains cordial official relations, joins Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an unlikely triumvirate watching proceedings in Gaza with glum resignation. Tehran officials are doubtlessly looking back nostalgically to happier times only a few years back, when their proxy Hezbollah all but defeated the Zionist Entity -- winning Iran no small degree of Arab support for its material support to the Lebanese militant organization. Back then, Hamas was also still ensconced in Iran's camp, and Syria was a stable ally that appeared to be gradually increasing its influence in the Middle East.