Beyond Football: Qatar's role in Israel-Hamas war shows new global influence
Qatar’s efforts to secure the release of Israeli hostages coupled with its influence through its Al Jazeera network emphasize the country’s emerging status post-World Cup.
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On Friday night, when Palestinian militant group Hamas released its first two captives, an American-Israeli mother and daughter, one of the first things American officials did was thank their Qatari counterparts.
The Gulf state, situated on the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, played a key role in brokering negotiations with the militant group. A Hamas spokesperson later said that the hostages—Natalie Raanan, 17, and her mother, Judith, 59—were released in response to Qatari mediation efforts “for humanitarian reasons.”
Qatar said it would continue its negotiations to secure the release of all hostages “with the ultimate aim of de-escalating the current crisis and restoring peace”. Since then, the Middle Eastern nation, along with some help from Egypt, has managed to secure the release of two more hostages on Monday.
The Qatari efforts even drew rare praise from Israel.
“I’m pleased to say that Qatar is becoming an essential party and stakeholder in the facilitation of humanitarian solutions. Qatar’s diplomatic efforts are crucial at this time,” National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi posted on X, formerly Twitter.
Qatar has a history of playing a mediating role in international affairs. It has facilitated discussions between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas in 2006, assisted in bringing Lebanese leaders together to form a political agreement during the 2008 crisis, hosted a peace process for Sudan during the Darfur conflict, and facilitated talks between the Taliban and the U.S. in 2013. Its current role amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war has once again thrust the Arab nation into the spotlight.
Qatar's diplomatic efforts to secure the release of more hostages and work to de-escalate the conflict following Hamas' attack on October 7, which resulted in the loss of approximately 1,400 Israeli lives, highlights the Gulf state's influential role in global politics. This emerging role in diplomatic affairs also suggests that Qatar no longer needs to rely on football to exert influence or gain international attention.
When Qatar hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup, critics argued that the event was an example of sportswashing, a term used to describe how nations harness sports to launder their reputation and distract from ongoing human rights abuses. While the accusations carry merit, especially given the country’s well-documented mistreatment of migrant workers, it paints an incomplete picture of Qatar’s intentions when it came to hosting the world’s most popular sports event.
In the years leading up to the World Cup, Qatar was facing a diplomatic crisis after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt initiated a de facto blockade and severed their bilateral relations with the state between 2017-2021. The coalition issued demands of Qatar that included closing the state-owned Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations, severing relations with terrorist or militant groups—the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas chief among them—paying reparations, and submitting to “monitoring” for a 10-year period.
At one point, an Emirati security official claimed that the only way the “crisis will be over” for Qatar is if Doha gave up hosting the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar categorically rejected the ultimatum issued by the coalition. Nevertheless, tensions began to thaw in January 2021 when Qatar and Saudi agreed to restore relations. Egypt followed suit shortly thereafter while the UAE fully restored ties in 2023.
Among other reasons, the Arab nations expected to benefit greatly from a neighbouring World Cup and did not want to sacrifice the economic gains and tourism. For example, the UAE used its status as a tourism destination in the Middle East and its proximity to Qatar to offer lost-cost shuttle planes to Doha, while Saudi Arabia saw an uptick in visitors and hotel bookings.
Qatar effectively leveraged its role as the World Cup host to facilitate the mending of relationships with its Arab neighbors. This instance of sports diplomacy is often overlooked as one of the advantages Qatar gained from hosting the event. Qatar's primary objective was never merely about refurbishing its image; rather, it aimed for greater influence and global recognition—a goal it has subsequently attained.
More recently, however, a member of Qatar’s ruling family failed to secure ownership of Manchester United, the English Premier League team that is arguably the most recognizable football brand in the world. Qatari businessman Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani—a banker whose father held the role of foreign secretary and prime minister in Qatar until 2013—was among the frontrunners to purchase the club from its current owners, the Glazer family.
The Qatari royal offered a reported $6 billion for full ownership of the club, including a commitment to wipe away existing debt. However, Sheikh Jassim withdrew from the negotiation process earlier this month, leaving British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe and his INEOS consortium completing a deal for 25% of the club.
While the unsuccessful endeavor by the Qatari official to acquire one of the United Kingdom's most cherished cultural assets may have been a cause for celebration for some, I contend that Qatar's expanding role in diplomatic matters, such as the role is is currently playing in the release of Israeli and American hostages, indicates that it has moved beyond football as a means to wield influence.
It is also important to note that Qatar’s main tool for exerting influence is its aforementioned state-owned news network, Al Jazeera.
At the onset of the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and some of its neighbours in 2017, one of the demands issued by the coalition was the closure of the entire Al Jazeera network, signifying the political power the conglomerate has beyond Qatar’s borders. In some cases, Al Jazeera offered an alternative to the censored state media typical of the region, especially during the wave of popular revolt during the 2011 Arab Spring. However, the network has also been accused of publishing propaganda and projecting favourable coverage of entities such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al Jazeera has also had a significant presence in Gaza and the West Bank. In May 2022, the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot in the head and killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin. Israel later admitted it was likely she was "accidentally" killed by its forces. More recently, Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief, Wale Dahdouh, lost his wife, son, daughter, and grandchild in an Israeli air raid on Wednesday. He returned to work the following day, insisting it was his “duty, despite the pain and bleeding wound, to continue reporting.”
Despite the criticism levelled against Al Jazeera, it remains the only network providing detailed coverage on the ground in Gaza. That coverage makes the network indispensable to many viewers looking for an alternative to Western media. This is far more significant than anything Qatar could achieve through owning a football team.
Al Jazeera's extensive reach in the Middle East and North Africa region has granted Qatar a level of influence far exceeding what one might expect from a country of its modest size. Qatar is overshadowed by neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which also controls its sole land border, and it is even smaller than the nearby United Arab Emirates. However, it also happens to be endowed with the world's largest natural-gas reserves and boasts a significantly higher GDP per capita compared to its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) counterparts. The ruling Al Thani family has since spent billions generated from the natural gas reserves on Al Jazeera, which in turn amplifies its impact in international politics.
Beyond Al Jazeera, Qatar also hosts the Hamas headquarters, as well as its leaders. A Qatari official told AFP that Hamas's political office was "opened in Qatar in 2012 in coordination with the United States government, following a US request to open a communication channel".
"Hamas's political office has frequently been used in key mediation efforts coordinated across multiple U.S. administrations to stabilize the situation in Gaza and Israel," the official added.
However, there have since been reports that the U.S. and Qatar will “revisit” Doha’s ties to Hamas following the hostage situation. The Financial Times also reported that Qatar sentenced eight Indian former naval officers to death on Thursday on espionage charges of spying on the Gulf state’s submarine programme for Israel.
Nonetheless, in the 10 months since hosting the World Cup, Qatar has once stepped out onto the political field and asserted itself as a significant player in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
Speaking exclusively to Sky News, Qatar's Minister of State and senior negotiator Mohmmed al Khulaifi insisted that any escalation in the conflict would hamper efforts to secure the safe release of hostages.
“Our task is getting more difficult,” al Khulaifi said. “Our mediators need a period of calm.”
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