THE announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa that he was making a state visit to Doha in Qatar energised the usual superficial moaning and grumbling on social media on which simple-minded argumentation often thrives. For myself, I wondered aloud whether Ramaphosa was simply going to use the opportunity to talk to Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, about possible funding for the ANC's 2024 election campaign.
Some of my colleagues immediately referred to international relations minister Naledi Pandor's supposed support for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement, aka Hamas) and the fact that Qatar provides accommodation to this organisation's leadership. Indeed, Hamas has an office in Doha, from where its three most senior leaders, Ismail Haniyeh, Moussa Abu Marzook and Khaled Mashal, plan paramilitary actions against Israel. And after the October 7 attack on Israel, Qatar, in stark contrast to almost all the other Arab Gulf states, immediately placed the blame for the bloodshed on Tel Aviv and declined or failed to criticise Hamas.
This kind of petty bourgeois speculation does not help anyone to better understand South Africa's foreign policy or Ramaphosa's state visit to Doha. International relations between dominant actors are not only complicated to the point of obscurity, they are also eminently pragmatic and aimed at balancing or sustaining conflicting interests.
Despite fierce criticism of South Africa and Pandor's statements about Ukraine and Gaza, our foreign policy is no less unpredictable than that of most European countries or the US. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, best explained this pragmatism in South Africa — and perhaps also elsewhere in Africa — when he said last week that visiting African leaders left his country in June with a “better understanding" of the situation, and that Ramaphosa came to other insights about the nature of Russia's military invasion of Ukraine.
Pressure from other African leaders
I think Zelensky is right. Still, I would like to believe Ramaphosa's greater understanding came after pressure from the other African leaders who travelled with him to St Petersburg, rather than pressure from the White House.
Ramaphosa and his ministers were in Qatar this week and it is clear they were there to strengthen trade relations between the two countries, rather than to talk about Hamas and the funding of the ANC's campaign. Qatar is South Africa's fourth largest trading partner in the Middle East. Because of our dependence on energy imports, South Africa has a negative trade balance with the country. Exports to Qatar last year amounted to $206 million and imports about $252 million.
This imbalance is compensated for in that most of our exports (56%) are manufacturing products. South African capital owners have investments of $8.7 billion in Qatar, but South Africa has been a net exporter of investment capital for years so there is nothing odd about that. Yet I was surprised to learn that Sasol is a 49% shareholder in Qatar Petroleum, owner of the world's first commercial-scale gas-to-liquids plant.
We often tend to think that South Africa's foreign policy is an extension of the ANC's ideological closeness with some of the world's political pariahs. Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Russia and Hamas are not exactly jurisdictions with liberal freedoms. But perhaps South Africa's policy towards Israel, Hamas and Qatar should be understood as a form of diplomatic and political pragmatism. President Joe Biden and his secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, follow the same approach of ad hoc pragmatism towards South Africa and in their relationships in the Middle East, including with Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Pandor's article in the Sunday Times last week was an exercise in reasonableness and an attempt to be pragmatic rather than fundamentalist. Her talks with the leadership of Qatar during Ramaphosa's state visit were probably a further lesson in pragmatism for her because Doha has a history of mediation rather than ideological activism. This does not mean Sheikh Hamad is not willing to state a case for the Palestinian cause, but with the Americans having given up their role as mediator decades ago, there is room for Qatar's pursuit of mediating or even settling conflicts in the Middle East. In the current crisis, neither Egypt nor Türkiye has shown enthusiasm to act as an intermediary with Hamas.
Qatar's secular relations with the US are seemingly adversarial, but in reality the country's diplomatic and military agreements with the Americans are pragmatic and mutually beneficial. Since the October 7 killings of Israelis by Hamas, Qatar has made a point of positioning itself as a mediator over the release of about 240 hostages, including two US citizens, and the evacuation of injured Palestinians via the Rafah crossing to Egypt. Biden is in regular talks with Sheikh Hamad in an effort to secure the release of the hostages.
Qatar opened a communication channel with Hamas in 2006 at the request of US diplomats, and played a significant role in negotiating ceasefires between Israel and Hamas in 2014, 2021 and 2022. Before the Abraham Accords, which normalised Israel's relations with some of Qatar's Arab neighbours in the Gulf, the main Israeli diplomatic presence (in the 1990s) was a trade office in Doha. Qatar made it possible for Washington to negotiate with Hamas as well as the Taliban despite US law prohibiting the White House from holding talks with “terrorist organisations". Like Hamas, the Taliban had offices in Doha, and Qatar was closely involved in the talks between the Taliban and the White House about withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan, a decision made by the Trump administration but carried out by Biden in 2021.
However, several Republican members of the US Congress see Hamas as being similar to Islamic State and view Qatar's relationship with Hamas as increasingly politically problematic. As in the case with South Africa and the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the Biden administration's pragmatic international relations in the Middle East are under immense political pressure in the run-up to next year's US election.
During Blinken's regional visit in October, and under pressure from the US Congress, he made it clear that the era of understanding with Hamas can no longer be part of America's relationship with Qatar. Yet in true pragmatic style — perhaps it was even duplicitous, depending on how you look at it — he did not want to insist on the closure of Hamas's political office, which has been based in Qatar for more than a decade. At least not with Sheikh Hamad standing right next to him.
Since 2007, and with the consent of Hamas's adversaries, including the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, the US and allegedly Israel, Qatar has donated hundreds of millions of dollars annually to Hamas-controlled Gaza.
However, the events of October 7 put tremendous pressure on the relationship between Qatar and Hamas. Doha has been a mediator in this Middle Eastern conflict for decades and has built up a geopolitical reputation maintained through diplomatic ties in the various international jurisdictions. Pro-Israel US pressure groups such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies are urging the Biden administration to exert as much diplomatic pressure as possible on Qatar to cut ties with Hamas.
If this happens and the Israelis succeed in cutting Hamas's military lifeblood in Gaza, then the militant extremists in the organisation will probably be obliged to operate from Iran or even Malaysia. Such a scenario would infinitely complicate America's geopolitical relations in the Middle East, rather than diminishing Hamas's international impact.
Making Hamas less cisible
More evidence of Biden and Blinken's pragmatism is found in the rumours that the White House is trying to convince Qatar to make Hamas's presence in Doha less visible by restricting Hamas leaders' access to the press and public platforms, based on the anti-terrorism agreements to which Qatar is a party. Hamas representatives appear regularly on Qatar's state-run satellite network, Al Jazeera.
The US has a significant military presence in Qatar. Al Udeid Air Base is one of two military bases southwest of Doha (and is also known as Abu Nakhlah Airport). This base serves as a departure point for US Air Force operations in the Middle East and houses about10,000 US military personnel. The US and British air forces as well as that of Qatar operate from Al Udeid. The base is the headquarters for US Central Command and Air Force in the region. In a way, Qatar has the same special status as non-Nato US allies such as Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and Japan.
The lack of a uniform understanding of complex conflicts such as that in Gaza was evident when the presence of Islamist groups such as Hamas in Qatar was cited by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain as reasons for boycotting Qatar from 2017 to 2021. During this regional dispute, President Donald Trump initially accused Doha of financing terrorism, but the Pentagon and the US Department of Defense were sensitive about their interests at Al Udeid Air Base. Trump and the US reversed their position almost overnight then started pushing for an end to the boycott against Qatar.
Qatar built Al Udeid and finances its maintenance but allows the American military to use it as an extra-territorial US area. For the Americans, the base is too important to let pedantic international morality get in the way.
For those analysts who condemn Pandor for her confusing statements and contradictory declarations of intent regarding South Africa's foreign relationships, the reality is that this is how complicated interests in international diplomacy are sometimes best served.
The world's conflicts and disputes leave no room for any binary understanding of complex affairs.
♦ VWB ♦
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