Doha‘s five-star hotels are not only filled with regal gold divans and marble walls, they’re also filled with rebels.
Most recently, the Qataris brokered a power-sharing deal between warring Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah in February. Within weeks, Hamas’s political chief abruptly abandoned Syria, his longtime patron, and decamped to Doha.
Even the Taliban had planned to open an office here to pave the way for talks with the US and Afghan governments. But the group abruptly suspended those plans on March 15 and it remains unclear whether the talks can be salvaged.
What’s the draw of this tiny emirate?
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.
“There is no risk associated with it,” says Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center. “You are rewarded if you succeed, but you’re not blamed if you don’t succeed.”
The Taliban’s planned arrival had raised the stakes for Qatar, however. If the Taliban could be persuaded to return to talks, it would be by far the highest-profile group to set up shop here and could present significant challenges for Qatar, which — for all its hospitality — has shown itself to be a green mediator.
The Taliban lacks solid political demands, and the United States has already put strict conditions on the talks; for example, the Taliban guarantee that women’s rights will be protected.
Should the door for Taliban talks reopen, Doha’s role in any potential mediation is not yet defined, and it’s unlikely they would be content to merely provide the venue.
“Qataris are fiercely independent, a bit unpredictable, and completely uncontrollable,” says Robert Danin, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington who has closely followed the Palestinian talks in Doha.
But Qatar is still, for now, by far the best option for negotiations, says Obaid Younossi, director of the RAND-Qatar Policy Institute in Doha and an expert on the conflict in Afghanistan — not least because it has taken a job no one else seems eager to do.
Free hotels, medical care
When negotiating teams arrive, a car service shuttles participants around Doha at the government’s expense, and delegations are given a small per diem, according to members of past delegations. They’re also given access to medical care — a big draw for players from conflict zones. And then there are the free hotel rooms.
“We had over 120 Darfurians in Qatar for more than a year staying in hotels on the Qatari dime,” remembers Matthew T. Simpson, who worked as the accredited legal adviser to the Darfur delegation and is now a lawyer at Torys LLP in New York. The Sheraton and Four Seasons hosted the Darfur rebel leadership. Dignitaries alternated between the Sheraton and the Ritz. Lower-level negotiators were put up in middle-range hotels. “The extravagance and production value of it — which does have a value in negotiations — was remarkable, and [the Qataris] spared no expense,” he said.
If the lure of a comfortable venue helps, so does Qatar’s history. Until the mid-1990s, Qatar was relatively poor. It was only when its natural-gas production began in force a decade ago — and revenues grew exponentially — that it became a regional player. The result: Doha has a relatively clean slate when you compare it with other regional mediators such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
After parties leave the negotiating table, Qatar invests heavily to help ensure the deals are successful. It rebuilt southern Lebanon after the country’s 2006 war with Israel and later pumped in another $1 billion to christen the 2008 Doha Accords. Sudan has also won contracts since it signed a deal with several Darfur rebel groups last year. Last month, Qatar injected $2 billion into the country’s economy to stabilize its currency.
A personal touch
The Qataris also draw on another key asset: their networks. “They know everybody very personally — from officials in Western countries to officials here in the region and in the East, but also the so-called nonstate actors,” says Salman Shaikh, head of the Brookings Doha Center.
Despite such investment, however, results have widely varied — at least in part because of Qatar’s relative inexperience as host.
Two members of the Darfur negotiation team, neither of whom was authorized by their clients to speak on the record, separately described the mediation as disorganized. “Basic standards are not being met here, and the Qataris showed no understanding of why these [missing pieces] were major issues,” one recalled. There was no official note-taker, for example, which has made implementing the accords almost impossible, as conversations and agreements are remembered differently.
In several negotiations, analysts worry that Qatar has been more concerned with getting a deal than ensuring it was a deal that could work on the ground. Conflict continued well after Yemen signed a Qatari-brokered deal with Houthi separatists there in 2010. Darfur talks have resulted in little change in Sudan’s western region.
And the recent Palestinian power-sharing deal looks frozen; the two leaders have delayed meeting to form a government since the agreement was signed in early February. “We haven’t seen follow-on by the Qataris,” says Dr. Danin. “I’m skeptical that they have the interests or the willpower.”