For many years, Hamas relied on Iran and Syria as patrons and allies that provided the Palestinian terror group with shelter, funding, political cover and advanced weaponry. The close relationship between the leaders of Hamas and the leaders of Iran and Syria distanced the group from most other Arab countries, even those with which it had ideological and religious affinity, such as Saudi Arabia.
But this all changed with the outbreak of the Arab Spring. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak's regime was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent movement of Hamas. In Syria, a popular revolt with an Islamic hue broke out, forcing Hamas to extricate itself from President Bashar al-Assad's bear hug, much to the chagrin and anger of the Iranians. Add to this the attempts of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, also an ideological ally of Hamas, to become the patron of Sunni Islamic movements throughout the Arab world.
But Turkey and Egypt are reluctant to fill the void left by Iran and Syria. Erdoğan's pledges to break Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip following the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 have not borne fruit. And Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is focused on cementing his rule and fighting against radical Islamic terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula; meaning that the Gaza Strip and Hamas are not his top priorities.
With his historic visit to the Gaza Strip this week, the emir of Qatar is seeking to fill the void of the shifting Arab landscape as it relates to Hamas. The importance of the visit, the first by a head of state to Gaza since Hamas seized control there in 2007, is two-fold. First, it gives legitimacy to Hamas. But more than that, it is an indicator of the substantial economic aid provided by Qatar to Hamas, which without a doubt will help Hamas solidify its hold over the Gaza Strip.
The primary loser in this is not only Israel but also the Palestinian Authority, which has officially boycotted the emir's visit. The emir's visit is entirely at the Palestinian Authority's expense. Israel and the Palestinian Authority can only watch as Qatar provides Hamas with patronage and legitimacy. Incidentally, Qatar is also one of the main supporters of the rebels in Syria. Qatar also gave legitimacy to Western intervention in Libya that led to the ousting of Moammar Gadhafi.
Qatar is indeed acting as if a regional power, without regard to its real strength and size. Qatar was the first Gulf state, for example, to establish ties with Israel, hosting Israeli politicians and allowing the opening an Israeli trade office in Doha. This relationship lasted until Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza at the end of 2008. Qatar has also previously worked to promote dialogue between Iran and the Arab world. At the same time, the headquarters of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf is located in Qatar.
The growing aspirations of Qatar's royal family and the Wahhabi ideology they adhere to are linked. They are playing a game of survival, an effort to ensure the security and very existence of their tiny country. A majority of Qatar's residents are foreign workers who sustain the monarchy but do not enjoy the benefits of the country's prosperity, to which they contribute more than Qatar's native inhabitants.
All that remains for Qatar's rulers is to continue the show at any cost, to act as if the country is a regional power and to hope that no one wakes up and discovers that the emperor, or in this case the emir, has no clothes.