In Hostage Negotiation, Qatar Plays Middleman To Prove Its Worth

Aug 25, 2014
Originally published on August 26, 2014 6:57 am

The small, gas-rich Arabian Gulf nation of Qatar played a key role in freeing U.S. hostage Peter Theo Curtis after nearly two years in Syria. For context on the release, Robert Siegel speaks with Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Institution was based in Doha for four years. He's the author of Temptations Of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy In A New Middle East.

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News of yesterday's release of American journalist Peter Theo Curtis, a hostage in Syria for nearly two years, included a fact that's not surprising in tales of Mid-Eastern negotiations - a key role was played by the Gulf coast state of Qatar. We've reported here about al Qatar - fabulously rich from liquefied natural gas, has a record of punching above its weight in regional affairs. Its population is just about 2 million and fewer than 300,000 are actually Qatari citizens. What was Qatar's likely role and motive in the prisoner release? Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution was based in Doha for four years. He's the author of "Temptations Of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy In A New Middle East." Welcome to the program once again.

SHADI HAMID: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: What's in it for Qatar here to be negotiating the release of a hostage?

HAMID: Well, Qatar has been in a very difficult position the past few months. They've lost key regional allies, including Egypt. So Qatar, I think, is under pressure to show its usefulness. It wants to still matter on the regional stage. So they've been able to do that with this prisoner release and showing that where other countries can't be effective go-betweens, they still can.

SIEGEL: Now, we should point out that the group that was holding Mr. Curtis hostage was not ISIS, ISIL or the Islamic State - it was Jabhat al-Nusra, which I gather is affiliated with al-Qaida. Is there anything noteworthy about that distinction between these two groups that have held hostages?

HAMID: Sure, so this is actually what's quite fascinating about Jabhat al-Nusra - it is the official al-Qaida franchise in Syria. And ISIS has actually been disavowed by al-Qaida because it's seen to be too vicious. But we are at the end of a day still talking about a group that is very extreme, so we shouldn't pretend that these guys are somehow an answer to the problem of ISIS, although there are fine distinctions to be made.

SIEGEL: Critics of Qatar will say that they're much too close to extremist groups, to extremist Islamist groups. How close are they to groups like these?

HAMID: There's been a lot of rumors about Qatar's funding of certain rebel groups. I mean, a lot of this is speculation. I personally don't have any kind of conclusive information on it. But, I mean, Qatar has been accused of having ties to various extremist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra. It's hard to say what those links actually entail. What we can be sure of is that there are lines of communication between Qatar and Jabhat al-Nusra and that's why they were in this unique position to be able to mediate the prisoner release. And Qatar has always kind of seen itself as the country that tries to have a working relationship with actors on both sides of the Middle Eastern divide. So they have the largest U.S. pre-positioning military base in the world - Al Udeid military base - but they also are very close to Hamas.

SIEGEL: I just want you to go back to something you said earlier, which is it was important to Qatar to show that they could do something like this. What is it about Qatar that makes it important to be something much more than just the richest per capita company in the world?

HAMID: Qatar may be the richest country in the world, but it also is quite insecure. It's a very tiny state. And they're very vulnerable on different sides. It's a very dangerous neighborhood, as we know. So this is one reason that Qatar has gone out of its way to secure itself. But Qatar also wants to show that it's an indispensable actor, that at the end of the day people don't have to like Qatar, but they need to work with Qatar. So Qatar is always looking for ways to make itself relevant.

SIEGEL: Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, author of "Temptations Of Power," thanks a lot for talking with us.

HAMID: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.