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Qatar's role in hostage negotiations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To date, Hamas has released four hostages - hostages who had been held since the October 7 massacre that claimed 1,400 lives. Some 200 other hostages are still being held in Gaza, and we are going to focus now on the central role that Qatar has played in negotiating the releases. This is not the first time the wealthy Gulf nation has stepped in as a mediator. For more, we have brought on Bader Al-Saif. He's a professor of history at Kuwait University. Welcome.

BADER AL-SAIF: Thank you.

KELLY: All right. Give me a little bit of the history here - how Qatar's influence with Hamas affords it a unique position to try to influence Hamas.

AL-SAIF: Let me first speak about the way that Qatar perceives itself in the region. It - as a small state in a region dominated by large forces, they wanted to really shine and play an outsized role by presenting itself as a mediator. They've done this in the past. They've successfully worked on deals that relate to Yemen in 2007, Lebanon in 2008, more recently, Afghanistan, as you know, in 2021...

KELLY: Yeah, they helped get Americans out.

AL-SAIF: ...Iran just a few weeks ago.

KELLY: This is such helpful background. Let me steer us to that question that I started out with, which is, why would Hamas listen to Qatar?

AL-SAIF: Hamas has different ties with Qatar. Qatar has been a very key interlocutor when it comes to presenting aid to Gaza infrastructure in the past. As you know, Gaza has been decimated a few times by Israel in the past, and that required a lot of building up. And the reconstruction has been largely veiled by various parties in the region in the Middle East, but by Qatar as well. They also have representation, I believe, in Doha...

KELLY: A Hamas office.

AL-SAIF: ...Just like they had with the Taliban.

KELLY: Yeah, in the capital.

AL-SAIF: Exactly. So it makes more sense to have that line open for them to intervene when they already have a relationship, which isn't the case, by the way, with a lot of the countries in the region.

KELLY: And you spoke to this a little bit, but what is in it for Qatar? This is - I understand that they want to play this role. Is this about increasing their leverage on the world stage for such a tiny country?

AL-SAIF: One, that's exactly it. Plus Qatari foreign policy - as a small state, it requires a secure region for it to thrive. So they would like to see peace and prosperity become the mainstream in the region. That hasn't been the case, unfortunately, for the Middle East. And they can afford this, as one of the richest countries in the region, a small-sized population, large GDP. And don't forget, Qatar has also been a victim of a Gulf rift in the past few years when it was blockaded by different states. So in its world conception, no one should go through this again, and hence it strives to work with other parties to reduce conflict.

KELLY: So here is a challenge, which is, Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., by Israel, by others. How does Qatar navigate that, particularly in light of its status as a U.S. ally?

AL-SAIF: The way it has navigated the Iran card. All of the states that you've mentioned need someone to talk to a party that they're not talking to. So when you have someone that's in the standing of Qatar that can relay accurate messages and to get the ideas through, that's helpful.

KELLY: I mentioned there's still a couple hundred other hostages being held by Hamas, including Americans. Would you expect Qatar to continue to work with the U.S. on their release?

AL-SAIF: Oh, definitely. I think we are undergoing a very intense negotiation. But let's not look at the side story here. I think there is a bigger picture as well. Let's also look at the many, many lives lost from the Palestinian side and the many, many prisoners also in Israeli prisons. So I think they're trying to look at it in a holistic manner.

KELLY: How is this seen in other Arab capitals - Qatar's role as a mediator here?

AL-SAIF: Qatar's role as a mediator is welcome news. And remember; this region tends to export a lot of bad news around the world and seldom do we get good airtime. This is one of those good airtimes in which there is a country that's playing a constructive role, and it fits into the larger, positive role that the Gulf states are playing on the world stage from the Middle East.

KELLY: That was Bader Al-Saif, a professor of history at Kuwait University. Professor Al-Saif, thank you.

AL-SAIF: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tinbete Ermyas
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.