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What's behind the proposed visit of Qatari royal to Israel?

Qatar's foreign policy is nothing if not enigmatic. Since the Arab Spring, the small Gulf state has drastically upped its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, the culmination of years of efforts to become a global player. The latest development is that Qatar's Prince Khalifa Al-Thani is expected to visit Israel in November. This will mark the first time that a member of Qatar's royal family has ever officially visited Israel.

The visit will centre on the launch of the Israel-Palestine Commercial Arbitration Centre, a commercial initiative led by Oren Shachor, president of the International Chamber of Commerce in Israel, and his Palestinian counterpart, Munib al-Masri. This centre will provide arbitration services between Israeli and Palestinian businesspeople, for disputes of up to $7 million.

However, the prince is not visiting Israel just for the inauguration, but to improve trade links. The visit was scheduled over the weekend, during a meeting between al-Thani and Shachor discussing the promotion of commercial relations. There is already some trade between Israel and Qatar, mostly of goods.

According to reports in the Israeli media, the visit in November will focus on the high-tech sector. Qatar's government is keen to strengthen its local high-tech sector, by acquiring both knowledge and technologies, and wants to encourage Israel to export work and development projects to Qatar, rather than to India and Eastern Europe. This would provide jobs and prevent a brain drain of Qataris who have trained at good universities abroad. The itinerary for November's visit is still being built, with al-Thani expected to meet senior Israelis from the high-tech and venture capital industries.

Qatar's monarchy is politically active, and al-Thani is an important figure in terms of foreign trade and business relations. He is reportedly close to Qatar's emir, prime minister, and foreign minister.

This may be the first official visit by a Qatari royal – but does it mark a major change of policy? Not really. Qatar established trade relations with Israel back in 1996, when an Israeli trade bureau was launched in Doha. Although Qatar has supported Hamas and maintained good relations with Hezbollah, Israel's leaders have generally kept up direct contact with the emirate. In January 2007, Shimon Peres paid a high profile visit to Doha, while Foreign Secretary Tzipi Livni visited in 2008.

Of course, relations have not always been rosy. Qatar has spoken out about the various assaults on Gaza, and in 2010 repeatedly tried to negotiate sending building materials and money to rebuild infrastructure. (Israel refused). In November 2012, the Qatari PM condemned Israel's renewed attacks on Gaza, saying that these "irresponsible and unjustified attacks must be condemned by the world." Yet, for the most part, informal trade agreements have rolled on, continuing informally despite political differences.

The news of the forthcoming visit coincided with reports that the Arab League could be softening its stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict, with Qatar's PM hinting that he may support America's plan for a change to the pre-1967 borders.

Whether the upped trade agreement signifies greater cooperation in other areas remains to be seen. But until there is clear evidence to suggest otherwise, it should be assumed that Qatar's interests are mainly pragmatic and business-focused; an extension of existing policies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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