National day celebrations have become a crucial element in the ongoing construction of Saudi Arabia’s national narrative, highlighting the centrality of the ruling family and its legacy in the establishment of the state.
On January 31, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani became the first Gulf leader to visit President Joseph R. Biden Jr in Washington. Just before the meeting, Biden announced he would be designating Qatar a major non-NATO ally, a decision that he said was “long overdue.” Qatar will be the third Gulf country, after Bahrain and Kuwait, to receive this important, if largely symbolic, designation.
The meeting between the emir and Biden took place amid escalating tensions between the United States and Russia over threats of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and increased concerns over a potential disruption of Russian energy supplies to Europe. During the meeting, Biden and Tamim confirmed their commitment to “the stability of global energy supplies” as well as regional security in the Gulf, improving the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, and “strengthening commercial and investment cooperation.” A $20 billion agreement between Boeing and Qatar Airways Group that “will support tens of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs” was also announced.
Much has changed since June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt led a boycott of Qatar that former President Donald J. Trump also initially supported. Since the signing of the Al Ula agreement in January 2021 in Saudi Arabia ended the Gulf rift, Doha has been working to bolster its relationship with the United States and improve ties with key Gulf neighbors. U.S.-Qatar ties are seemingly stronger than ever, and the Biden administration has supported greater regional diplomacy, often in partnership with Qatar. The Al Ula agreement helped usher in a period of greater regional de-escalation and cooperation, even if it is fragile. Regarding the U.S.-supported Abraham Accords with Israel, however, Qatar has thus far kept its distance.
What’s Behind the Non-NATO Ally Designation?
Doha’s pivotal role in supporting evacuation efforts following the United States’ 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan seemingly played a significant role in Biden’s decision to designate Qatar a major non-NATO ally. Qatar is also home to the Al Udeid air base, which houses the U.S. Central Command forward headquarters and at least 10,000 U.S. troops. Qatar is also one of the United States’ biggest purchasers of defense equipment.
In his meeting with the emir in the Oval Office, Biden emphasized the important role that Qatar has played securing U.S. interests, by “relocating tens of thousands of Afghans, maintaining stability in Gaza and providing life-saving assistance to the Palestinians, keeping pressure on ISIS and deterring threats from across the Middle East.” Though the two sides maintained a studied public silence regarding the status of Qatar’s request for F-35 stealth fighters.
Qatar has acted as an intermediary between the United States and the Taliban for years. Doha hosted diplomatic negotiations between the Taliban and the United States, which led to an agreement – hammered out by Trump administration officials – for a U.S. withdrawal, as well as failed talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. After the Taliban seized power, Qatar helped the United States evacuate more than 60,000 people from Afghanistan through Al Udeid and is acting as the “diplomatic proxy” for the United States in the country. After “extensive talks” with the Taliban, Qatar Airways resumed evacuation flights in January after a 2-month pause. Qatar and its regional ally Turkey have also participated in talks with the Taliban over the management of Kabul airport. Beyond these issues, Qatar has also focused on rallying greater humanitarian aid for Afghanistan.
In an agreement with the United States and Israel, Qatar has also funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the citizens of Gaza since 2014, including paying salaries for an estimated 50,000 employees of the Hamas-run government. After violence reerupted between Hamas and Israel in May 2021, the funding was suspended until September 2021, when new arrangements were worked out with Egypt, and the United States promised to work with the Palestinian Authority to rebuild Gaza.
Moreover, Qatar offered to mediate between the United States and Iran to revive nuclear negotiations during the administration of former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In January, Iran’s foreign minister visited Doha and met with Qatar’s foreign minister and the emir. The Qatari foreign minister then visited Tehran, just before his visit to Washington with the emir, leading to speculation about Qatari mediation efforts. Ahead of the Washington visit, Reuters reported that Iran and Qatar were discussing ways to negotiate the release of some dual national Iranian Americans and Iranian Europeans imprisoned in Iran, but this was not officially confirmed.
Beyond diplomacy and mediation, Qatar plays an important role in global energy supplies and boasts powerful economic statecraft tools through its sovereign wealth fund and diverse investment portfolio. Qatar is one of the top exporters of natural gas in the world (and shares the world’s largest gas field with Iran) and is working with the United States to explore ways to support Europe’s energy needs if tensions boil over with Russia in the event of an invasion of Ukraine. Economic ties are the backbone to much of the U.S.-Qatar strategic relationship. The United States is Qatar’s number one foreign investor and a top source of imports. The $20 billion Boeing sale to Qatar Airways is only the most recent example of this. In December 2020, the Department of State highlighted Qatar’s plans to “invest $45 billion in the United States, in addition to billions of dollars’ worth of military and aviation, energy, and ICT contracts.”
U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue
A core element that has strengthened Qatar’s relationship with the United States is the U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue that began in 2018, during the Gulf boycott of Qatar. Meetings have been held annually since, helping to substantially bolster U.S.-Qatar cooperation as Doha weathered the boycott. The November 2021 U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue focused on regional cooperation and global affairs, especially the humanitarian and security challenges in Afghanistan; health cooperation to battle the coronavirus pandemic; Qatar’s efforts to combat human trafficking and improve labor rights; law enforcement and counterterrorism cooperation; safety and security at the FIFA Men’s World Cup, set to take place in Doha in November; economic and commercial cooperation; climate change and energy; education and cultural cooperation; and the overall bilateral military and security partnership.
Gulf Regional Cooperation and Competition and the Changing U.S. Role
The Al Ula agreement has helped usher in a period of de-escalation and diplomacy in the Middle East. Much of this is a result of conflict fatigue and the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, but it also stems from a deepening perception among Gulf Arab states that the U.S. role in the region is changing. Gulf Arab states are seeking to bolster alliances and minimize regional conflict in an effort to adjust to a perceived decreasing U.S. focus on the Middle East and an increasingly multipolar regional order.
As a result, Qatar is improving relations with its neighbors. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have officially reappointed ambassadors to Doha and are deepening economic ties with Qatar. High-level meetings between Qatari and Emirati leaders have also taken place in recent months, although the UAE has not yet restored diplomatic relations. UAE National Security Advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan visited Doha and met with Tamim to discuss economic and trade cooperation in August 2021. Qatar’s foreign minister visited Abu Dhabi and met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in October 2021 to discuss enhancing ties. And, Tamim had a short encounter with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the Olympics in Beijing in their first meeting since the Gulf rift ended. Qatari relations with Bahrain remain strained, however.
Gulf States and Great Power Politics
Soon after the emir’s visit to Washington, he and some other Gulf leaders attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Tamim met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and discussed ways to cooperate on the Belt and Road Initiative and the Global Development Initiative, seeking particularly to expand cooperation on energy and infrastructure projects.
The emir’s visits to the United States and China reveal how Gulf states, including Qatar, are hedging as they seek to cultivate closer ties with these geopolitical rivals, along with Russia, amid intensifying great power competition. China, especially, will continue to be a major economic and energy partner for Gulf states. So far, Gulf states have been able to walk this tightrope (with some bumps along the way), but if U.S.-China tensions continue to worsen, Gulf states, such as Qatar, could find themselves caught in the middle of a messy geopolitical power struggle.
is the senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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