Qatar officially becomes US strategic partner in Gulf

Biden administration sees Qatar as helpful for backdoor diplomacy, and as a solution to the growing European gas crisis.

 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani walk during their meeting in Moscow, Russia March 14, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani walk during their meeting in Moscow, Russia March 14, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA)

The United States officially appointed Qatar as a major non-NATO ally in a presidential declaration signed by US President Joe Biden. The declaration signed on Thursday evening enhances relations between the two countries and gives Qatar a special position among its neighbors in both the economic and military spheres.

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The announcement follows a meeting held by the leaders of the two countries in late January when Biden made a pledge to the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, during his visit to Washington.

Joe Macaron, an analyst on the United States and the Middle East, told The Media Line that the Biden administration is making an effort to renew its relations with former US allies that deteriorated during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

“The move shows how US-Qatari relations have evolved under the Biden administration after it hit low levels during the Trump administration,” he said.

Thomas Gratowski, an expert on geopolitics who heads Global Counsel's MENA office in Doha, told The Media Line that the decision also enhances Qatar’s standing among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with which it has had some turbulent relations in the last few years.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi stand during a welcome ceremony in Doha, Qatar, February 21, 2022. (credit: QATAR NEWS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi stand during a welcome ceremony in Doha, Qatar, February 21, 2022. (credit: QATAR NEWS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Gratowski explains that all GCC countries have close ties with the United States. “There has been talk about designating all six countries as MNNA (major non-NATO ally) in the past, though only Kuwait and Bahrain received the status,” he said.

“It is really significant that Qatar gets this designation before major allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” he highlighted.

This is even more significant, Gratowski added, “because Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE imposed a blockade against Qatar from June 2017 to early January 2021. The blockade was, among other things, justified by accusing Qatar of having too close ties with Iran.”

As opposed to the Trump administration and its allies in the Gulf, the Biden administration does not see Qatar’s relations with Iran, or institutions such as the Taliban, as treason, but rather as beneficial and useful for the US.

Macaron believes that “the current White House seems to see Doha as helpful for backdoor diplomacy on issues like Afghanistan and Iran.”

Gratowski agrees, explaining that Qatar's role was crucial in evacuating more than 100,000 US citizens and allies from Afghanistan in August 2021 when the Taliban took over after the US withdrawal that ended 20 years of American presence in that country.

“Because Doha can act as a mediator between the West and the Taliban, the Qatari embassy in Kabul also became the host of the US interest section in December, i.e., Qatar serves as the representative of US interests in Afghanistan,” he added.

Macaron said that Doha also is helping Washington by serving as a back channel with Tehran when needed, “as we saw in the recent visit of the Iranian president to Qatar.”  

Gratowski pointed out that Qatar has over the last year played an important role in mediating between the US and Iran to reinstate the nuclear deal.

He added that “Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama had been very skeptical of the 2015 deal and the prospect of its reinstatement. President Biden has in the past expressed unease about Saudi – and to a lesser extent, Emirati – actions, promising to make Riyadh a ‘pariah.’”

Gratowski said that with the nuclear talks on hold since Friday, Qatar might again be needed to help get this past the finish line. “Qatar has become a major diplomatic player in the region and an extremely useful ally for the US,” he added.

The MNNA designation will give Qatar advantages that include better access to cooperative defense research and training with the Pentagon, US military equipment and counterterrorism initiatives, Macaron explained.

Concerning the timing of the designation, which is during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Macaron believes that the two events are separate from each other, and the timing is coincidental.

He explained that the Biden administration told Qatari officials about this designation in January, which was before the Russian invasion began.

“The current announcement only formalizes this designation with the White House notifying the US Congress,” Macaron said.

Additionally, Macaron pointed out that even if it was intended by the US government to find in Qatar a solution to the shortage of gas in the market as a result of the sanctions on Russia, this is not currently viable.

“When it comes to the European market, Qatari LNG (liquefied natural gas) cannot logistically replace the Russian natural gas in the foreseeable future,” he said.

This is because Qatari supplies are mostly tied up in long-term contracts with Asian buyers and it does not have the capability to increase its export of gas.

However, Gratowski believes that, with Washington's help, there is the possibility that Asian buyers might demand less than their contracts in order to free up supplies for Europe.

The European Union has announced a plan to reduce Russian gas imports by two-thirds by the end of the year, he added.

In addition, he said: “Though this is not short-term help, Germany has announced the construction of two LNG terminals and, next week, Germany's economy minister is expected to visit Doha to also discuss energy security.”

“Qatar will play a crucial role for Europe to wean itself off dependence on Russian gas imports,” he said.

Qatar has clearly signaled that it is willing to support the West in its search for energy supplies, Gratowski says.

“By contrast, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been reluctant to increase oil output to stabilize the market. I doubt Riyadh's and Abu Dhabi's position will be tenable for much longer,” he concluded.