The Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s visit caps a notable year for Qatar’s foreign policy. Since Biden’s inauguration, the blockade has been lifted, ties with Saudi Arabia have improved dramatically, relations with Egypt have been restored, and a truce with other rivals has been achieved. Qatar has found itself at the heart of US policy on Afghanistan as the sole interlocutor between Washington and the Taliban and was integral in evacuating US personnel during the disastrous summer withdrawal.
Qatar has also seen its role in US policy towards Iran grow as Biden pursues a Nuclear Deal.
Qatar has also seen its role in US policy towards Iran grow as Biden pursues a yet-elusive Nuclear Deal, and in Palestine where its financial support for Gaza has helped the US maintain ceasefire agreements. More recently, Qatar has found itself touted by Washington as an ally capable of helping Europe move away from its dependency on Russian energy.
Meanwhile, its opponents have been experiencing a reversal of fortunes in their relationship with the US. The UAE is increasingly in the international media spotlight over its aggressive foreign policy and lobbying activities in Washington. The Saudi Crown Prince continues to be publicly castigated by President Biden, who remarked in October 2021 that there were “a lot of Middle Eastern folks who want to talk to me. I’m not sure I’m going to talk to them.” While President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has had US military aid to Egypt withheld by Biden over human rights issues.
Qatar has also gradually reined in its ambitious foreign policy of the early 2010s, when it rode the wave of the Arab Spring to help propel its allies to power in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Following heavy pressure from the Trump administration, Qatar has re-oriented its policy to officially recognize Sisi’s regime as the “legitimate” government in Egypt and to limit its confrontations with other regional actors. This has enabled Qatar to re-position itself as a major power reliant on diplomacy, which firmly aligns with what Biden envisages US foreign policy should be.
Qatar has become indispensable for Biden’s foreign policy priorities.
In short, Qatar has successfully maneuvered to become indispensable for Biden’s foreign policy priorities.
The Emir’s Visit to Washington
The invitation to visit the White House has not emerged from Qatar’s rising status alone. Instead, it came out of Biden’s concerns over the lack of cohesion between Washington and the European Union over how to react to Russia’s ever-growing military presence on the border with Ukraine. While the US has been apparently firm in its rhetoric, there has been notable pushback from the likes of Germany, which relies heavily on Russian gas.
The Germans privately believe that the US is fueling the escalation at their expense. Europe’s fears are compounded by an already existing crisis brought about by rising energy prices worldwide. Therefore, any escalation with Russia threatens to lead to disastrous consequences on the energy front.
Such has been the extent of the schism between Washington and Berlin that the German chancellor reportedly turned down a phone call from Biden to discuss the matter.
Qatar is one of the world’s major gas suppliers.
Qatar is one of the world’s major gas suppliers. Biden hopes that Doha will be able to step in and help Europe wean its dependency on Russia for its energy needs. However, whether that is viable is something even the Qataris doubt.
First, there is the logistical problem. Russian gas flows to Europe through three already established pipelines. Qatar would have to ship gas over longer and more congested shipping routes.
Second, Qatar’s capacity to supply enough gas to Europe is restricted by pre-existing long-term contracts with Asian countries that make up its main market. While 5 percent of Qatar’s overall gas is already shipped to Europe, it is unlikely Doha would be able to divert more than a few percent more without compromising its standing agreements with Asia.
Third, European leaders are unlikely to see Qatar as a viable solution. Current gas supply levels in Europe do not leave enough room to absorb any shock caused by a sudden Russian rupture. In other words, Europe does not have enough gas supplies in stock to compensate for the time Qatar needs to prepare sufficient gas quantities and then ship them over longer routes.
This is why Qatar itself has been vocal in asserting that it does not have the capacity to act as an alternative to Russia and meet Europe’s energy needs.
A Major Non-NATO Ally
It is in this context that Biden decided to fulfill a promise made a while ago that declared Qatar a “major non-NATO ally”, a status that is enjoyed in the region only by Kuwait and Bahrain. Biden seeks to encourage Qatar to assist him at a time when the general assessment of his foreign policy has been less than flattering.
Qatar a “major non-NATO ally”, a status that is enjoyed in the region only by Kuwait and Bahrain.
Indeed, Biden has been unable to rally his allies into a unified front on a number of foreign policy issues. The disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to echo and threatens to become a hallmark of his administration. Talks with Iran are slow as Tehran drags its heels. Gas prices are soaring with no respite on the horizon as Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman flatly refuses to provide a production bailout.
With Russia flexing on the Ukraine border, Biden is at risk of another foreign policy disaster and in urgent need of solutions, solidarity, and vital alliances. Qatar is a central player in the US foreign policy agenda. Therefore, the US President seeks to reinforce the relationship in the hope that Doha can help secure a breakthrough in any one of them.
Doha no doubt feels vindicated after having come under immense pressure during the last US administration and remains scarred from the antagonism. The general view in the region is that it is unclear whether Biden will win a second term. More importantly, there is a prevalent opinion that the return of Donald Trump, or a similar-thinking republican such as Mike Pompeo, to the White House is very much a possibility in 2024.
In such a circumstance, the regional dynamics could be flipped on its head again. It is worth remembering that Qatar’s essential role in facilitating talks between Trump and the Taliban did not spur the US into lifting the Gulf blockade against it. Instead, Qatar’s assistance was taken for granted on the basis that it had no other choice but to work with the US.
Although Qatar is clearly in ascendancy, the UAE’s influence in Washington remains powerful. Biden appears to be reluctant to call out Abu Dhabi over its aggressive foreign policy. This may be due to a desire not to hamper the normalization process between Arab states and Israel.
Doha is aware that its importance is amplified by Biden’s woes.
Moreover, Doha is aware that its importance is amplified by Biden’s woes, rather than its exceptional strategic value. For all of Doha’s role in key foreign policy issues, the US has nevertheless complicated the process of Qatar’s bid to purchase arms.
It is for this reason that Qatar continues to maintain a two-pronged approach to its relations with the US. This explains its decision to purchase Boeing jets, including the notorious 737-Max, in what has been described by the US President “as one of the largest deals that Boeing aircraft has ever had. . . [supporting] tens of thousands of good-paying US jobs . . . in America.”
The acquisition is significant enough to act as compensation for any disappointment that might emerge from Qatar’s inability to implement Biden’s plan for Europe’s energy concerns and maintain goodwill. The sizeable purchase also helps to counter disgruntlement that was expressed by US enterprises during the Trump presidency that Doha’s subsidies-backed companies gave them an unfair advantage in the US economy.
At the same time, planning for any worst-case scenario, Doha continues to explore ways to communicate with America’s right-wing audience that may well have a greater influence over a possible incoming Republican administration.
For now, however, and much to the chagrin of rival UAE, Qatar is soaring under the Biden administration.