Despite the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—blockading Qatar for the past 26 months, officials in Doha have managed skillfully to exercise their diplomatic prowess in the Gulf and beyond. In doing so, Doha has demonstrated its ability to continue cooperating effectively with the United States in relation to some of the most difficult files in the Middle East. Put simply, just as the previous US administration turned to Qatar for help with mediation and facilitation of talks between warring state and non-state actors in the greater Middle East, the Trump White House also views Qatar as a crucial American ally in this regard.
The Qatari response to escalating tensions in US–Iran relations is a salient example. Doha has made its position clear and has stressed the importance of de-escalation.
The Qatari response to escalating tensions in US–Iran relations is a salient example. Doha has made its position clear and has stressed the importance of de-escalation. “We believe that at one point, there should [be] an engagement; it cannot last forever like this,” Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said in June. “Since they are not willing to engage in further escalation, they should come up with ideas that open the doors.” This gives Qatar the opportunity to play a decisive role in easing the tensions, which risk boiling over into a new war that would have a catastrophic impact on the Middle East’s (in)security architecture.
Undoubtedly, Doha’s position in the brinkmanship between the US and Iran is sensitive. On one hand, by virtue of Qatar and Iran’s sharing of the world’s largest natural gas reserve, which Doha relies on for its income, the Arab Gulf emirate and its Persian neighbor must maintain cooperative and healthy relations. Added to the equation is the blockade which required Qatar to strengthen its ties with the Islamic Republic for the purpose of securing vital economic interests across numerous sectors from aviation to food imports.
Doha has maintained an extremely close alliance with Washington that dates back to the 20th century yet reached new heights in the 2000s when the US relocated its forward operating headquarters of US Central Command from Saudi Arabia to Qatar’s al-Udeid base.
On the other hand, Doha has maintained an extremely close alliance with Washington that dates back to the 20th century yet reached new heights in the 2000s when the US relocated its forward operating headquarters of US Central Command from Saudi Arabia to Qatar’s al-Udeid base. Thus, as the Trump administration moves ahead with its so-called “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, Qatar has been keen to avoid appearing too close to Tehran from the White House’s perspective. In this complicated context, the Qatari leadership has seen the best option as attempting to reverse the escalation of tension between Washington and Tehran, which threatens Qatar’s basic national interests.
It is notable that the mounting friction between Washington and Tehran has led to the Trump administration becoming increasingly unsettled by the consequences of the ATQ’s blockade of Qatar. Despite Trump’s impulsive tweets in June 2017 that suggested his support for the siege of Doha, he has urged both sides of the Arabian feud to settle their scores diplomatically and move past the 26-month-old crisis. Last summer, National Security Advisor John Bolton declared that Washington’s “regional partners are increasingly competing and, in the case of the Qatar rift, entering into outright competition to the detriment of American interests.” A few months later, Heather Nauert, who was the State Department’s spokesperson at the time, emphasized how GCC unity is “essential” to US efforts to counter “Iran’s malign influence” and “terrorism.”
The second issue is the long-awaited US peace plan for the Middle East, known as “the “Deal of the Century.” In addition to strengthening the ties with the US administration, which was seen after the visit of Qatar’s emir to the United States last month, Doha and Kuwait City, have established themselves as Gulf capitals committed to defending Palestinian rights. This is because the Saudis appear to be increasingly turning their back on the Palestinians for the sake of moving toward an increasingly normalized relationship with Israel.
In past decades, the Palestinian leadership used to depend on the leadership in Riyadh. However, Saudi Arabia’s latest actions regarding the conflict diminished its popularity among the Palestinians and their leadership. There is much doubt about whether the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seriously willing to stand by the Palestinians. While uncertainty surrounds Saudi Arabia’s position on the Palestinian question beyond official statements in support of a two-state solution, Doha has been more decisive and direct in terms of its support for the Palestinian cause, makes Qatar along with Kuwait the two GCC member-states the most “pro-Palestinian” in their foreign policy. In May, Doha pledged USD 480 million to the West Bank and Gaza, signifying its solidarity and resolve not to throw the Palestinians under the bus, which MBS increasingly appears to be doing.
Doha has hosted the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the United States, as well as the inter-Afghan negotiations. This sends a global message that “mediation and peace” is Doha’s priority.
The third crucial issue is Afghanistan. Doha has hosted the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the United States, as well as the inter-Afghan negotiations. This sends a global message that “mediation and peace” is Doha’s priority. Moreover, at a time in which US President Donald Trump appears to want to close the Afghani file (it has been reported that he will be looking to pull out all US troops from Afghanistan by next year’s presidential election), Doha’s would be the government to cooperate with. Although Qatar has received some criticism in the West for its ties to the Taliban, the US diplomatic establishment undeniably has been grateful to Doha for its ability to serve as a “neutral” platform for talks between various parties fighting in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.
Interestingly, at a time in which the Taliban’s leadership has grown increasingly suspicious of both Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s intentions vis-à-vis Afghanistan, the Qataris have benefited from such dynamics that have left the Taliban viewing Doha as the most trusted US-allied capital capable of playing a “neutral” role in relation to Afghanistan’s 18-year conflict. As former Congressman James Moran (D-VA) recently stated at a think tank event in DC, Qatar deserves credit for its “essential” diplomatic role in relation to Afghanistan.
As Bloomberg recently reported, Qatar reversed its position of supporting the Chinese government in relation to its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. By withdrawing from a letter signed by Qatar and 36 other countries on July 12 that expressed support for Beijing in the face of growing international criticism of the oppression of Uighurs, Qatar was the first Arab/Muslim country to do so. Given that the Trump administration has condemned China for its policies in Xinjiang, yet, at least until recently, no Muslim-majority country had done so (with the partial exception of Turkey), the development was another indicator of the extent to which Doha is focused on making justice and rights pillars of its foreign policy. Unquestionably, new dynamics created by the blockade have given Qatar more incentive to try to make bullet-proof its narrative about standing for pluralism, tolerance, and inclusivity when it comes to decisions on the international stage.
The emirate’s skilled diplomacy has helped Qatar convince the Trump administration that Doha is invaluable ally of the US.
Emir Tamim on his latest visit to Washington highlighted that diplomatic relations between this White House and Doha appear to have never been stronger. The emirate’s skilled diplomacy has helped Qatar convince the Trump administration that Doha is invaluable ally of the US.
Despite the huge sum of money that ATQ members spent on lobbying at the time of the blockade, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s efforts to convince the diplomatic establishment in Washington to view Qatar as a grave threat have proven futile. Remaining steadfast and working on resolving issues throughout the past two years and two months of the blockade, Qatar has gained a positive reputation among many in the Trump administration and lawmakers on the Hill who are grateful for Doha’s willingness to take major risks in the interest of advancing peace throughout the Islamic world.