By Frida Ghitis
Just before U.S. President Joe Biden met with Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in the Oval Office on Tuesday, the White House shared a post on Twitter listing the visit’s agenda, which included “security and prosperity in the Middle East, global energy supplies, Afghanistan and more.” It was clear Sheikh Tamim’s visit was not just symbolic.
Sheikh Tamim is the first regional leader to meet with Biden since he became president, a sign that Washington views Doha as an important element in confronting urgent U.S. priorities. And as if to underscore that point, Biden announced this week that he had designated Qatar a Non-NATO ally, a status that paves the way for greater cooperation on defense trade and security.
It’s almost hard to fathom the rise of this miniscule emirate from regional pariah to pivotal player in multiple global conflicts. Qatar is barely the size of Connecticut, and though it is bustling with foreign workers, it has only 300,000 citizens. Tiny countries surrounded by powerful, ambitious neighbors often try to keep their heads down. Qatar has done precisely the opposite.
In 2017, Doha’s controversial policy of playing both sides in multiple regional conflicts caused its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, to impose a harsh but ultimately unsuccessful 43-month blockade aimed at forcing a change in the emirate’s foreign policy. The Trump administration favored Qatar’s rivals—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—without cutting off ties with Doha. That rift ended in January 2021, but Qatar has also long attracted harsh condemnations from both the left and right in the United States, including criticism of its alleged human rights violations and claims that it is a sponsor of terrorism.
Though an official U.S. ally now, Doha is unlikely to stand four-square on the side of the United States on every issue. Instead, its leaders are likely to leverage the closer ties to boost its position as a go-between for the United States and its foes. It’s a risky approach for which Qatar has already paid a price, as seen in the 2017 blockade. But the strategy, in addition to its ownership of the influential news network Al Jazeera, has allowed the gas-rich state to punch far above its weight.
The most immediate role Washington wants to see Qatar play concerns the ongoing standoff with Russia over Ukraine. Involvement on this issue would take Qatar beyond its mediation of regional conflicts to a much larger stage. Biden is hoping that, in case of war or further escalation and sanctions, Qatar will help blunt any move by Russia to cut off natural gas supplies to Western Europe by giving affected countries an alternative source for fuel. As it is, the prospect of losing Russian supplies—which account for one-third of European gas—makes the continent vulnerable to Russia.
At the same time in the Gulf, Qatar has been making efforts to act as a bridge between Washington and Tehran, as negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—enter their final stages. Days before the emir traveled to Washington, Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, visited Iran. The timing was no coincidence. Al-Thani later told Al Jazeera that the emirate hopes to use its relationship with both Iran and the United States to bring the two sides together.
It’s almost hard to fathom the rise of Qatar’s miniscule emirate from regional pariah to pivotal player in multiple global conflicts.
Qatar has also used its relationship with another U.S. foe, the Taliban, to establish itself as a link between Washington and Kabul. Doha hosted negotiations between the Taliban and the West in 2020 and much of 2021—and after the Taliban seized power last summer, Qatar’s position became even more important to the U.S. The Biden administration does not have diplomatic relations with the new Taliban government, but has a keen interest in helping to evacuate dual citizens and Afghans who worked with U.S. forces, and is also looking for ways to mitigate the economic collapse of Afghanistan without strengthening the repressive, misogynistic Taliban.
In November, three months after the U.S. departure, Qatar formally became Washington’s representative in Kabul. This week, while the emir was in Washington, Qatar’s foreign minister announced some success in representing Washington’s interests there: His office had reached a deal with the Taliban to restart evacuations of foreign nationals and at-risk Afghans using chartered flights from the Kabul airport.
Qatar has pursued this strategy of trying to maintain relations with all sides for years. During the Arab Spring a decade ago, as other GCC monarchies raised their defenses against the then-rising Muslim Brotherhood, Doha embraced the group. It was that—in addition to Doha’s ties with Tehran—that most angered its neighbors and triggered the 2017 rift. In exchange for lifting their blockade, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their closest allies demanded, among other things, that Qatar break ties with Iran and shut down Al Jazeera. But Qatar, against the odds, survived the blockade without conceding to these demands.
The emirate has also acted as mediator between the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, and Israel, a country with which Qatar doesn’t have diplomatic relations but evidently has much interaction. Israel allows Qatar to provide financial and other material assistance to the people of Gaza, including just recently millions of dollars’ worth of fuel.
The Qataris evidently understood that Biden’s decision to strengthen ties could be politically controversial, and potentially costly, for his administration—so they brought some goodies for the American people to allay that risk.
The day before the emir’s visit, Boeing announced that the state-owned airline Qatar Airways had placed a massive order for some 100 airplanes, allowing the U.S. firm to score a huge victory over Airbus, its European rival. The list price of the planes, before any discounts, is an eye-watering $27 billion. The deal caused Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, to gush on Twitter about the “HUGE win for [General Electric] Aviation workers” and unionized machinists. That’s exactly what the deal was meant to do: ease the cost for Biden of closer ties with Doha. The emir was also scheduled to discuss arms sales with the Homeland Security secretary, though outcomes from this meeting have yet to be announced.
With the World Cup scheduled for this year in Doha, the Qatari government is fortifying its position just as global attention is set to hone in on the emirate. Despite all the objections from across the political spectrum, and whatever its shortcomings—committed ally or not—Qatar is turning itself into an indispensable player.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post.