Less than five years after the eruption of the Gulf crisis of June 2017 that seriously threatened Qatar’s security, President Joe Biden designated the Gulf Arab country a major non-NATO ally of the United States. During a state visit by Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Biden declared that he was notifying Congress of the designation that would confer on the small peninsular nation the status of a strategic partner of the United States. Together with 17 other nations (in addition to Taiwan, which is treated as such but is not formally designated), Qatar will enjoy special “defense trade and security cooperation” with the United States, benefit from “military and economic privileges,” and be eligible for special assistance and military equipment.
Qatar becomes the third country from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to receive such a designation. Bahrain and Kuwait were so declared by President George W. Bush in 2002 and 2004, respectively. While Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman have very close political, security, and economic ties with the United States, they have yet to receive that specific designation. Indeed, in the ongoing competition for prominence and centrality in the American strategic landscape, and in addition to the already appreciated role that it plays in supporting American interests, Qatar has won a coveted standing that the more endowed Saudi Arabia and UAE continue to seek in Washington.
Qatar’s current and potential role and position regarding three specific and important issues for the United States have propelled it to be designated a major US non-NATO ally: the American relationship with Afghanistan, negotiations with Iran, and assistance in meeting the need to supply natural gas to Europe amid tensions between Russia and Ukraine. On the first two issues, Qatar’s diplomacy and activism have been pivotal, while on the latter, it may provide the solution to a major geostrategic threat.
The Afghanistan Debacle
Since the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, Qatar has acted as both a hub for evacuating Americans and a representative of American interests in that country. In the first two weeks alone following the withdrawal, 113,500 American citizens, green-card holders, and citizens of other states were airlifted out of Afghanistan to Qatar. From there, they continued their journey to the United States and other countries. But since September, only sporadic flights were scheduled out of Kabul because of restrictions by the Taliban—the new rulers—on who leaves the country, a situation that was resolved only recently. In an interview with Axios, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said that Doha negotiated an agreement with the Taliban to allow two chartered flights out of Kabul each week for stranded Americans and others. If the Afghanistan withdrawal was a military and political embarrassment for the Biden Administration, Qatar’s intervention to ease the evacuation of those stranded under Taliban rule has been seen as a welcome mission to be rewarded by the United States.
Qatar’s intervention to ease the evacuation of those stranded under Taliban rule has been seen as a welcome mission to be rewarded by the United States.
In addition to having served as an intermediary between Washington and the Taliban over the last few years, Qatar has now become the representative for the United States in Afghanistan in charge of US interests and consular services for US citizens there. Taking on such a role makes Qatar indispensable in the strategic outlook of the United States, the superpower that occupied the central Asian country for two decades, only to leave when its mission of nation building failed to consolidate a democratic regime in Kabul. For the Taliban, Qatar provided—and continues to provide—the single most important outlet to an international community that, together with the United States, considers the movement an illegitimate usurper of authority and thus must remain a pariah, because of its sordid history of violence and repression. With its new status in US policy circles, Qatar will occupy a very public and responsible position that will reflect on the US administration. This will lend much needed assistance to Qatar’s own reputation as a country that has long aspired to play a larger role than other countries of similar size.
The Iran Factor
While working to help address American concerns about Afghanistan, Qatar has been busy trying to reconcile Washington’s and Tehran’s differences, mainly in how to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but also how to address the thorny issue of US citizens held by the Islamic Republic of Iran. A few days before Sheikh Tamim’s visit to the United States, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Al Thani held talks with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. The latter also reportedly asked Qatar to mediate the release of four Iranian-Americans from prison. Qatar’s assistance on both counts is essential, as the Vienna negotiations on the JCPOA inch along without any specific agreement. Additionally, US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley declared that although nuclear negotiations and the prisoner release are two separate things, “it is very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran.”
Qatar has been busy trying to reconcile Washington’s and Tehran’s differences, mainly in how to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but also how to address the thorny issue of US citizens held by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
By working to reconcile US-Iranian differences, Qatar is applying basic principles of strategic hedging that small states use to ensure their security and stability without sacrificing their neutrality. Like in the case of Afghanistan, it is in the best interest of the United States to have a back-channel option to Iran through Qatar. During the run-up to the signing of the JCPOA in 2015, Oman was such a back-channel and played host to secret negotiations between the United States and Iran. Conversely, to Iran, Qatar is a good interlocuter not only because it has excellent relations with the United States but also because Doha is Tehran’s partner in Arabian Gulf gas deposits and production. On a practical level, their economic interests are intertwined. Moreover, Iran provided Qatar with a lifeline during the blockade that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE imposed on the peninsular nation between 2017 and 2021. In other words, the Islamic Republic should have no fear that Qatar would play a malevolent role in brokering future developments in US-Iranian relations.
Before Qatar’s emir visited the United States, Washington was discussing with energy suppliers the possibility of diverting some of their gas exports to Europe to help ameliorate a potential Russian curb on supplies of energy. As the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, Qatar is one of those suppliers asked to help address the problem. Following the visit, it was reported that Sheikh Tamim was open to the prospect of managing Qatar’s current obligations, mostly to East Asian countries, while accommodating the United States’ request. But such assistance will naturally be contingent upon the country’s ability to increase its production and/or adjust some of its current commitments. On the other hand, and again applying the principles of strategic hedging, Qatar may not be able to provide said supplies for a prolonged period, even if on a limited and emergency basis, because it cannot upset Russia—a superpower with which it has good relations.
The mere possibility that Qatar could be called upon by the United States to help address a potential gas deficit in Europe, and for it to respond positively, speaks to the importance the small country gives to its relations with the United States.
But the mere possibility that Qatar could be called upon by the United States to help address a potential gas deficit in Europe, and for it to respond positively, speaks to the importance the small country gives to its relations with the United States. In fact, such a decision has geostrategic significance for both the United States and Europe and strengthens their stance vis-à-vis Russia, a reality that will not be lost on Washington and European capitals. At the same time, it is unlikely that Russia will look at Qatar’s decision as a hostile act because it may not cut off any gas supplies to Europe after all, as they are a main source of Moscow’s income. Finally, Qatar’s decision could serve its own long-term interests and help diversify its export base if and when it starts covering any potential gas deficit in Europe. Such considerations give Qatar the opportunity to both act as a strategic partner of the United States and serve its own interests in hedging against the uncertainties of navigating regional and international politics.
Beware of Detractors
Qatar’s designation as a major non-NATO ally of the United States is an important development for the small country. It is also a serious determination that serves the strategic interests of the United States in a region beset by uncertainty and instability. It provides Qatar with assurances in the form of materiél and security and economic coordination, in addition to the presence of the forward headquarters of the American Central Command at al-Udeid Air Base. Furthermore, the designation enhances Qatar’s multilateral and multifaceted relations with all the members of the NATO alliance. Indeed, this label helps Doha maintain the principles of strategic hedging that have defined its foreign policy for more than a quarter of a century.
But Qatar must be careful to maintain the neutrality and openness that have characterized its behavior. There will be detractors in Washington and elsewhere who will object to designating it a major non-NATO ally. Conservative policy circles have accused the Gulf state of supporting terrorism because it is on acceptable terms with the Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinian Hamas. President Donald Trump even joined that chorus at the onset of the 2017 Gulf crisis, only to discover the folly of such a contention. Many US politicians may find it opportune to criticize the designation because Qatar refuses to normalize relations with Israel, as Bahrain (another designee) and the UAE did in 2020. On that score, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani stated unequivocally that although his country “maintained ties with Israel ‘when there were prospects for peace,’” Qatar “would continue its ‘working relationship’ to help with [the] Palestinian people, but that it’s difficult to envision joining the Abraham Accords ‘in the absence of a real commitment to a two-state solution.’”