US-Qatar Relations: Uncertainty or Strategic Partnership?

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Contact Nabil Sharaf
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Washington, DC — February 2, 2018 — Arab Center Washington DC, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on US policy and developments in the Arab region, hosted a panel on February 1, 2018 at the National Press Club titled “US-Qatar Relations: Uncertainty or Strategic Partnership?”

The speakers on the panel were Majed Al-Ansari, professor of political sociology and a researcher at Qatar University; Reem Al Ansari, associate dean of graduate studies and professor of law at Qatar University; and William Lawrence, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. ACW executive director Khalil E. Jahshan moderated the event.

Professor Majed Al-Ansari emphasized that while Qatar and the United States may have experienced some tensions in the months since the blockade began, the bilateral relationship has a decades-long history. The Al-Udeid Air Base, established in 1991, and the strength of Qatar’s energy sector have meant that Washington could establish strategic and economic interests in the area that would advance its regional goals and projects. Politically and strategically, Al-Ansari noted, the catalyst for the United States in the region has been the “strong presence” of the GCC, which was perceived historically by Washington as “an oasis of stability,” and this allowed US influence to spread to other countries in the region more easily. While Qatar may face belligerence from US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at present, he said that the strategic meetings in Washington were the continuation of a generally warm preexisting and growing relationship.

Professor Reem Al Ansari focused on the proliferation of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between Qatar and the United States in such areas as education and military and security initiatives, and how these partnerships, which carry minimum legal obligations, have enabled alliances and strategic initiatives despite the differences between civil law and common law societies. She said that the “message is that Qatar has never wanted to be isolated.” Al Ansari spoke particularly about the legal requirements of the Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CTF) rules, and the 2017 MOU signed between Qatar and the United States to combat terrorism. This week, she noted, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson assured the likelihood of the success of the US-Qatari relationship and called Qatar “a strong partner and a longtime friend.”

Professor William Lawrence observed that in some respects, the US-Qatari relationship has never been stronger. Frequent visits to Doha in recent months by US officials, he noted, highlight the multidimensional US-Qatari relationship, which spans regional security, trade, investment, and aviation. Nevertheless, Lawrence said, the GCC crisis was quite low on the Trump Administration’s priorities—below defeating ISIS, confronting Iran, dealing with the domestic crisis in Iran, and the humanitarian disasters in Yemen and Syria. He said the infrastructure of US military operations in Qatar is large and growing, adding that Washington will continue to invest in Qatar’s energy sector, strengthen military relations, and seek agreements in keeping with the transactional nature of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy. Overall, he added, “I think the Qataris have waged very skilled diplomacy” during the Gulf crisis.