September 22, 2020

IntelBrief: Qatar’s Strategic Positioning

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomes Qatar's Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to launch the third annual U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue at the State Dept., Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 in Washington. (Erin Scott/Pool via AP)

Bottom Line up Front

  • The decision of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel has not disadvantaged Qatar’s relationship with the Trump administration. 
  • The September U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue meetings reinforced the crucial role Qatar plays in enabling the United States to project power in the region despite shrinking its military footprint. 
  • The Trump administration is likely to name Qatar as a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’ in appreciation of its contribution to U.S. strategy. 
  • Qatar’s engagement with a wide range of regional factions and with Iran has improved Israel’s security and facilitates U.S. negotiations with its adversaries. 

Qatar’s main antagonist within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates,  Qatar, Bahrain and Oman) - the UAE - grabbed headlines and renewed Trump administration affection with its August decision, joined by Bahrain, to normalize relations with Israel as part of the ‘Abraham Accords.’The normalization deal appeared to increase the likelihood that the Trump administration would accede to UAE insistence on continuing the air, sea, and land blockade of Qatar by Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Manama. In appreciation for the UAE move, the Trump administration also confirmed that it is likely to sell the UAE the advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and other advanced weapons. Concurrently, the Administration forced the youth-oriented affiliate of Qatar-based Al Jazeera – Al Jazeera Plus – to register with the U.S. Department of Justice as a Foreign Agent, although the directive stopped short of meeting the UAE’s urging that Al Jazeera‘s main network register as well, if not close entirely.

Despite the worldwide focus on the Abraham Accords, in the days leading up to the September 15 White House signing of the agreement, Qatar and the United States conducted their third ‘Strategic Dialogue.’ The two-day meeting culminated in a detailed final communique that laid out the breadth and depth of the U.S.-Qatar strategic relationship – a relationship centered on, but by no means limited to, the Qatari hosting of about 8,500 U.S. military personnel at its large Al Udeid Air Base. The statement also highlighted a broad range of ongoing and future economic and cultural cooperation, joint counterterrorism efforts, and Qatari diplomatic mediation and humanitarian aid throughout the region. And, the Trump administration expressed its intent to continue working to resolve the intra-GCC dispute.

The Dialogue reinforced the centrality of U.S. access to Qatari military facilities, particularly Al Udeid, to U.S. national security. The base is the largest in the region, and allows the United States to project power and support operations throughout the region, including against the so-called Islamic State and in Afghanistan. Qatar-U.S. defense cooperation has become even more crucial as the Trump administration draws down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and evacuates many of the bases U.S. forces use in those countries. In the immediate aftermath of the latest U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue, the recognition of Qatar’s contribution to U.S. security manifested in reports that the Trump administration would soon designate Qatar as a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’ (MNNA). The designation is reserved for only the closest U.S. partners and has been given previously to two other Gulf states, Kuwait and Bahrain.

The Trump administration recognizes that Qatar’s independent foreign policy - based on engagement with a wide range of often conflicting factions and parties in the region - serves the interests of the United States and its allies. Almost simultaneous with the announcement of the Abraham Accords, Qatar reported that its aid program for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip - a program run by a Qatari envoy to Gaza who meets regularly with Israeli officials - had produced a pledge by Hamas to prevent violence against Israel. The aid program has proven Qatar’s ability to contribute to Israel’s security, even though Qatar has indicated it would not normalize relations with Israel until a comprehensive Israel-Palestinian peace is agreed upon. Also in mid-September, the first official negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban movement on a future political structure for Afghanistan convened in Doha. The Afghan talks, attended by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, were a product of the February 2020 peace agreement (‘Doha Agreement’) negotiated in Doha between the United States and the Taliban. That pact has enabled the Trump administration to draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan to the lowest levels since the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan began in 2001. And, although the UAE and Saudi Arabia have demanded, as part of their attempts to isolate Qatar, that the government distance itself from Iran, Qatari engagement with Iran can potentially benefit U.S. interests. The Trump administration, as well as presidential candidate and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., both seek to engage Iran in negotiations on a revived nuclear agreement, although with differing conditions. Qatar’s leaders have repeatedly offered to broker U.S. talks with Tehran to lower tensions in the Gulf.  Qatari mediation could prove crucial if Iranian leaders decide to engage the United States, no matter whom is elected president.