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Can Qatar save Europe from a cold winter in the event of a Russia-Ukraine war?

February 5, 2022 at 11:04 am

A view of the South Pars gas field facilities near the southern Iranian town of Kangan on the shore of the Gulf on January 22, 2014. [BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP via Getty Images]

Any war scenario between Ukraine and Russia would undoubtedly imperil European energy security. Existing energy supplies in the region are still not enough, filling only 38 per cent of Europe’s storage capacity, according to Gas Infrastructure Europe. But the shortfall compared with previous winters is narrowing, and prices are retreating from record highs. Against this background, the emir of Qatar was invited by US President Biden to the White House this week to discuss opportunities for the country to adequately supply liquified natural gas (LNG) to Europe.

Speaking alongside Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad during the Oval Office meeting on Monday, President Biden designated Qatar a “major non-NATO ally”, thus putting it in a top-tier position of US security partners who are not NATO members. This, it seems, would be a well-earned status if Qatar were to address Europe’s energy security needs in a time of acute crisis.

In the event of such a short-term solution, some of the long-term Qatari LNG buyers will need to be willing to divert shipments to Europe. The government in Doha would prefer that any diversion requests come directly from the US to buyers.

Comparably, seeking Qatar’s support for future supplies, should the energy crisis in Europe worsen, is a major geo-economic step to mitigate in the wake of Russian aggression on Ukraine. “No discussions have taken place… this has not happened,” QatarEnergy Chief and Minister of State for Energy Saad Al-Kaabi told Reuters.

According to an Atlantic Council report, Qatar sells most of its LNG to Asia on long-term oil-indexed contracts. Therefore, it is important to ask, will Qatar approach its Asian customers over diverting gas supplies to Europe? At present, this seems unlikely, and most Europeans can expect a limited increase of gas from the Gulf state.

Minister Al-Kaabi has already made it clear that if Russia cuts its supply to Europe, no one country will be able to fill the gap. This statement shows that Qatar is still in the stages of finalising the selection of its commercial partners for the upcoming trade. It is still having discussions with client countries to supply gas and would not name the selected buyers, apart from the UK.

Opinion: UK’s new gas saviour during supply crunch is Qatar

In late 2021, following COP26, Qatar rerouted four LNG tankers to the UK to assist with the energy shortage. Additionally, LNG relations between the two nations go back to former UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s term in office. In 2008, Britain received the first LNG ships from a dock at the South Hook terminal near Milford Haven, one of Europe’s largest LNG terminals, which Qatar owns. Qatar invested in the UK with the launch of LNG terminals, being the majority owner of South Hook LNG terminal in Wales. Meanwhile, the UK’s energy and services company Centrica has a long-term Qatari LNG import agreement for delivery into the Isle of Grain terminal. Therefore, it is most likely that Qatar’s LNG diplomacy in the UK might end Britain’s energy supply crisis, regardless of what happens in Europe.

On the other hand, despite the worsening energy crisis in Europe, Germany is preparing to apply sanctions on Russia. In the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany would be forced to halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, within the context of the European Union (EU)’s political or military sanction strategy. This scenario would further intensify Europe’s energy crisis. However, the EU is just one stakeholder of this Nord Stream project signed during Angela Merkel’s period. As such, Russia can bargain with other parties to protect its own interest.

Seemingly, luck is not a long-term strategy for energy security in Europe. It is clear that Putin’s gas weaponisation tactics and Europe’s clumsy mistakes regarding energy prices could harm Europe’s energy security. The US and Europe will need to convince Qatar’s LNG clients to reroute some supplies to Europe, as any deal struck between the emir and the Biden administration relies on the willingness of client countries to reroute, as well as the availability of unallocated LNG.

Ultimately, the US will have to compensate Qatar and its client countries. This might be tough, but it is possible to some extent, as Qatar did reroute its LNG supplies in 2011, prioritising Japan after the tsunami of that year. It may just be able to keep some parts of Europe warm if war does break out between Russia and Ukraine.

Read: Qatar sets restrictions on sale of gas to Europe, report says

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.