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Qatar’s soft power, shifting alliances and strategic interests

February 23, 2022 at 2:13 pm

US President Joe Biden and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar, left, meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, US, on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022 [Tom Brenner/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

On 31 January, 2022, during Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad’s visit to Washington, Joe Biden officially announced the designation of Qatar as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA). It goes without saying that the decision is a highly strategic one, rooted deeply in US foreign policy interests in the region, the conflict in Ukraine and the evolving political realities in the wider Middle East.

Qatar will be the third Gulf country, after Bahrain and Kuwait, to receive this status. However, the announcement of this decision at this time carries much more weight than the decision itself. It is a clear statement of the US’s shifting policy approach in the broader Middle East and Qatar’s key role as a regional ally. Beyond just ‘friendship’, this is a critical strategic partnership of political and military significance.

There has been extensive media frenzy around this decision, with numerous speculations and analysis. Even within the US, some analysts have praised Biden’s decision as the right move towards decreasing the US presence in the Middle East by empowering regional allies. Others have criticised the decision as the increased sale of weapons to countries in the region seems not to favour the US. Both positions are, somehow, inaccurate and missing the big picture. Washington’s decision to designate Qatar as an MNNA is not about reducing US involvement in the Middle East, empowering Qatar or about selling weapons to a Gulf country. It is, actually, at the heart of the Biden administration’s pragmatic approach to foreign policy in the Middle East and the repair of relationships that the Trump administration had destroyed.

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Presently, it seems that a more indirect approach of involvement in the Middle East, rather than a direct one, will best serve US interests. In this new relationship of mutual interests, the focus should not only be on how the MNNA designation adds to Qatar’s status but, instead, how this relationship which is much more of a symbolic gesture from the US, will advance America’s foreign policy agenda in the region. To this end, it is necessary to keep in mind that the MNNA designation does not involve any defence obligations from US to Qatar; it does, however, ensure stronger security cooperation with Qatar and greater access to US weapons. Though the US also has, in past years, increased its weapon access and sales to the UAE, the MNNA status has only been designated to Qatar – as an acknowledgement of Qatar’s emerging role as a regional leader on many fronts. Here are some of the key reasons behind Washington’s decision to choose Qatar as one of its major allies in the region:

Regional Conflicts and Energy Calculations

The decision has come at a time of escalation in the Ukraine crisis, with ongoing discussions about Qatar as a key energy supplier to Europe. The MNNA status provides America with a stronger guarantee from Qatar, the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), as an energy supplier. This is an indication that it is not just Qatar or the Gulf that needs strong non-regional allies. The US also needs powerful allies in the Gulf, especially as new conflicts arise and older ones continue.

The US cannot avoid fighting too many wars alone, not least because of public opinion at home. The power dimensions in US-Gulf foreign relations, though far from equal have indeed shifted, putting the Gulf on a much higher scale than before. The misconception that the US is here only to protect Qatar and the Gulf is now somewhat challenged because the US also needs Qatar in order to pursue its interests and maintain allies with power checks and balances in the region. It is a relationship of equal power interests.

The decision also comes at a time when the US government claims to be reducing its military involvement in the region, as witnessed in Afghanistan. Since Qatar has been the only ally in the region that has helped the US pull out of Afghanistan, it is not surprising that the MNNA status has been granted. Clearly, it is not that the US military presence in the region has decreased; it is simply being re-directed to more stable allies.

Qatar’s role in Mediation and Conflict Resolution

Doha has served as the major mediator between America and the Taliban and Hamas in the past. The mediation efforts with the Taliban successfully led to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Ironically, the very reason for which Qatar was ostracised during the blockade is the reason why it became a MNNA. This is a major indicator of the success of Qatar’s foreign policy during the blockade. In the aftermath of the Gulf Crisis, the Biden administration must realise that the regional conflicts, which the US is responsible for starting, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, can only be solved through regional actors such as Qatar. This is not only due to the strategic location of Qatar and US military support, but also the socio-cultural and regional ties between the Qatar and conflict zones. Additionally, Qatar is home to the largest and most important US airbase in the Middle East – Al Udeid, which served as a key facility in the evacuation of US and allies’ citizens from Afghanistan. Qatar also welcomed many Afghan refugees and housed them generously before their transitions to other countries.

Elsewhere, Qatar has maintained assistance to Gaza and the wider Palestinian population while the Trump administration banned it. With its solid diplomatic ties with Iran, Qatar is well positioned to serve as a major player in future negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Given its successes as a peace broker, the MNNA designation can be seen as a token of recognition. It underlines Qatar’s potential to become, like Switzerland is in Europe, a state whose foreign policy is guided by neutrality.

Post Blockade- Reconfiguration of Regional Interests 

The end of the blockade confirmed Qatar’s resilience and strategic foreign policy through which it was able to build alliances with Turkey, Europe and Asia. Moreover, it used the crisis to configure alternate travel and trade routes. Throughout, Qatar’s lobbying efforts proved more successful than those of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. At the end of the blockade, regional relationships were more or else restored, at least on the political and economic fronts. Qatar has emerged as a powerful regional player that did not give in to regional bullying, but was able to stand its ground when its sovereignty was threatened. Qatar’s successful management of the Gulf crisis has earned it a better image and stronger international legitimacy. Regionally, it was able to diversify alliances and bilateral relationships, which now makes it well-equipped to be at the forefront of the new era of Middle Eastern politics.

In politics there are no permanent friends or permanent interests; the MNNA is more than just a ‘friendly’ gesture towards Qatar from US. It is the recognition and confirmation that the Biden administration wants to re-configure and re-direct US foreign policy in the region, working through and for their allies. Therefore, it is not just a question of what Qatar gains from this MNNA but more importantly, what does this tell us about the US’ shifting foreign policy towards the larger Middle East?

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