Qatar’s Warmer US Ties Buff Standing Further After World Cup

Doha for Democrats, Riyadh for Republicans.

(Bloomberg) — Doha for Democrats, Riyadh for Republicans.

That’s a joke that circulates around the Gulf, based on the way Qatar has firmed up ties with US President Joe Biden’s administration after his predecessor, Donald Trump, favored stronger relations with Saudi Arabia. One illustration came on Monday, when five American prisoners released by Iran emerged from a plane in Doha to be greeted by Qatari and US officials on the runway.

Qatar had previously become the first Gulf state to open its door to Afghan evacuees when the Taliban regained control two years ago, and remains a go-to place for the US to build bridges in a region fraught with challenges. The energy-rich nation has played a similar role following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with US and European officials travelling to Doha to address fears over gas supply.

Qatar’s economy benefited last year from soaring oil and gas prices and from hosting the football World Cup, though has since slowed. Still, its role in mediating the US-Iran prisoner swap deal has bolstered its international importance once again.

Gulf Boycott

The developments have seen Qatar bounce back from a three-year boycott by its Gulf neighbors that ended in 2021. Not as openly pro-China as some in the region, it’s working to cosy up to the US in a way other Gulf nations are unwilling or have failed to do.

Doha’s ties with Washington have never been so good, according to a diplomat familiar with the relationship. Alliances built on energy and international mediation mean the Qataris aren’t seen by either the US or Europe as problematic regional players, three officials said.

The recent Iran talks “reflect the maturation of Qatari statecraft,” said Bader Al-Saif, an assistant professor at Kuwait University and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Qatar has particularly become a go-to partner for the US because of its reliability, consistency, and willingness to put its weight on the line.”

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For the Americans, Doha is a vital ally. It’s seen as a place to deal with more difficult countries, as it can liaise with both Iran and the Taliban. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi don’t have a similar US relationship, though are seen as useful partnerships for other situations — such as an ongoing effort to improve ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Qatar is also outside of OPEC, which makes for smoother US dealings as the price of crude doesn’t have to be a topic of discussion.

“Qatar wants to prove to the US that the diverse diplomatic relations it has — including those with the Taliban, the Iranian government and Hamas — can be useful for international mediation with win-win outcomes,” said Jane Kinninmont, Middle East analyst at the European Leadership Network, a think-tank focused on foreign, defence and security issues.

Secret Diplomacy

The prisoner swap deal, which saw the Biden administration release five Iranians held in US custody and allow Tehran access to $6 billion in oil revenue frozen by sanctions in part to seek transparency over Iran’s nuclear plans, followed months of mostly secret diplomacy between Tehran and Washington. The US hopes the deal will ease tensions in the Middle East and open space for progress on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Qatar’s approach to international policy reflects the fact that it wants to debunk perceptions that it supports bad actors and even terrorist groups, according to Kinninmont. Doha also needs the US for its own security as relations with larger Arab neighbors have often been difficult, and hosts the US at the Al Udeid Air Base.

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“Those neighbors had accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and demanded it cease all contacts with Iran,” Kinninmont said. “Qatar now feels vindicated as all those neighbors are now engaging with Iran as well.”

Under a Chinese-brokered deal, Saudi Arabia resumed diplomatic ties with regional rival Iran earlier this year, helping to reduce tensions in the oil-exporting region.

But, despite the new spirit of goodwill, there remains mistrust fueled by decades of animosity. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states still view Iran’s efforts to extend its influence and reach from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean via countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Syria as a threat to their national security.

For the Qataris, who share a giant gas field with Iran, maritime security, navigation and maintaining a balance in the region are all priorities. Qatar’s government is viewed internationally as being willing and able to work with any US administration, according to a diplomat familiar with Qatari thinking.

“Reinforcing partnerships with superpowers, increasing its self-sufficiency, and pursuing a less controversial policy with immediate neighbors are all meant to bolster Qatar’s position and reinforce the current de-escalatory trend in the region,” Al-Saif said.

–With assistance from Abeer Abu Omar and Gina Turner.

(Updates with mention of Iran’s nuclear plans in tenth paragraph.)

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