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The Motives and Significance of Designating Qatar a Major Non-NATO Ally

Joe Biden’s administration has expanded the list of major non-NATO allies, officially adding Qatar to it under presidential decree issued by the White House on 11 March, enabling Doha to join the short list of major non-NATO allies, comprising 19 countries to become the third Arab government to enjoy this privileged position –after Kuwait and Bahrain– that gives it military and financial advantages not gained by non-NATO members. The decree was enforced by Biden in the authority vested in him as President by the US constitution and the laws of the United States of America and by section 517 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. In many respects, the designation can be seen as an indirect recognition of the roles Doha played in the Afghanistan evacuations and during the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, bearing symbolic connotations related to the deepening of security and trade cooperation with Doha, without providing it the protection guarantees enjoyed by the NATO members.

Notably, the day before the visit of the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to Washington and his meeting with President Joe Biden on 30 January, where Biden declared for the first time his intention to grant Doha this designation, an agreement was announced under which Qatar would buy up to 102 aircraft, with a total value of $34 billion. This deal is envisaged to boost the civil aviation industry, upgrade hundreds of small businesses that feed the Boeing supply chains, benefit the US suppliers in 38 states, generate about 35,000 jobs, and stimulate nearly $2.6 billion annually in the US economy.

Political and Military Dynamics

Qatar enjoys several advantages that qualify it to become a major partner for the United States and protector of the US interests in the Middle East. These advantages include:

• Serving as a Forward and Logistical Base for the US Forces in the Region: Qatar has gained its significance as a strategic partner for the United States after housing Al Udeid Air Base, the largest in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean basin, with hosts about 13,000 troops and is considered pivotal to Washington’s strategic position in the Middle East. Al Udeid served as a main base for US stationing in the Gulf region and balancing the Iranian presence as well as a platform for launching tens of thousands of military operations against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. The base also played important roles in the various stages of the US operations inside Afghanistan and Iraq without any restrictions from Qatar that would have imposed a great challenge on the continuation of US forces’ activity in the region. The $8 billion Qatari investment in the base since 2003 has contributed to expanding the base’s logistical capabilities that include the US Central Command’s forward headquarters, the Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center, the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Syria (CJIATF-S), and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing. Doha also served as a logistical resupply hub for US Navy ships and provided support to Naval Combined Task Force 152, a multilateral regional maritime security arrangement in the Gulf.

Additionally, Qatar and the United States maintain defense cooperation that has formed a solid basis for their relationship. In 2013, the two countries renewed a ten-year defense cooperation agreement and, in 2014, Doha signed an $11 billion contract to purchase Apache attack helicopters and other air defense systems from the United States.  In 2016, Washington agreed to sell 72 F-15QA fighter jets to Qatar in a deal worth $21.1 billion, in addition to providing training for Qatari armed forces on how to use them.

• Looking out for US Interests: Doha has gone beyond its logistical role to become a valuable diplomatic player to the US foreign policy in the region. Perhaps Qatar’s most important role in this respect was its role in the US evacuation from Afghanistan. It capitalized on its good relations with the Taliban to establish itself as a link between Washington and Kabul.

In early 2010, it hosted Taliban representatives to negotiate a peace and prisoner exchange agreement between the Taliban and the United States. Following that, Qatar facilitated several rounds of negotiations between the Taliban, the United States, and the Afghan government, which gave rise to a peace agreement between Washington and the Taliban in February 2020.

Following the US withdrawal and Taliban’s takeover of power in Kabul, Qatar’s position became more significant to the United States that does not have diplomatic relations with the Taliban government and has interests in evacuating its nationals and the Afghan citizens who worked with the US forces and providing humanitarian aid. Doha has proven to be an important partner in supporting the evacuation efforts. During the first two weeks after the US withdrawal, 113,500 US citizens, Green card holders, and citizens of other countries were airlifted from Afghanistan to Qatar, and from there they continued their journey to the United States and other countries. However, since September, flights have been constrained due to Taliban’s restrictions on departures, a situation that has been resolved only recently.

Beyond this, since November 2021, the Qatari embassy in Kabul has formally represented the US diplomatic interests in Afghanistan, which makes it a partner in managing the future of relations between Washington and Kabul. Further, the Qatari government provided Afghanistan with some humanitarian and relief aid and agreed with Turkey to operate five joint airports in Afghanistan, including in Kabul. In this sense, Washington greatly appreciates the Qatari endeavors, which contributed to saving the Biden administration the political embarrassment after it was heavily criticized for its chaotic withdrawal.

Moreover, Qatar gained its importance as a regional ally due to its role in managing the sensitive situation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza under a US cover-up. Qatar provided financial aid to Gaza amounting to millions of dollars over many years, part of which was assigned for fuel supplies, reconstruction or aid to citizens, and the payment of salaries for about 50,000 employees of the Hamas-run government which was temporarily suspended after renewed clashes between Israel and Hamas until September 2021 when new arrangements were negotiated with Egypt under which Doha would send Gaza $10 million worth of Egyptian fuel annually which Hamas could resell to help cover salaries. This financial aid serves the Israeli interests by averting a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, thus reducing the chances of a new uprising or war in Gaza.

The Iranian issue and the nuclear negotiations is a third area for alliance between Doha and Washington by Qatar acting as a back channel with Tehran when required. Since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, Qatar has played a critical role in mediating between the United States and Iran to revive the nuclear agreement, given Qatar’s political acceptability to Iran due to their tangled economic interests, evidenced by their shared gas field and Iran serving as Qatar’s gateway to the outside world during the Arab Quartet boycott and the imposition of an air, sea, and land embargo on shipping routes to and from Qatar.

Perhaps the visit of Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani and his talks with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a few days before Sheikh Tamim’s visit to the United States and Abdollahian’s visit to Doha on 11 January, comes within Doha’s ongoing efforts to de-escalate tensions between Washington and Tehran and act as a reliable mediator to convey messages between the parties. Seemingly, the thorny issue of the Americans imprisoned in Iran has been a major topic on the agenda of the recent back and forth exchanges. While such conversations have been separate from the nuclear negotiations that entered their final stages, the United States Special Representative for Iran Robert Malley believes that “it is impossible to imagine a nuclear deal with Iran if detained Americans are not released.” Probably Qatar’s successful diplomacy in the 2014 US-Taliban prisoner exchange qualifies it to be named for leading these efforts.

Adopting Foreign Policy Based on Mediation: In his speech at the opening session of the first elected Shura council on 26 October 2021, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani formulated the broad strokes of a foreign policy commensurate with the size of Qatar, its geographical location, and wealth” that enables it to serve as “hub for dialogue and peaceful resolution of disputes”, noting that Qatar “does not seek to compete with or emulate anyone, but rather to adhere to dialogue as an alternative to wars, and the option of mediation in resolving conflicts,” showing pragmatic ability in adapting to the transformations of the global and regional systems.

Washington’s Motives

The timing of the US decision designating Qatar as a major non-NATO ally carries many implications, particularly it came amid expectations of an imminent Russian military invasion of Ukraine (has already been mounted on 24 February), that was projected to give rise to shifts in the structure of the international system that will reflect back on the regional security equation. Overall, Washington’s motives for making the decision can be summarized as follows:

Reliance on Lesser Powers: With the declining priority of the Middle East in the US global strategy and the US pivot to East Asia, the US foreign policy is facing a huge challenge pertaining to protecting its interests in the Middle East, a challenge that requires the reformulation of its foreign policy towards greater reliance on smaller regional partners to manage its interests, especially with the continuation of existing conflicts, the emergence of new ones, the inability of the successive US administrations to make a real breakthrough in them, and the US’ recognition of the fact that regional conflicts can only be resolved through regional players. Here, Qatar stands out as an ideal ally given its close ties with the active actors in the conflict areas such as the Taliban, Hamas, IS, Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the two regional powers, i.e. Iran and Turkey, its diplomatic success in mediating between the United States and those actors, and its regional and geographical engagement with the conflict areas. As such, the US designation of Qatar as a non-NATO ally is more of a strategic cover for the United States and a hedge against the political risks surrounding Qatar’s roles, e.g. boycott of the Arab Quartet.

Curtailing the Chinese Presence in the Gulf: For Beijing, the GCC countries are important trading partners for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Saudi Arabia and the UAE host the bulk of the BRI’s supply chain in the region in the form of industrial complexes and ports in which Beijing invests considerably. Given the growing common interests between China and the Gulf countries, Beijing signed inclusive partnerships with Gulf countries while its relations with Qatar remained restricted to trade and energy only. Since the Chinese investments in Qatar aren’t part of the BRI, the United States sees this as breaking the Chinese-Gulf integration cycle.

Serving US Interests in Eurasia: Since the United States aims at establishing new international transport routes to the Central Asia that do not go through Russia, Afghanistan becomes of  central importance to the United States, being a transit country linking the five republics of the former Soviet Union and Pakistan, down to Pakistani ports on the coastline along the Arabian Sea, thus linking the United States to the outside world –a strategic goal enshrined in the United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025 (the fourth objective of which provides for encouraging connectivity between Central Asia and Afghanistan through developing closer ties with Afghanistan across the energy, economic, cultural, trade, and security fields that directly contribute to regional stability) and underscored in the C5+1 summit (diplomatic summit that has been held every year since 2015 between the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with the United States Secretary of State). Doha maintains special diplomatic channels with Afghanistan, which qualifies it to act as a bridge between Washington and Kabul and to serve its strategic interests in Eurasia in the future.

Integration into the European Energy Diversification Strategy: Qatar is the second largest leading liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter in the world, controlling 22 percent of the natural gas market and 12 percent of the pipeline transport (up to 72 carriers); so, Washington looks forward to Qatar’s contribution in providing the US’s European allies with natural gas if Russia imposes any restrictions on gas flows. Despite Qatar’s limited immediate capacity with its production levels reaching its peaks and its lack of contractual flexibility to bridge the potential gap in the European market due to its long-term contracts with Asian partners including Japan, South Korea, China, and India, it is qualified to become a potential gas supplier within the European energy diversification strategy aimed at reducing dependence on Russian imports, particularly given Qatar’s plans to increase its production of LNG by 64 percent by 2027 through the North Field expansion project. Qatar’s designation as a major non-NATO ally to provide guarantees that offset the potential political risks in case Qatar followed this trend.

Doha Gains

While the designation of Qatar as a major non-NATO ally doesn’t mark a qualitative shift in Qatar’s partnership with the United States, being a country that has already maintained a privileged position since the US President Joe Biden came to the White House, it offers some advantages, including:

Promoting Qatar’s Regional Position: This designation makes Qatar an important partner of the United States and a sponsor of its interests, a position that renders it central in the US strategic landscape, promotes its strategic positioning with other US allies in the region and beyond, enables it to hedge against the volatile economic environment, ensuring its security and stability, and reinforces its presence on the international arena enabling it to play active roles in some regional or international issues with Middle Eastern dimensions, promoting its role in negotiations with groups that the United States cannot engage with directly, and allowing it to play broader mediation in the region by agreement with Washington.

Access to Military Privileges: While the designation of Qatar as a non-NATO ally does not entail any US defense obligations towards it, the decision grants it several security advantages that non-NATO countries do not enjoy, including stockpiling advanced US military equipment, weapons, and ammunition on its territory and outside US military installations, benefiting from exemptions of the US Arms Export Control Act (AECA) that NATO member states enjoy, with preferential access to US military equipment and technology, conducting cooperative research and development projects with the United States on defense equipment and ammunition, receiving $3 million for counterterrorism research with a focus on surveillance technologies, purchasing depleted uranium ammunition that is used to coat armor, and gaining preferential access to military and commercial space technologies that will create multi-million-dollar business opportunities for Qatari defense companies in the maintenance and repair of US weapons platforms, and giving priority to cooperation in training.

Additionally, the designation gives Qatar priority to obtain the US excess defense articles, meaning purchasing the second-hand military equipment that has gone out of service. While these advantages do not represent a huge gain for Qatar, which has significant military cooperation with the United States, they could be particularly useful in accelerating the $500 million MQ-9 Reaper drones deal that has been on hold for two years and facilitating cooperation with NATO members, modernizing its army in line with NATO forces. Closer relations with European NATO partners will mean greater political value of those purchases.

However, the designation isn’t likely to accelerate –at least in the short term–the F-35 fighter deal. There are still many political and technical obstacles that prevent selling this fighter model to Qatar, particularly since the approval system that governs the sale of advanced equipment to any foreign country is subject to the authority of several separate specialized committees, each of which must separately agree to transferring crypto-related, advanced radar, and missiles beyond optical range (capable of engaging targets located at more than 20 nautical miles) technologies to other countries. Overall, these committees have cyber concerns about Qatar’s rejection of US demands of cutting ties with Chinese technology companies, particularly Huawei, that provides Qatar with 5G network coverage. 

In conclusion, the US designation of Qatar as a major non-NATO ally promotes Doha-Washington strategic relations, at the security, political, military, and economic levels. However, such designation is not projected to end Qatar’s relations with China and Russia, where the country’s foreign policy adopted since Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani took power in 19995 has been based on fostering relations with polarized parties, enabling it to expand the margin of maneuver and play on contradictions.

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