US President Donald Trump gave a warm White House welcome on Tuesday to the Qatari emir amid an ongoing blockade imposed on the Gulf nation by its Arab neighbours and rising tensions with Iran.
Trump clasped hands with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and called him a friend while recognising the country’s extensive military partnership with the US and billions of dollars in purchases from American companies.
“It’s a great honour to work with a friend,” Trump said.
“They are investing very heavily in our country,” he said. “They’re creating lots of jobs. They’re buying tremendous amounts of military equipment, including planes.”
Five commercial agreements were signed. Qatar Airways is buying five Boeing 777 freighters and large-cabin aircraft from Gulfstream Aerospace and plans to use General Electric Co jet engines to power its Boeing aircraft.
The White House also said the Qatari defence ministry will buy a missile defence system from Raytheon. In addition, Chevron Phillips Chemical and Qatar Petroleum have agreed to jointly develop a $8bn petrochemical plant on the US Gulf Coast.
At a Monday night dinner for the Qatari delegation, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin praised the emir for his help in combatting “terrorist” financing.
The price tags on the other deals – including some that have been previously announced – were not disclosed, but those familiar with the transactions said they totalled tens of billions of dollars.
“This is a president for whom the trading relationship is the way he judges a country’s relationship in many ways. He looks at the balance-sheet,” Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from Washington DC, said.
“This is the way Qatar has been rather skillful in its diplomacy compared with two years ago when the blockade started when it looked like at least some figures in Trump administration were giving a green light to that blockade,” he said.
US allies – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Qatar in June 2017, claiming it supported extremist groups in the region. Qatar has strongly denied these allegations.
“Now you have the emir being feted in Washington at a time when those carrying out the blockade are certainly facing a lot of international criticism for the ongoing war in Yemen and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“For Qatar and the emir, this is a moment where I think he is in a stronger position with the US than any time since president Trump took office.”
The emir’s visit comes at a time when Trump is facing critical decisions in the Middle East.
Iran, which is chaffing under US economic sanctions, has begun enriching uranium in violation of a 2015 nuclear deal.
The deal has been unraveling since Trump pulled the US out of the agreement last year. Finding ways to counter Iran will be a priority when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with the emir on Wednesday.
Qatar, which has one of the world’s highest per capita incomes due to its natural gas reserves, has worked to open up other avenues of income to offset the impact of the boycott.
“We have a lot of investments in the US,” Sheikh Tamim said. “We trust the economy here. We do a lot on infrastructure and we’re planning to do more investment,” he said.
The four Arab nations aligned against Qatar have also pointed to Doha’s close relationship with Iran. Qatar restored full diplomatic ties to Iran amid the dispute.
Majed al-Ansari, a professor at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera that the US wanted to keep pushing for a resolution to the Gulf dispute without any further escalation in the region.
“What the White House would like to do now is not to get tangled in the GCC crisis and give every player in the game the correct amount of interest in the region,” he said, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members include Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
Qatar is home to the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command. The sprawling Al Udeid Air Base is home to some 10,000 American troops.
Last month, nearly a dozen Air Force F-22 stealth fighters were deployed there in response to intelligence reports of heightened Iranian threats against American forces in the region.
“They built one of the great military bases I would say anywhere in the world,” Trump said. “It’s just been expanded with runways and everything else.”
A joint statement issued after meeting affirmed the commitment to move ahead with the high-level strategic cooperation between the two countries.
“The United States and Qatar share a history of friendship based on common efforts and mutual respect.
“For decades, the bonds between our great nations have strengthened, reinforcing an increasingly close strategic and defence relationship focused on countering threats to our security, peace, and prosperity.”