Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is set to visit the White House this week for his first in-person meeting with US President Joe Biden, as analysts say the Gulf country again finds itself uniquely situated to play a critical role in United States foreign policy.
Topping the agenda on Monday’s meeting, according to the White House, will be efforts to ensure “the stability of global energy supplies”, a not-so-veiled reference to fever-pitched tensions with Russia over Ukraine that could see Europe seek new avenues for its hefty natural gas needs.
Qatar, a country of 2.8 million, is the world’s second-largest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG) – just slightly behind the US – and has an outsized influence on the market.
The meeting also comes as the US is searching for a way forward with the Taliban government in Afghanistan, where Doha has served as Washington’s diplomatic representative since November – and as US and Iranian officials say multilateral negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal may be reaching an end game.
Qatar maintains ties with both the US and Iran and, as the host of the US military’s Central Command in the region, has a particularly vested interest in avoiding conflict. The Gulf nation is also preparing to take the global stage when it hosts the 2022 FIFA World Cup in November, an event that has drawn renewed scrutiny of its treatment of migrant workers. The government has pointed to an array of reforms, but rights groups say it has not gone far enough.
“Qatar finds itself at the nexus of the most pressing geopolitical issues of the day at the moment,” Omar Rahman, a Middle East political analyst and former Brookings Institution fellow, told Al Jazeera. “I think the Biden administration wants to discuss their perspective on these issues, as well as finding a way to advance mutual interests.”
The emir’s visit to Washington, DC, comes as most other US foreign policy priorities have taken a back seat to Russia’s buildup of 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, sparking fears of an invasion and provoking a flurry of diplomacy that has seen little progress.
Amid the standoff, the Biden administration has been scrambling to find an energy security plan for Europe, which relies on Russia for around a third of its natural gas supply, according to Reuters, which is used to heat homes and power its industrial and manufacturing sectors.
The crisis comes as natural gas prices remain at record high levels, with global supplies lagging amid the coronavirus pandemic recovery. Last week, the Bloomberg news agency reported the Biden administration has been in talks with Qatar to possibly supply more LNG to the European Union.
Qatar already supplies about 5 percent of the continent’s supply, with analysts saying the Gulf state is currently locked into several long-term export contracts that may make a short-term surge to Europe impossible.
“If there are restraints or limitations that come on Russia’s export of gas, especially to Europe, Qatar is going to become even more relevant and even more key to the global energy supply,” Rahman noted.
When asked about the reports last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to specifically address Qatar, but said the US is “in discussion with major natural gas producers around the globe to understand their capacity and willingness to temporarily surge natural gas output and to allocate these volumes to European buyers”.
Meanwhile, the US has resumed evacuation flights from Afghanistan after a months-long pause, with the Axios news site reporting that Washington hopes to accelerate the evacuation of thousands of vulnerable Afghans left behind when Western countries chaotically withdrew at the end of August 2021.
The first evacuation flight after the pause left Kabul for Doha on Wednesday, the Reuters news agency reported. Qatar, which previously hosted talks between the Taliban and the US that eventually led to a 2020 US troop withdrawal agreement, continues to be a key partner for Washington on the issue.
The situation puts Qatar “back to where [it] wanted to be” as a “flexible, active, useful interlocutor for the United States”, said Tobias Borck, a research fellow for Middle East security studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
“The Afghanistan withdrawal, which was an absolute disaster for most countries, gave Qatar the opportunity to really demonstrate its strength rather impressively, and that was noticed in the US and that was noticed elsewhere, too,” he told Al Jazeera, adding the situation resulted in a long-sought strategic dialogue between the countries in November.
Speaking to reporters in a background briefing on Sunday, a senior Biden administration official again hailed Qatar’s “tremendous assistance” in evacuating and helping to process Afghans evacuated by the US.
The official said the emir and Biden will discuss ongoing work with Qatar to find “ways to support the humanitarian and economic situation in Afghanistan, providing support directly to people without benefiting the Taliban”.
Iran nuclear deal
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani held talks with his counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian in Tehran last week, in what some observers suggested could be related to the emir’s upcoming US visit.
Iran’s state news agency sought to douse the speculation, saying some are “fabricating” that the Tehran meeting is a means to “facilitate direct talks with the United States”.
However, in recent days, US and Iranian officials have voiced openness to meeting directly to discuss a return to the nuclear deal, after months of talks in Vienna between Tehran and the other signatories to the accord.
Last week, White House National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East Brett McGurk said the parties were “in the ballpark” of reaching a deal but said there remains “a very real chance that these talks could collapse very soon”.
Qatar publicly supports a return to the 2015 deal.
During Sunday’s background briefing, a different senior Biden administration official declined to respond to questions on whether Qatar was specifically engaging Iran on a possible prisoner release as part of the nuclear deal.
The official said only that Qatar, “like many other of our partners in the region, are following events – following discussions quite closely”.
The White House visit also represents the first meeting between Qatar’s emir and a US president since the end last year of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis, which began in 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – along with non-GCC member Egypt – imposed a land, air and sea blockade on Qatar.
While regional relations have since improved, the blockade, which saw Qatar turn to its allies across the world, “will impact Qatari foreign policy for decades to come”, Borck said. That was echoed by Rahman, who said its effect would surely inform US-Qatari relations going forward.
“The blockade made the strong relationship with the United States even more imperative than it was before,” he said, “if that’s even possible.”