Qatar and the United States seem to have reaffirmed their friendship in a very chummy session held between Qatar’s Emir and President Obama in which the conversation was wide-ranging but ofcourse focused heavily on Syria.
Certainly in front of the cameras all appeared well, and both the President and the Emir spoke with surprising frankness about the region’s problems. The Emir made his stance clear; Qatar sought the removal of Bashar from Syria and supported the ‘peace process’ between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The former a clear statement of intent, the latter more paying lip service to a moribund and discredited endeavour, no doubt done to keep the administration happy and paint Qatar in a positive light for a questioning American public.
The relationship is multi-faceted, and currently the US possesses the widest footprint of any nation in Qatar in business and defence relationships; but it was not always so. The work of the Americans to try and bring Qatar into their orbit has been sustained and well planned. The previous US Ambassador to Doha James Le Baron was a tour de force of diplomatic endeavour and did much to cement a growing relationship between the two nations over the past five years.
But relationships are more deeply intertwined than that, and Qatar has moved from being seen in US eyes as a recalcitrant pest to being a crucial player in the region. The Al Jazeera network and Qatar’s close ties to Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal have always presented a headache for the US, whose policy towards Hamas was largely governed by its need to align close-to-Israeli thinking on the subject. Famously former Senator, now Secretary of State John Kerry claimed in 2009 “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.” Qatar went ahead and sent the money, and the Americans remained allies.
Strategically, the Al Udeid military base (the headquarters of US CENTCOM) and the increasing importance of Qatar as a regional actor and financial investor in just about everything, have made the relationship closer in recent years. Thus the differences concerning Israel, the occasionally troublesome Al Jazeera network, and Qatar’s hosting and funding of hard-line Islamists have been papered over in favour of larger strategic visions which ensure the interests of both parties.
On the issue of regional security the relationship is more important for the Qataris than it is the Americans. Whilst Qatar requires external protection in order to survive in a world surrounded by much larger states, the US could likely find another partner to help host their regional bases and establish a forward post to deter Iran. However Qatar has acted in a manner since 2011 that has made it a key player in the conversation on regional security.
Three of the region’s most unstable countries Egypt, Libya and Syria have all seen heavy Qatari interference, be it in the form of funding militant groups, direct deployment of forces or huge injections of liquidity. Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al Thani recently claimed that in all three cases Qatar did not seek leadership, but sought to work within a multilateral framework. This is only partly true. Yes - Qatar was hesitant to take the lead in Libya, but has been more than happy to drag unwilling Arab states forward to action in Syria and has taken a strategic choice to prop up Egypt’s failing Muslim Brotherhood led government almost single-handed. Furthermore on the Palestine question, Qatar inserted itself into the conversation with the tool it uses best, money, $450m of it, becoming part of the Israeli Palestinian discussion, much to the chagrin of the US, Israel or the PA.
The concomitant of Qatar taking these positions is that it has become a regional partner for the United States, whether the US wants it to or not. There is little the Americans can do in terms of telling Qatar how it should behave, but the conversation is frank and robust. Qatar’s shoddy handling and control of arms transfers to the rebels in Syria met with American ire and the Qataris understood and took note of the fact that they were causing as much harm as they were good.
Regarding US suspicion concerning Qatar’s sponsorship of Islamists - most informed Americans I have spoken to understand that Qatar, through a mixture of naivety and poor conflict management, got itself stuck in situations that made its actions look very suspicious indeed, particularly in Syria and Libya. There is however much still to be explained regarding its support for some Islamist groups that the US is firmly against, and sees as counter to its interests. I suspect that there will never be a full rapprochement between the US and Qatar on this particular issue, and both will simply have to agree to disagree.
The key in this relationship moving forward is for both countries to remain close, but not too close. An openly tight alliance serves the interests of neither, certainly not if regional perceptions are anything to go by. Qatar appearing an American stooge discredits its ability to work with regional actors, especially Islamists, and for the USA being too close to Qatar upsets those on the right who see Qatar’s interests as counter to democracy and threatening to the State of Israel. A quiet working relationship in which both sides have to look the other way when they annoy each other is the key.