Qatar: The Gulf’s New Interlocutor

In recent months, the United States has relied on one if its allies in the Persian Gulf to play an outsized diplomatic role. Qatar, the gas-rich country with approximately 300,000 citizens against whom its Gulf allies maintained a 43-month blockade, finds itself in an advantageous position. As an expert on Gulf politics observed, the small nation has “always wanted to be a global power…”. Qatar, this analyst continued, is “presenting itself as a regional lynchpin for global politics and diplomacy.” This is coming at a particularly opportune time for the United States, which cooperates closely with Qatar on a wide range of regional and global issues.

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The United States and Qatar established diplomatic relations in 1972, after Qatar won its independence from the United Kingdom in 1971. The United States and Qatar maintain a close, cooperative relationship. On a recent trip to Qatar, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that the “partnership between Qatar and the United States has never been stronger.” For one, Qatar hosts the largest military base in the Middle East. Qatar also serves as a staging site for air operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Beyond that, the Qataris maintain ties with a range of Islamist groups, including Hamas in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In fact, it is Qatar’s close ties to two American adversaries – the Taliban and Iran – that are proving advantageous to the United States. Qatar is now playing a critical role as the Gulf’s newest interlocutor, in what Qatar calls preventive diplomacy. However, despite Qatar’s ambitious objective of being a global power, its efforts reinforce its position of a regional, not global, power.

The Host

When the government collapsed and the Taliban quickly re-gained control of Afghanistan in mid-August, the United States and its allies were caught off-guard. In a mad rush to evacuate its own citizens, Afghan allies, the United States quickly turned to Qatar for assistance in the face of the Taliban takeover. The United States is also looking to Qatar to serve as a go-between between the Taliban and the rest of the world, as Qatar is seen as the only party with the necessary relations and influence to keep the Taliban engaged.

Qatar has maintained ties to the militant group for years, as the tiny Gulf nation hosted Taliban political leadership in its capital, Doha, as well as serving as the location for negotiations between the United States, Afghan government, and the Taliban. Thus far, Qatar has pressed the Taliban to accept a compromise over who will operate the international airport in Kabul and has urged the Taliban to form an inclusive government, incorporating various Afghan parties. In its efforts to act as an intermediary between the United States and the Taliban, Qatar is certainly proving its regional diplomatic value and dexterity.

The Mediator

Qatar is also attempting to play a mediator role between two of its closest allies who happen to be ardent adversaries: the United States and Iran. Specifically, Qatar advocates that the United States and Iran should both return to compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the breakthrough agreement between Iran and several world powers in July 2015 that dismantles much of Iran’s nuclear program. Qatar is motivated to quell any friction between the United States and Iran as “an outright conflict between Iran and the U.S. will put Qatar on the frontlines.”

Despite its restored relations with its Gulf Arab neighbors, Qatar maintains ties with Iran. The two nations share an oil field, making cooperation on such issues is almost obligatory. Beyond that, Qatar preserves an intelligence relationship with Iran. This level of cooperation caused tension with its Gulf Arab neighbors, who view Iran as a primary threat. During the nearly four year blockade of Qatar, which ended in January of this year, Qatar’s Gulf Arab allies, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, demanded that Qatar reduce its cooperation with Iran. Yet, Qatar’s close relations with Iran, much like its ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan, have allowed the tiny Gulf state to play, as some would argue, an outsized diplomatic role in facilitating talks between the United States and Iran, though on the regional level.

Conclusion

Qatar has received international requests and recognition for its recent diplomatic efforts. The Gulf state has long wished to be a global power and is using its close ties with the Taliban to evacuate American and Western citizens as well as Afghan allies from the country. Qatar is also serving as an interlocutor between the Taliban and the rest of the world due to its influence over the Afghan militant group. Qatar is attempting to play a mediator role between the United States and Iran as well, working to coax both parties back into compliance with the JCPOA. Yet, while both efforts have earned Qatar the international recognition it craves, its mediation skills are positioning Qatar as the go-to mediator in the Middle East. While Qatar’s ambitions may be global, its power, for now, is on a regional scale.  

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