Qatar is Back at the Center of International Politics…Again

Qatar yet again finds itself at the center of international politics. In September, this blog argued that the United States relied on Qatar, one of its closest Persian Gulf allies, to play an outsized diplomatic role, serving as a key interlocutor for the Americans in Afghanistan and with Iran. The United States is again reaching out to Qatar – one of the world’s largest gas suppliers. This time, the purpose is to provide natural gas to Europe in the event that Russia decides to reduce gas supplies to the continent in retaliation to the sanctions the United States and its European allies have and will impose on Russia as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.

Let the Talks Begin

Beginning in late January, in anticipation of severe economic sanctions imposed against Russia should it invade Ukraine in the coming weeks, the United States began searching for alternate gas sources for its European allies. As one Biden administration official put it, “We’re looking at what can be done in preparation for an event, especially midwinter with very low [European natural gas] supplies in storage.” As it seemed increasingly likely that Russia would actually invade Ukraine, Europe’s natural gas options became more dire.

The reasons for this are ample. Russia supplies nearly 40% of Europe’s natural gas. That dependence is even higher for Germany, the most powerful country and strongest economy in Europe. Moreover, some countries in Central and Eastern Europe are 100% dependent on Russia for its natural gas needs. The United States, as well as countries on the continent, have long said that Europe needs to reduce its reliance on Russia for its natural gas needs. Further the need for European energy independence from Russia is especially true now in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as Russia has been squeezing gas supplies over the past few months for gain leverage over Europe.

Hit Them High, Hit Them Low

The United States and Europe are hitting Russia hard with economic sanctions, targeting Russian banks and elites while trying to avoid exponentially rising prices. Yet, this Russian leverage over Europe’s energy needs gives Putin a degree of control over European foreign policy, knowing how crucial natural gas imports are to Europe’s survival, and limits how much action Europe is willing to take against Russia’s regional aggression.

While it’s difficult to know how Russian President Vladimir Putin will react, experts portend that he may reduce gas supplies to Europe in retaliation. Even though Russian gas exports are not directly impacted by the sanctions imposed by the West, potential sanctions administered by the United States and Europe are driving gas prices up around the world. Should Russia decide to reduce or even stop gas supplies to Europe, the continent is in danger of suffering the worst energy crisis in recent history.

The Alternate Gas Source

This is where Qatar comes in. In the event that Russia limits or halts gas supplies to Europe in retaliation to Western economic sanctions, the United States set up discussions between Qatar and Europe, including the United Kingdom, to identify “long-term gas supply” solutions. As one official noted, there was “potential a long-term guarantee of [liquefied natural gas] LNG security, especially as Qatar will greatly increase its LNG production over the next few years.”

Together, in an effort to make up the difference in case Russia turns off the gas on Europe or the West imposes sanctions on Gazprom, a Russian state-owned company that is the largest exporter of natural gas to Europe, the Unites and Qatar – a stalwart U.S. ally and the world’s lowest cost producer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) – could export the gas to Europe. U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani at the White House in late January in a bid to discuss such energy supply diversions and designated Qatar as a “major non-NATO ally,” signifying the importance of U.S.-Qatar ties. Qatar – a reliable partner to the West –again finds itself in a position to fulfil a request by its American ally in the middle of an international crisis to help other American allies – Europe. 

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