By: Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Qatar has fostered a close security partnership with the United States while engaging with a wide range of actors who are often at odds with each other, including some Sunni Islamists, Iran and Iran-backed groups, and Israeli officials.
Some of Qatar’s fellow GCC and Arab states object to Qatar’s independent foreign policy and the criticism of Arab leaders often seen on its Al Jazeera media network. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, joined by Egypt and a few other governments, severed relations with Qatar and imposed limits on the entry and transit of Qatari nationals and vessels in their territories, waters, and airspace. The Trump Administration sought a resolution of the dispute, in part because the rift was hindering U.S. efforts to formalize a broad front of Arab states to counter Iran. Following its Arab neighbors’ actions, Qatar deepened relations with Turkey and Iran. On January 5, 2021, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt agreed to lift the blockade and restore ties, although the UAE although lingering resentments remain, and the UAE and Bahrain have not reopened their embassies in Doha. Like other GCC leaders, Qatar’s leaders work with the United States to secure the Persian Gulf and the broader region.
Since1992, the United States and Qatar have had a formal Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) that reportedly addresses a U.S. troop presence in Qatar, consideration of U.S. arms sales to Qatar, U.S. training, and other defense cooperation. In January 2018, Qatar and the United States inaugurated a “Strategic Dialogue” to institutionalize joint discussions on security and stability in the region. Qatar is a significant buyer of U.S.-made weaponry, including combat aircraft. In 2017, the United States and Qatar signed a broad memorandum of understanding to cooperate against international terrorism. In recognition of Qatar’s support for U.S. policy, during the visit to Washington, DC of Qatar’s leader on January 31, 2022, President Biden announced that Qatar would be designated as a Major Non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Ally.
Qatari military facilities, including the large Al Udeid Air Base, host the regional headquarters for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and about 8,000 U.S. forces deployed there participate in operations throughout the region. Al Udeid Air Base was used extensively in the U.S. operation to evacuate U.S. personnel and Afghan allies from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021.
Qatar has been active as a mediator between the international community and the Taliban regime there, and Doha has served as the temporary location for a U.S. embassy to Afghanistan after U.S. Embassy Kabul closed in the course of the U.S. withdrawal.
Qatar’s record on human rights and political freedoms is mixed. The voluntary relinquishing of power in 2013 by Qatar’s former leader marked a departure from GCC patterns of governance in which leaders generally remain in power for life or are removed by rival members of the ruling family. Apparently out of concern for widening divisions in Qatari society and politics, Qatar delayed holding elections for a legislative body for several years, but the first vote for 30 out of 45 seats of the Shura Council (Consultative Council) was held on October 2, 2021. U.S. and international reports, which are scrutinizing
Qatar in advance of its hosting of the World Cup soccer tournament in October 2022, criticize Qatar for not adhering to international standards of labor rights practices, but credit it for taking steps to improve the conditions for expatriate workers.
As have other GCC states, Qatar has wrestled with volatility in prices of its oil exports and changes in international gas markets, as well as the economic effects of measures taken to mitigate spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Qatar shares with virtually all the other GCC states a reliance on revenues from sales of hydrocarbon products. However, Qatar has been able to weather economic headwinds because of its small population, substantial financial reserves, and its favorable business conditions for entrepreneurs. On December 3, 2018, Qatar withdrew from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), stating that it wanted to focus on its natural gas export sector; Qatar has the third largest proven reserves of natural gas in the world. U.S. officials reportedly are urging Qatar to increase supplies of natural gas to European
Union countries, which have articulated an intention to reduce their dependence on supplies from Russia.
A Congressional Caucus on Qatari-American Strategic Relationships remains active. In recent years, many Members of Congress have visited Qatar to attend regional security conferences and to conduct oversight of U.S. regional policy and U.S. military operations in Qatar.