New Qatari prime minister means new opportunities

New Qatari prime minister means new opportunities
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The appointment of American-educated Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz al-Thani as prime minister of Qatar reinforces the importance to the United States of the desert emirate. The former prime minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser, resigned last week, possibly over policy differences with the country’s ruler, Emir Tamim bin Hamad. Khalid’s previous position was running Tamim’s private office, or diwan. He also has served as the first deputy minister for foreign affairs and as the head of the national gas company. Like Tamim, both prime ministers are members of the al Thani family that has ruled Qatar since its independence in 1971.

Qatar is an important ally of the United States. It is the home of the U.S. Central Command’s forward operating base at al Udeid Air Base. An estimated 10,000 American troops maintain and fly F-22 fighters and B-52 bombers over Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan from there. The Qatari government values the American presence so highly that it is paying for modernization of the air base, to the tune of $1.8 billion. It will continue to house American forces for the next 20 years, according to a military agreement the United States and Qatar concluded last year.

Other NATO allies, concerned over the safety of energy shipping lanes, have joined the American troops. Great Britain sold Qatar 24 Typhoon Jets to create a joint U.K.-Qatari Typhoon squadron that will be operational in time for the 2022 World Cup games. In November 2019, France signed a bilateral agreement that authorizes the deployment of French troops in the country. Turkey has also constructed a base in Qatar to hold 5,000 of its troops.

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Qatar is also a major purchaser of American military equipment. In the summer of 2018, it purchased 36 F-15 fighter jets for $12 billion. While Qatar has flirted with Russia over buying the S-400 missile air defense system, it has not gone further than evaluating the Russian sales proposal. Qatar is an important energy producer, sharing with Iran the largest natural gas field in the world. Already the world’s leading producer of liquified natural gas, it recently announced it was increasing production over 60 percent, from 77 million tons to 126 million tons by 2027.

The country is not without its detractors. Qatar is the home of Al Jazeera, the controversial radio and television network that blankets the Middle East. Voices that criticize Saudi Arabia for the Khashoggi killing, such as U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard and a U.S. law firm, are featured in the news coverage. And a 2017 dispute over an Al Jazeera story involving Iran led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to cut diplomatic ties with the country. 

Conservatives in the U.S., such as former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonChina sees chance to expand global influence amid pandemic Trump ignores science at our peril Bolton defends decision to shutter NSC pandemic office MORE, have criticized the country for providing support to Muslim Brotherhood offshoots such as Hamas. Bolton is on record as stating the Brotherhood should be declared a terrorist organization, but he also stated that Qatar was being unfairly singled out for criticism. Israel has given the green light to Qatar’s providing financial assistance to Hamas in the Gaza Strip — $1 billion since 2012.  As recently as a week ago, Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarThe Hill's 12:30 Report: House to vote on .2T stimulus after mad dash to Washington Conservative lawmakers tell Trump to 'back off' attacks on GOP colleague Lawmakers highlight flights back to DC for huge coronavirus vote MORE (R-Ariz.) tweeted a video of Bolton visiting Qatar.

Qatar also has maintained diplomatic and economic relations with groups such as the Taliban and with countries such as Iran. This has made it the target of conservative criticism. Contrary to the naysayers, however, Qatar has used these connections in a way that has benefited American foreign policy, helping to bring the United States and the Taliban into direct peace talks, in an effort to end America’s longest war. Qatar also used its contacts with Tehran to diffuse tensions after the United States killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.  

Qatar has close ties with Turkey. When the Gulf monarchies embargoed Qatar, Turkey sent cargo planes full of food and other goods. In return, Qatar propped up the Turkish lira when it faced devaluation in 2018. Qatar supports Turkey’s efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in northeastern Syria, and its ties to Ankara could be a lifeline for the rest of the NATO alliance as relations fray.

No two countries’ national interests align perfectly, and the United States and Qatar do not see eye to eye on every issue. The appointment of a new prime minister from Pacific Lutheran University, however, is an opportunity to work with a trusted aide to the emir who knows the United States.

James J. Coyle, Ph.D., served in a number of positions in the U.S. government, including as director of Middle East Studies, U.S. Army War College. He is the author of “Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts.”