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“Major Non-NATO Ally”: What did Qatar Get in Washington?

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, met with President Joe Biden at the White House on Monday, January 31 – the first Gulf leader and only the second Arab head of state to meet with the president since his inauguration in January 2021. The visit marked a dramatic shift in Qatar’s fortunes; in five years, the small nation ascended from an object of Presidential vitriol to top the list of its friends and allies in the region. Commentators in Washington almost unanimously agreed that the attention showered on Qatar stemmed primarily from Biden’s hope that Qatar could step forward to meet Europe’s energy supply if American sanctions over Ukraine shut down the flow of Russian gas. With Russia supplying roughly 40 percent of the EU’s natural gas requirements, a complete shutdown would devastate the European economy. European leaders know, but rarely mention, the fact that the United States, with the world’s largest natural gas production capacity, remains largely insulated from a major supply crisis. Such a crisis would also produce a windfall for U.S. gas exporters if Washington had the capacity to fill the gap, which it currently does not. If deterrence failed, NATO solidarity would come at a high price for Europe; therefore, the U.S. sought to increase European confidence that Russian gas could be replaced in an emergency, and, so the logic went, consequently reached out to Qatar.

However, Washington’s pundit class was largely blindsided when, instead of pressing Qatar to export gas to Europe, Biden announced that he would designate Qatar as a “Major Non-NATO Ally” (MNNA) in recognition of the “strategic partnership between the United States and Qatar, which has deepened over the past 50 years.” During the two leaders’ meeting, gas for Europe was mentioned only in passing, when Biden tasked Sheikh Tamim with “ensuring the stability of energy supplies.” By contrast, the White House offered lavish praise for Qatar Airways’ decision to enter into a $20 billion contract with Boeing, which it noted would “support tens of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs.”

With a more nuanced level of analysis, it should come as little surprise that neither leader mentioned the prospect of Qatari liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies backfilling NATO countries, thus permitting U.S. sanctions to shut down Russian oil and gas exports with minimal danger to Europeans’ livelihoods. Although Qatar alternates with the U.S. and Australia as the principal exporter of LNG worldwide, it lacks both excess capacity and contractual flexibility to fill the EU’s potential gap. America’s LNG exporters source their product from hundreds of separate producing companies, large and small, and sell their LNG on short-term contracts and the nascent spot market. Qatar’s business model is very different: it draws on a single source of natural gas, the immense North Dome field, and has already arranged to sell most of its exports in long-term contracts with fewer but very large customers, including Japan, Korea, China, and India. The United States would have a very hard time persuading those countries to allow Qatar to shift its contracted shipments to Europe at great cost to their own economies.

Big Label, Small Substantive Changes

What, in fact, does Qatar gain from its designation as a major non-NATO ally? The State Department’s website describes the status as a “designation under U.S. law that provides foreign partners with certain benefits in the areas of defense trade and security cooperation” and as a “powerful symbol of the close relationship the United States shares with those countries and demonstrates our deep respect for the friendship for the countries to which it is extended.” It also lists eight specific privileges awarded to MNNA countries – even though Qatar already enjoyed each of those privileges prior to its designation. Indeed, the operating word in the label appears to be “Non-NATO”; the last statement on the website comes in the form of a pointed disclaimer that, “While MNNA status provides military and economic privileges, it does not entail any security commitments to the designated country.”

Reviewing the list of the seventeen other countries that have achieved MNNA status since its institution in 1987 – Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Tunisia – one is hard pressed to find a common denominator of qualification; it appears that Qatar’s approval came on the basis of its own unique merits. While the title resulted in few immediate tangible benefits, it is a powerful piece of political symbolism that carries a great deal of gravitas. However, symbolism only goes so far; the “non-NATO” disclaimer exists to remind an MNNA country not to overplay its hand.

Deserved or otherwise, Qatar’s MNNA status appears to have been largely the result of its political support for America’s regional interests. Qatar has long hosted the Al-Udeid Air Base, the single most important American base in the Middle East and Indian Ocean basin. To Washington’s delight, Qatar has imposed virtually no restrictions on American operations from Al-Udeid. Without the base and the freedom to operate, the U.S. military would have a far greater challenge maintaining its presence in the region. Almost as important, U.S. policymakers have also appreciated the political risks Qatar took when it agreed to host CENTCOM’s headquarters at Al-Udeid. Adding to Qatar’s unique status, CENTCOM, alone among all eleven major U.S. commands, has its headquarters in a country with which the United States does not have a formal defense treaty relationship. The past four U.S. presidents, in one way or another, have taken note of this singularity. In return for its assistance to Washington, Qatar gains protection, access to U.S. leaders and information, and a measure of prestige.

What’s in it for the United States?

The U.S. government may also have seen the designation as part of giving Qatar political cover from its regional rivals for the risks it has taken in dealing with several rather unsavory groups on behalf of U.S. interests. Qatar’s financial assistance to Gaza in coordination with the Israelis, its role in brokering prisoner exchanges between the U.S. and terrorist groups, its hosting of Taliban representatives in talks with the U.S., and its access to and influence in Tehran as the U.S. seeks to reinstate the “JCPOA” nuclear agreement, have led Qatar’s neighbors to view it with deep suspicion because of its growing role in aiding the U.S. foreign policy. With this context, some observers have opined that the MNNA designation represented a warning to Qatar’s neighbors, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, that Qatar is off-limits. Others have noted that this designation increases Qatar’s leverage in negotiations with groups that the United States cannot deal with directly, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. All have agreed that Qatar earned appreciation among a broad cross-section of the American government for its considerable assistance during the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan in August 2021. It also suggests that Biden wishes to provide strategic cover for the ally on whom it appears to depend on the most if Washington decided to reduce its footprint in the Gulf and “pivot” eastwards.

A few experts have argued that the Biden administration has prioritized its interest in Qatar because of Qatar’s cordial relationship with Iran. According to this logic, the Biden administration believes it can improve its position with Iran, facilitate cooperation in the JCPOA negotiations, and help to mend ties with the Islamic Republic by leveraging Qatar. On the other hand, this position arguably overstates Qatar’s influence in Iran; Doha and Tehran have their differences, too, and Iran is unlikely to abandon its antagonism toward the United States simply because of a mutual ally.

Finally, although seventeen other countries enjoy MNNA status, it is worth noting that the UAE and Saudi Arabia, two of Washington’s most valuable partners in the Middle East, are conspicuously absent from the list. Conferring MNNA status on Qatar could thus also constitute a subtle insult for these two nations, each Qatar’s neighbors, and the leaders of the 2017-2021 blockade against it. To many Americans’ anger, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi continue to actively participate in the brutal civil war in Yemen, a wildly unpopular misadventure and a quagmire from which Qatar withdrew more than two years ago. Nor has Saudi Crown Mohammed bin Salman yet managed to put behind him the brazen murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – a murder which led Biden to denounce Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” during his run for president, although he has been a great deal more pragmatic in his relationship with Riyadh inside the Oval Office.

Tangible Rewards Already Pocketed

As noted earlier, Qatar’s gains from MNNA status are purely symbolic. Of the more tangible privileges that MNNA nations receive, perhaps the most important is greater military cooperation with the United States – but it does not appear that this will add much to Qatar’s already quite extensive mil-to-mil cooperation with the U.S. MNNA status also allows for the country in question to gain access to other security cooperation programs such as cooperative research and development, that Qatar has long sought but to which it has a limited capacity to access.  MNNA-conferred priority for obtaining U.S. “excess defense articles” – a euphemism for purchasing used equipment that the U.S. military has retired for pennies on the dollar – is of little value to Qatar, which can afford current top-of-the-line equipment. Qatar’s neighbor Bahrain, which enjoys MNNA status, obtained a batch of used Humvees through the program that it could not have otherwise financed on its own, but this is not a problem facing Qatar. Qatar already enjoys all the other MNNA-provided privileges or does not need them.

One unwritten but tangible advantage that MNNA status confers is easier cooperation with NATO members. This perk could be of use to Doha, which has sought for some time to align its military more closely with NATO’s. Qatar buys a great deal of European military equipment, and closer relations with European NATO partners would increase the political value of those procurements.

The F-35

Finally, one could read the MNNA in such a way as to suggest that Qatar’s new status will facilitate its procurement of the F-35 advanced fighter, a request that Qatar has made in the past – so far without success. However, despite Qatar’s new status, the dynamics surrounding its potential purchase of the F-35 have remained unchanged. Qatar’s initial request to purchase the F-35 came after President Trump’s approval of the jet for the UAE – an approval generally acknowledged to have been a reward for Abu Dhabi’s normalization with Israel in the “Abraham Accords.” Israel’s non-objection to the sale of a weapons system that contradicted America’s bedrock “QME” policy, a commitment not to sell any military equipment to an Arab state that might undermine Israel’s “Qualitative Military Edge,” surprised Middle East observers.

Political dimensions have also complicated the UAE sale. Some opine that former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw the Abraham Accords as a way to help his chances of re-election, and overrode his military’s objections to the sale in order to ensure the success of the peace deal. Ultimately, however, Netanyahu lost the election. If the UAE sale falls through – as it may have in December 2021, when Abu Dhabi suspended its negotiations to acquire the plane – any hope that Qatar could buy it next will be moot.

Furthermore, many political, technical, and practical obstacles to an F-35 sale to either country remain. Release criteria, the approval system that governs the release of sophisticated equipment to any foreign country, fall under the purview of several separate specialized committees which each must separately approve the release of technologies related to cryptology, advanced radar, beyond visual range missiles, and, most importantly, stealth. The committees, for whom cybersecurity is essential, will certainly have qualms about both countries. Both the UAE and Qatar have resisted American demands to sever their connections with Chinese tech companies, especially with Huawei, which has contracted to provide a significant portion of the 5G network in each country.

Most tellingly, neither Qatar nor the UAE has the manpower to operate and, more importantly, maintain such a complicated weapons system. In the past, wealthy GCC states solved this problem by hiring contractors from the United States or from NATO allies who have experience with these systems. Unfortunately, the F-35 program is so new and so complicated that it strains the resources of all the countries already in the process of procuring it. As one colleague put it, “There just aren’t retired guys who have worked the program for a decade and are willing to move to the Gulf.” Traditionally, the U.S. has little reason to sell a high-profile weapons system if there is little evidence that it will ever be used.

President Biden’s award of MNNA status to Qatar represents a significant diplomatic coup for the small peninsular emirate. It allows Doha to show the world, and more importantly its neighborhood, that it enjoys the confidence of the United States. By making the designation, Biden has essentially erased the unpleasantness of 2017 from the discussions, if not from the memories, of Gulf leaders. Together with the presence of the most important American military installation in the Middle East, MNNA status warns Qatar’s predatory neighbors that it has a major friend that it can rely on. The downside, of course, is that it is associated more closely with the United States in a region where the United States is highly unpopular, and the designation could expose it to greater attacks from American adversaries. However, in spite of its new status, Qatar does not appear to have lost status with any other nations and will likely continue in its cherished role as America’s middleman for the foreseeable future.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum. Previously he held positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.

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