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Qatar Eyes a Greater Regional Role in the Wake of the American Regional Drawdown

As the United States scales back its commitments throughout the Middle East, its reliance on regional partners will only increase. The Biden administration has already withdrawn from Afghanistan and promised to shift U.S. forces in Iraq away from combat roles. The U.S. has also become reticent to engage Islamist groups in the Middle East. These trends pave the way for a more active and important regional role for Qatar. The Gulf country is strategically positioned and has displayed a distinct diplomatic dynamism in its mediation between the U.S. and adversarial Islamist groups. As the U.S. refocuses its efforts on East Asia, it will look to active partners such as Qatar to advance its interests.

Qatar has gained importance as a strategic partner for the United States in recent decades because of the sizable American military presence in the Arabian Peninsula. Qatar is home to the largest U.S. base in the Middle East, and Doha decided to expand the strategic Al Udeid base at a time when many other Gulf states have expressed caution and sensitivity regarding the presence of American troops on their soil. The U.S. military facilities in Qatar are also central to U.S. strategic posture in the Middle East, as they serve as “the command, basing, and logistics hubs for U.S. military activities throughout the U.S. Central Command area of operations.” For instance, these bases became paramount during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. They continue to serve as an important deterrent against Iran, and have played an instrumental role in the fight against terrorism in several countries, such as Iraq and Syria.

In recent years, Doha has transcended its logistical role by leading mediation efforts between the U.S. (and its allies) and various Islamist groups. Historically, the rise of Islamist movements in the Middle East inevitably led interested states to negotiate with them, even for limited and tactical aims. A case in point is Hamas, which won elections in the Palestinian territories and has ruled Gaza since 2006. In 2014, with Washington’s blessing, Doha promised $1 billion—the largest donation in the conference—for the reconstruction of Gaza after a short but devastating conflict between Hamas and Israel. In 2018, Qatar assisted Israel by funneling relief money to impoverished Palestinians, perhaps avoiding another war in Gaza; and in 2020, Doha mediated a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel to end a weeks-long conflict. The aid that Qatar provides for Gazans has prevented humanitarian disaster and diminished the likelihood of further military clashes between Hamas and Israel.

Qatar also played an instrumental role in bringing both the United States and the Taliban to the negotiating table as the U.S. sought to extricate itself from the quagmire in Afghanistan. As early as 2010, Taliban representatives arrived in Doha to negotiate a peace deal and an exchange of prisoners. Thereafter, Qatar has facilitated many rounds of negotiations between the Taliban on one hand, and the U.S. and the Afghan government on the other. In February 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban signed a peace deal in Qatar; negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban continued subsequently. After the U.S. withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, Qatar remained one of the few countries taking part in active diplomatic talks with Kabul, and is set to assist in the resumption of airport operations in the Afghan capital. Despite criticism levied at Qatar for its links to Islamist movements, its successful ability to mediate demonstrates its utility to major powers. Indeed,  the former director of the CIA, David Petraeus, stated that the U.S requested Qatar to host the delegations of Hamas and the Taliban.

Finally, Qatar proved a valuable partner in Afghanistan when a crisis emerged following the U.S. evacuation of its citizens and those Afghans who had worked with the U.S. for decades. Nearly 40 percent—58,000 people—of those who were evacuated from Afghanistan landed in Qatar. The Qatari government also built an emergency field hospital, constructed shelters for Afghans, and continues to hand out over 50,000 meals a day. Moreover, Qatar Airways has offered the use of 10 aircraft to transport Afghans from Doha to other countries. These efforts have won Qatar praise from many voices in the U.S., including prominent officials, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

The evolution of U.S. involvement in the Middle East allows for Gulf states such as Qatar to consolidate their partnership with the U.S. through logistical cooperation and deft diplomacy. Qatar has a vested interest in a stable international environment, and the U.S. shares this objective. Thus, as the United States’ presence on the ground diminishes, Qatar’s regional role will only grow more important.

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

Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia non-state armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School-Tufts University and is the author of The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah, Palgrave 2020.

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