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Qatar’s Essential Diplomacy in the New Balance of Power

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Doha on February 21, where he met with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. During the two-day visit, the two leaders signed fourteen cooperation agreements and memoranda of understanding between Iran and Qatar, and together participated in the sixth leaders’ summit of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum. The visit was Raisi’s first to an Arab Gulf capital and only his second overseas trip since taking office in August 2021, following a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on January 19. Against the backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine and the growing expectations that negotiators in Vienna may soon reach an agreement to revive the Iran nuclear deal, considerations of energy, diplomacy, and geopolitics likely dominated the agenda both for the Iranian leader and for his Qatari hosts.

Doha Does Diplomacy

Raisi’s visit to Doha came at an opportune moment, for several reasons. His trip took place three weeks after Emir Tamim became the first Gulf leader to travel to Washington, D.C. since President Joe Biden took office a year ago. Emir Tamim’s talks with Biden touched upon many of the same issues – questions of regional security and diplomacy, as well as global energy flows – that will have been on the table during Raisi’s meetings with Qatari officials in Doha. Moreover, while Qatar is not a party to the negotiations in Vienna to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, any revived JCPOA will need to secure greater buy-in from regional states than was the case with the original agreement in 2015. In April 2021, the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Nayef al-Hajraf, called on the negotiators in Vienna to address the issues and concerns of the Arab Gulf states in any eventual new agreement with Iran.

The repair of the deep fracture within the GCC in the 13 months since the Al-Ula Summit in January 2021, which ended the four-year blockade of Qatar, opens a space for Qatari officials to work with and through the GCC. Doha is expected to coordinate with its Gulf partners to try and secure greater alignment between their regional concerns with Iran – chiefly Iran’s support for and transfer of missile technology to proxy groups – and those of the P5+1 as they work to restore the JCPOA, which focuses more narrowly on Iran’s nuclear program. Diplomatic efforts are likely to gain ground; Saudi Arabia and the UAE each have their own bilateral channels to Iran, while Kuwait and Oman have long called for a workable balance in regional affairs. The opening by the IRGC Navy of a new runway on the island of Greater Tunb, seized by Iran from Ras al-Khaimah in 1971, several days prior to Raisi’s visit to Doha, is a salient example of the multiple issues that remain unresolved in the Gulf states’ relations with Iran.

What Qatar Brings to the Table

The ability to meet (separately) at the highest level with U.S. and Iranian decision-makers enables Qatar to exchange messages and maintain channels of dialogue between parties that refuse to communicate directly. This has long been a central tenet of Qatar’s diplomacy and mediation, and it is one that bore results in Afghanistan when U.S. and Taliban representatives established direct contact in 2018 after years of working through Qatar. Throughout the Afghan negotiations and the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Kabul in August 2021, Qatar demonstrated the practical utility of its diplomatic and administrative capabilities, effectively augmenting those of its U.S. and other partners. Qatar’s engagement with the U.S. and Afghanistan also illustrated that Qatari policymakers could step up and generate tangible results that positively affect outcomes in regional geopolitical matters.

During their meeting at the White House on January 31,  one of President Biden’s requests of Sheikh Tamim was that Qatar assist in securing a stable energy supply for Europe in the event of a Russian war with Ukraine – a request that proved fortuitous after the Kremlin’s decision to invade on the morning of February 24. Sheikh Tamim used the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Doha to state that the group’s member nations, including Russia, were “working hard to ensure a credible and reliable supply of natural gas to world markets and preserve the stability of those markets.” In the aftermath of the Russian invasion – and the West’s imposition of harsh retaliatory sanctions on Moscow –, third parties like Qatar can play an intermediary role, at least on energy issues.

As much of the world prepares to reopen after two years of COVID-19 and move into the uncertain post-pandemic era, the escalation in tensions to the level of military conflict involving one of the world’s nuclear-armed powers is an unwelcome development for Qatar, which is preparing to host the FIFA World Cup later this year. The return to a functioning nuclear agreement with Iran will mitigate some of the geopolitical risk and build upon the de-escalatory initiatives that have dialed down tense relationships among regional states in the Gulf and the broader Middle East after a decade of post-Arab Spring confrontation. In the final stretch toward a new agreement between Iran and the U.S. and the first stage of the ‘hot war’ in Europe, diplomatic engagement can transcend and bridge gaps between the parties involved. The space open to Qatar may also be more inclusive than other regional initiatives, such as the Abraham Accords, which appear to be more narrowly focused, and may be the next test of Qatar’s mediatory efforts and ability to support and sustain working relationships during times of crisis.

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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Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum. Working across the disciplines of political science, international relations and international political economy, his research examines the changing position of Persian Gulf states in the global order, as well as the emergence of longer-term, nonmilitary challenges to regional security. Previously, he worked as senior Gulf analyst at the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies between 2006 and 2008 and as co-director of the Kuwait Program on Development, Governance and Globalization in the Gulf States at the London School of Economics (LSE) from 2008 until 2013.

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