In February 2022, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, became the first Gulf leader to meet President Biden since he took office in 2021. Recognizing Qatar’s critical diplomatic and security role on the regional and international level, President Biden announced during that meeting the designation of Qatar as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA).
Three months later, Sheikh Tamim visited several key countries in the region and beyond. His tours comprised a visit to Iran, Turkey, Slovenia, Spain, Germany, Britain, and France, as well as Switzerland. These visits dovetailed with two critical developments. First, the stalled negotiations between Iran and the US regarding the fate of the JCPOA nuclear deal. Second, Russia’s weaponization of energy resources, particularly gas, against the European countries amid the war in Ukraine.
The Emir’s tour underscored Qatar’s capacity and commitment to be active in resolving conflicts that have a direct impact on regional and international stability and security. Contrary to other countries which might have wanted to play a similar role, Qatar’s reputation as a rational, impartial, and reliable partner boosted its role in the international arena. Doha’s diplomatic activity and international prestige are backed by active foreign policy, financial clout, security ties, hydrocarbon power, media reach, and a genuine interest in promoting stability and security in the region and beyond.
These factors have made the need for Qatar’s diplomatic engagement, its mediatory, and reconciliatory role in the international arena indispensable, especially in times of insecurity. In the last two years, Qatar has been increasingly assuming critical tasks related to political, diplomatic, economic, and security domains in the region and beyond. For example, following the al-Ula agreement in 2021, Doha expressed its readiness to play a mediatory role between the GCC and Iran on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other.
Furthermore, in 2021, Qatar continued its long tradition of playing a mediatory role in Africa. Following its efforts in the Peace Agreement between the Sudanese Transitional Government and Armed Movements, Doha assumed mediatory roles in 2021 and 2022 between Somalia and Kenya, the Somali factions, as well as the Chad Transitional Government and the Chadian rebels. The Qatari role in Afghanistan before, during, and after the US withdrawal from the country, in particular, serves as an excellent case study for Doha’s indispensable role.
Qatar’s mediator role between the US and Iran
Currently, Qatar is focusing on reviving the negotiations between Iran and the US concerning the nuclear deal. The JCPOA is of great importance to Washington, Tehran, and the region. The critical value of this deal increased amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Re-activating the JCPOA will facilitate the comeback of Iranian oil and gas to the international market, thus contributing to market stabilization efforts, preventing further hikes in the price, and diluting Russia’s capacity to weaponize energy resources against the West.
Initially, Israel as well as several Gulf countries, primarily Saudi Arabia, argued against this agreement. The main reservation of these countries lies in the fact that the JCPOA does not block all Iran’s ways to a nuclear bomb. Most importantly, these countries complained that the deal did not change Tehran’s regional behavior and its malicious activities.
Several regional players are afraid that re-activating the same deal will boost Iran’s influence in the region and boost its regional agenda, thus dramatically escalating the regional conflict. Yet, the no-deal scenario is not less problematic as it would encourage a nuclear arms race between the heavyweight regional players.
Last month, the negotiations between the US and Iran regarding the revival of the JCPOA seemed to be on the verge of collapsing. Although Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani told the World Economic Forum in Davos in May that Doha is not an ‘official’ mediator, his country assumed a facilitating role to help create common ground between the two parties. Utilizing its good relations with all players, Doha engaged in shuttle diplomacy between the US, Russia, Iran, and several European capitals.
The primary aim of Qatar’s goodwill efforts is to incentivize the parties to resume the negotiations and help put the deal back on track. Currently, internal factors in Iran and the US are hindering progress at this level. Despite this, Qatari officials have been optimistic about the ultimate result. Underlining the role of Qatar in this issue, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, thanked his Qatari counterpart during a phone call with him last May for “Qatar’s constructive role in efforts to resolve issues with Iran” as well as its diplomatic assistance with Afghanistan.
The international energy crisis and Qatar
In parallel with the rising interest of the international powers in Doha’s role in reviving the JCPOA talks, Qatar’s capacity as a heavyweight LNG player in the international energy market has zoomed in on its possible role in Europe’s energy security amid the Russian war on Ukraine and Moscow’s weaponization of energy.
The EU countries rely heavily on Russia for gas and oil. According to 2020 figures, Moscow met around 43 percent of the EU countries’ gas imports, 29 percent of their oil imports, and around 54 percent of the bloc’s solid fossil fuel imports, mainly coal. Germany and Italy are the top European importers of Russian gas. Russia is estimated to have received around €400 billion from oil and gas exports to Europe.
In contrast, Qatar, the World’s leading LNG exporter, secured around 24 percent of Europe’s total LNG imports in 2021. Most of Doha’s energy exports are directed toward markets in East Asia through long-term contracts (LTCs), which limits its maneuverability to increase quotas to Western countries. Despite this fact, Qatar has a critical role to play in Europe’s energy security and its diversification strategy to reduce its overdependence on Russian hydrocarbon imports.
Given Doha’s desire to sustain its world’s leading LNG position, strategic plans to expand its LNG capacity considerably in the current decade, and determination to strengthen its relations with the world’s leading powers, Qatar continued to express willingness to support Europe’s energy security. In the last few months, more European countries have been asking Doha to increase its LNG exports to them, including Germany, the European country most reliant on Russian gas.
In this sense, Sheikh Tamim’s visit to several European countries last month was meant to confirm Doha’s position. The energy partnership agreement between Qatar and Germany, signed during the Emir’s visit to Germany last May, will serve as a model for several European countries in the future. While in Spain, the Spanish government announced that Qatar’s $5 billion investment in the country would help guarantee the country’s “energy security” and its transition to a “green economy.” Additionally, the UK and Qatar initiated an Energy Dialogue, which is expected to “deepen the already vital energy and climate change cooperation between their two countries”.
While regional and international insecurities pose challenges to Qatar as a small state, Doha’s smart diplomacy is turning these challenges into new opportunities. Qatar’s commitment to continue its critical regional and international role in the domains of conflict resolution, security, and peacebuilding will once again promote it as an active small power punching above its weight.