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Biden eyes Qatar as major non-NATO ally

The upgrade in ties comes as the United States is seeking Doha's help in supplying natural gas to Europe.
President Joe Biden meets with Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani in the Oval Office on Jan. 31, 2022, in Washington, DC.

US President Joe Biden notified Congress today of a decision to designate Qatar a major non-NATO ally.

Biden revealed the decision during a meeting in the Oval Office with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who on Monday became the first Gulf leader to visit Washington during Biden’s presidency.

The designation, which Biden described as “long overdue,” came the same day as Qatar Airways Group and Boeing announced a $34 billion deal that he said “will support tens of thousands of good-paying US jobs here in America.”

Why it matters: The move would formally upgrade the two countries’ defense ties at a time when the United States is seeking Qatar’s assistance providing alternative sources of natural gas and oil to Europe in order to bolster political resolve against Moscow as it threatens to invade Ukraine.

It also comes as the Gulf state is hoping to burnish its image on the international stage after a thaw in tensions with Arab neighboring states and widespread criticism of its human rights record at home amid concerns over labor conditions in the lead up to this year's World Cup.

The Biden administration is threatening to hit Russia with unprecedented economic sanctions, but those penalties will have little teeth without unified European support.

Ahead of the meeting, Biden praised Qatar’s role in evacuating tens of thousands from Afghanistan amid the US withdrawal last year and for “maintaining stability in Gaza and providing lifesaving assistance to the Palestinians,” among other initiatives.

The two leaders were also slated to discuss ongoing talks with Iran over its nuclear program and cooperation on Afghanistan, where Qatar serves as the surrogate for US diplomatic ties with the Taliban.

What it means: If approved, Qatar will join Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Taiwan and 10 other countries around the world that share privileged access to US military technology and joint training.

The designation “opens up a whole new range of opportunities for defense relationships, not just with the United States bilaterally but with other allies,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters today. That includes “exercises, operations and perhaps the acquisition of capabilities as well,” Kirby said. 

While it’s unlikely to bring any immediate benefit to Qatar, it could serve as a means to bring the Gulf country closer into the US-led regional defense fold as Doha remains reluctant to join the Abraham Accords and retains ties with Iran.

Sheikh Tamim met with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin before heading to the White House on Monday. 

The defense chief “shared his vision for integrated deterrence for the region, emphasizing the importance of multilateral efforts and integrated operations with partners like Qatar to address threats,” including terrorism, Kirby said. 

What’s next: Lawmakers have had little patience for major arms sales to the Gulf in recent years but have shown no signs of opposition so far to upgrading Washington's relations with Doha. 

Know more: Read Elizabeth Hagedorn's take on how Qatar can help Washington repatriate four American prisoners held in Iran.

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