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Stasa Salacanin

Qatar and the US set for warmer relations

Donald Trump meets CEO of Qatar Airways at direct flight inauguration dinner, 2007 [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 May, 2017

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Mutual investment and cooperation are likely to improve, with the US-Qatari relationship set to blossom under Trump, writes Stasa Salacanin.
Uncertainty surrounding the new US administration's foreign policy in the Middle East has forced Gulf states to take a wait-and-see attitude regarding their bilateral relations.

After a serious deterioration in relations during the Obama administration's second term, all GCC countries are hoping they can restore close ties with the US. Qatar is no exception and some believe that the tiny but very influential state may actually benefit from Trump presidency, despite the obstacles that lie ahead.

The President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar (AmCham Qatar), Robert Hager, said earlier this year that Qatar is going to have a "unique position in the Trump administration", implying that the relationship is likely to strengthen, and that Qatar could become the most trusted ally of the US in the Gulf.

Indeed, the United States and Qatar have enjoyed a close relationship for over 20 years and we should expect this bond to deepen in years to come.

Close ties

Gerald Michael Feierstein, former United States Ambassador to Yemen and former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, told The New Arab that "The bilateral relationship, based on many common interests and concerns in regional and global political, economic, and security affairs, is almost certain to expand during the tenure of the Trump Administration."

Qatar - like its GCC counterparts - has been one of the largest buyers of US weaponry

Indeed, economic relations between the two countries have strong and healthy foundations; trade exchange between the State of Qatar and the United States reached approximately QR16.35 billion in 2015 (more than $4 billion), and the US is Qatar's seventh largest trading partner. In 2016 exchange this volume exceeded $5.5 billion.

In December 2016, a source close to Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) told Reuters that Qatar's sovereign wealth fund has plans to invest $10 billion in infrastructure projects in the US. But let us not forget that heavy investment from QIA has been announced before. QIA had previously said it intended to invest $35 billion in unspecified projects in the US from 2016 to 2021, though it is not clear whether the $10 billion would be part of previously announced investments. Furthermore, Qatar - like its GCC counterparts - has been one of the largest buyers of US weaponry in the past and this will likely continue in the future.

In addition, Qatar has in the past been supportive of US war adventures in the region, and actively participated in the NATO intervention in Libya.

On this basis, it would be easy to expect that Qatar is about to become the US closest ally or "go-to-guy" in the Arab world, as Shazar Shafqat described it. This rapprochement is likely to be at the cost of Saudi Arabia, given Riyadh's economic struggles resulting from the oil price war, and relations that chilled during Obama's presidency.

On top of that, it is still unclear how the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) bill will determine US-Saudi relations in the future.

Challenging differences

While much of this may hold true, such a view is probably over-simplified. Eric Bordenkircher, a researcher at the Centre for Middle East Development in the UCLA International Institute, does not believe that much will change in regards to the US-Qatari relationship under the Trump administration.

"I think the deterioration in relations between the Saudis and the Obama administration has been exaggerated. The Obama administration provided Saudi Arabia with a considerable amount of military support," he said.

Feierstein, too, thinks that it would be a mistake to look at Qatar as a competitor to Saudi Arabia as the key US partner in the region. He explains that US-Saudi relations are based on more than 70 years of close collaboration on regional defence and security policy, as well as Saudi Arabia's position as the dominant power in the global energy sector, and therefore a principal pillar of global economic security and stability. 

It would be a mistake to look at Qatar as a competitor to Saudi Arabia as the key US partner in the region

"While the US and Saudi Arabia may differ from time to time… and JASTA is just one example of issues where our policies or perspectives are at odds… the overall relationship remains very sound. The recent visit of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the US provided reassurance that the close US-Saudi collaboration on regional political and security issues will continue, as will US support for Saudi Arabia's efforts to grow and diversify its economy," he added.

The same could be said for US-Qatari relations. The Qatari partnership with the United States might sometimes be complicated, but it is clearly beneficial to both sides.

However, Donald Trump's presidency, based upon his pre-election statements about fighting "radical Islamic groups", may create a serious challenge. It remains to be seen whether the new US administration will bring up this issue.

  Read more: Banning the Brotherhood

Many have highlighted Qatar's tolerance towards controversial individuals and Islamic organisations, as Qatar has for years been a safe haven for Islamic dissidents and influential clerics seen by many as radicals or militants. Qatar still maintains its ties with Hamas and the Afghan Taliban, and permits Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated clerics such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi to reside in Doha.

The Trump administration has expressed concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood, and there are those in the administration - or close to it - who have advocated designating the Muslim Brotherhood a "terrorist organisation".

Trump administration intentions vis-a-vis the Muslim Brotherhood remain unclear

Rex Tillerson, for example, listed the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda as two security threats to the US, along with the Islamic State group. Nevertheless, Feierstein points out that Trump administration intentions vis-a-vis the Muslim Brotherhood remain unclear and there is no indication at this time that it has affected its position on relations with Doha.

"However, should Qatar's relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamic extremists affect regional security and stability, it is likely that these relationships will be addressed," he added.

In that case, writes Gulf State Analytics CEO Giorgio Cafiero in Al Monitor, "the Qataris must be ready to make adjustments if the White House takes aim at the Muslim Brotherhood and its state sponsors".

Finally, according to Bordenkircher, the recent flip-flopping of the Trump administration regarding NATO, Syria and China as a currency manipulator suggest that this administration is not as committed to its campaign promises as initially thought.

For him, "the Muslim Brotherhood and Qardawi have not affected US/Qatari relations in the past. Why would they affect them now? Qatar is too important vis-a-vis Iran to allow these issues to affect relations."

The US administration will likely need to rely on its Gulf allies in any future confrontation with Iran

Nevertheless, Qatar, which has good relations with numerous countries and regimes in the region, has tried to act as mediator has on many occasions served as neutral ground for talks and negotiations with different groups. So although perceived as controversial in some western circles, Doha's links with certain extremist groups has been more than useful in many cases.

So far, GCC states have tried to avoid any friction with the new US administration following a package of controversial executive orders. GCC states remained silent when the Trump administration introduced the "Muslim ban", in an attempt to keep the new US administration on their side in light of the economic and security challenges the Gulf region faces.

Dogfight over the open skies

Apart from potential political misunderstandings, the issue of commercial aviation could be even more sensitive for Qatar and some GCC members, notably UAE, as GCC countries all strive to diversify their economies away from ever-more unpredictable hydrocarbon sector.

Commercial aviation has been a highly sensitive matter, often causing a salvo of harsh media accusations on both sides over alleged US governmental support of Gulf airlines. With the new president - who has promised to pursue an "America First" approach - US airlines have high hopes.

Consequently, this may seriously harm mutual relations. Feierstein is convinced that "the three major US air carriers will almost certainly continue their efforts to press the administration to support their claims against the Gulf airlines. If their arguments prevail, they will seek relief under the Open Skies agreements. But the issue is complicated, and the outcome is unclear."

US aircraft manufacturers have benefitted greatly from business generated by the Gulf airlines

Up until now, the US airlines have not been able to substantiate their claims that they have been harmed by unfair competition, but Feierstein believes that the Trump administration is likely to listen to their concerns with sympathy. However, he cautions that there are a number of countervailing pressures from other US airlines as well as aircraft manufacturers, who hold differing views.

In particular, US aircraft manufacturers have benefitted greatly from business generated by the Gulf airlines, and this has been a source of many jobs in the industry. Thus, Feierstein thinks it's likely that the Trump administration - like the Obama administration before it - will try to find a mutually acceptable solution to the issue, and that it should not affect US-Qatar or US-GCC relations negatively.

All in all, Qatar as well as other GCC states, will have to interact cautiously with the unpredictable Trump administration. For its part, the US administration will likely need to rely on its Gulf allies in any future confrontation with Iran or engagement in Syria, where Qatar will play an important role since it hosts the forward headquarters of US Central Command at Al-Udeid Air Base.

The Trump administration has already signalled that it will take a very different approach towards regional security and stability and support long-standing regional partners. As a result, "we can anticipate that the similar perspectives of the Trump administration and the GCC, as well as the commitment to support and defend our partners in the Gulf, will lead to stronger bilateral and multilateral relations," Feierstein concluded.  

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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