On 31st January 2022, President Biden announced the designation of Qatar as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) after a meeting between President Biden and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hammad Al-Thani at the White House. During the meeting, matters including the Ukraine crisis and the possible role of Qatar in supplying natural gas to Europe, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, and engagement with the Taliban were discussed at length. The designation of Qatar as a Major Non-NATO Ally signifies the strengthening of US-Qatar ties as Qatar is just the third Gulf state to be designated as such after Bahrain and Kuwait.
The designation came amidst a tense global political situation. The Ukraine crisis is looming with the potential to cause serious political and socio-economic consequences for the whole world, particularly for Europe. Simultaneously, the great power Sino-US rivalry seems to be escalating towards a new cold war. Blocks and alliances are forming across the globe, and expansionism and hegemonic designs are on the rise. In such a scenario, designating Qatar as an MNNA seems a part of Biden’s pursuit of reviving and forming new alliances in order to strengthen the US camp.
What does the designation of MNNA mean for Qatar and the US?
The designation of Qatar as an MNNA seems just a formality, considering the depth of military, economic and political ties of the two countries and their intricate interdependence. Nevertheless, it will have significant implications for both, the US and Qatar. The designation will shield Qatar from further pressure or any blockade from the regional countries as happened in the past. It will also further improve Qatar’s standing in the international community.
Particularly, the designation will enhance Qatar’s relations with other MNNAs and NATO allies. After gaining the status of MNNA, Qatar will now be able to store advanced US military equipment on its territory (even outside the US military facilities). It will be able to buy depleted uranium ammunition and receive 3 million USD for counter-terrorism research. Moreover, in the purview of the Ukraine crisis, Europe can emerge as a significant market for Qatar’s LNG exports.
Several interests of the US will also be served by designating Qatar as an MNNA. It will likely contribute to the stability and security of the Middle East and strengthen the US’ camp in the great power Sino-US rivalry. However, the timing of the designation suggests that the prime interest of the US in designating Qatar as an MNNA is securing alternative gas supplies for Europe. Amid the rising threat of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fate of the gas supply arrangement between Russia and Europe is dwindling.
Disruption in gas supply to Europe potentially inflicts great damage on the continents’ economy. In order to protect its European partners from the brunt of an imminent crisis, the US is rushing to secure alternate gas supplies for Europe. Designation of Qatar—the second largest exporter of LNG, as an MNNA is being perceived as a part of these efforts.
Opponents of designating Qatar as an MNNA argue that Qatar has linkages with terrorist and extremist organizations such as the Taliban, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood and that Qatar does not allow freedom of speech and suppress human rights. Hence, the designation will normalize these practices. Another critique is that it will further engage the US in a region that is losing strategic value, while it should concentrate its focus and resources on strategically crucial regions such as East Asia and the South China Sea.
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What is the way forward?
For Qatar, the drawbacks of this designation include the possible downgrading of its relations with Russia. Moscow and Doha have not enjoyed cordial relations historically; however, in the past five years, the bilateral relations between the two have been on a positive course, and economic interdependence has been growing. Now, this designation might be seen by Kremlin as a threat to Russia’s position with regard to gas supplies to Europe. The cordial relations established between Russia and Doha over the past five years seem at risk.
Furthermore, Qatar’s relations with its trade partner China might also take a hit due to the designation. In the great power Sino-US rivalry, which some have labeled as a new cold war, Qatar seems firmly in the US camp after this designation, which might hurt its relations with China. In the past, Qatar has successfully maintained a neutral position in global conflicts. However, after being designated as MNNA, navigating neutrality in the global conflicts will be a test for Qatar’s foreign policy.
Although the designation of Qatar as an MNNA seems just a formality keeping in view the broad and cordial relations it enjoys with the US; nevertheless, it will have significant consequences for the whole world. The designation comes at a time when the whole world is engulfed by global conflicts such as the Ukraine crisis and the great power Sino-US rivalry.
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The designation will serve the interests of both; Qatar and the US. Qatar will enjoy a diplomatic shield against any pressure from the regional countries besides the standard benefits in its defense and military relations with the US that come with the designation. Meanwhile, the US seeks to achieve stability in the Middle East and strengthen its camp in great power politics. Timing of the designation suggests that the primary goal of the US behind designating Qatar as an MNNA is securing alternative gas supplies for Europe.
Written by M. Asad Ullah Khan
The writer is working at Centre for Middle East and Africa at ISSI. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.