The Trump administration is hosting a visit from the leader of Qatar, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The Security Studies Group has often been critical of Qatar, but in the interest of furthering the diplomacy underlying the state visit, today I will try to be helpful in laying out what I think would be useful approaches for the administration toward resolving the regional conflicts with which Qatar is embroiled.
First we must distinguish the places where Qatar has legitimate differences from the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) from those places in which Qatar is pursuing an illegitimate course. Once we have done this, we can talk about ways in which the United States can encourage Qatar to resolve its legitimate issues in terms that are favorable to American foreign policy. In return for our helping Qatar to do that, we can ask them to relinquish some of the illegitimate moves that are undermining their neighbors and empowering Iran. If we can accomplish all of this, a major improvement in the diplomatic situation is possible at low costs to everyone.
The illegitimate aspects of Qatari power involve its attempts to destabilize its neighbors by encouraging Islamist political programs that undermine existing governments. The legitimate interests turn on Qatar’s production of chiefly natural gas rather than chiefly petroleum. It is an accident of geography that Qatar sits astride a massive natural gas field that passes under the Persian Gulf into Iran, while the other GCC nations do not. The other GCC nations are rich in oil, but not as much in natural gas. In the case of the UAE, for example, natural gas needs to be imported whereas oil is an export product for them.
Because the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) treaty was negotiated at a time when oil was globally important, and because at that time the Qatari government was relatively weaker in influence, OPEC favors oil production. The whole purpose of the OPEC treaty is to keep the price of oil stable at relatively high levels. Natural gas is not similarly protected by OPEC: in fact, OPEC requires member countries to sell natural gas to each other at rates that are currently far below market prices. Qatar’s natural interest in getting market rates for its products is thus forcing them out of OPEC. Since they share the field with Iran, this interest is also much behind their increasing alignment with Iran’s government. And since their exit from OPEC will allow them to charge higher prices to OPEC countries that import their gas, some of the tension between the other GCC nations and Qatar is also explained by this difference in what each country’s major export happens to be.
The United States and our European allies have a shared interest in greater natural gas exports, especially in the form of shippable Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). This is because of Russia’s use of energy supplies as a weapon for controlling European nations. This is an important issue as far away from Russia as Germany, where the Trump administration has been warning against new pipelines because they would tend to pull Germany further under Russia’s influence. It is a crucial issue in Ukraine, and important throughout Eastern Europe. Helping Qatar get its product to these markets would tend to relieve Russian monopoly power over energy in Eastern Europe.
In terms of Ukraine, SSG has already been proposing that we assist the Turkish government with its canal project in return for allowing American LNG to ship to Ukrainian ports. Qatar has been enjoying closer relations with Erdogan’s Turkish government at that government has become increasingly Islamist. Erdogan has also been increasingly falling into alignment with Russia and, to some degree, Iran. Helping the Qataris to obtain new LNG markets in Ukraine would tend to pull both them and the Turks out of alignment with the Russians. Since it would also tend to relieve Russian pressures on European allies, it would be a kind of triple win for US policy.
This would place the United States in a much stronger position when it asks Qatar and Turkey to pull back from their current drift toward Russia and Iran, as we would have relieved some of the natural and legitimate interests drawing them in that direction. When we seek to maximize pressure on Iran vis a vis its nuclear program and regional use of deniable warfare, we will be in a stronger position if we have given Qatar and Turkey reasons to take our side unreservedly. Success in this diplomatic approach would thus tend to reduce the dangers of war by cutting Iran off from what it must consider to be its best prospects for regional allies, at a time when its economy is suffering and international pressure is rising.
This approach would also tend to make the resolution of the other outstanding issues between Qatar and the GCC easier, especially if it were coupled with a Qatari commitment to continue to sell the GCC nations natural gas at something closer to but still a bit friendlier than market rates. If Qatar’s royal family could also be persuaded to abandon support for Islamist political movements – which threaten its own stability, not just its neighbors – the largest part of the tensions could be resolved. Qatar would grow even richer and more stable by this deal; the Turkish state would also benefit from the new canal, and the fees it could obtain from LNG shipping to Ukraine. The GCC nations would have to pay somewhat higher prices for gas, but they would not have to conduct an expensive and challenging blockade against a neighbor. This approach would only be outright harmful to Russian and Iranian interests, and at the moment both of those nations deserve it. If they want a kinder policy, they should change their behaviors to merit one. By applying additional pressure to encourage them, this policy would attain its ultimate success.