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Qatar’s emir visits White House, as Biden may need help with natural gas for Europe

Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is the first Persian Gulf leader to meet with Biden since his election, in a sign of shifting U.S. relations with the region.

Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2021. (Eduardo Munoz/Pool/Reuters via AP)

Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, met with President Biden at the White House on Monday, as the administration seeks help in shoring up natural gas supplies to Europe in the event the crisis over Ukraine escalates to war and Russia cuts its flow to the continent.

One of the world’s largest gas producers, Qatar has warned that its ability to increase supplies to Europe is limited by long-term contracts, largely with countries in Asia.

“Discussions between the Qataris, the Europeans and Americans are ongoing to help with the crisis,” said a person with knowledge of the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy. “For a short-term solution to be reached, some of the long-term Qatari LNG [liquefied natural gas] buyers will need to be willing to divert shipments to Europe.” The government in Doha would prefer that any diversion request come directly from the United States to buyers.

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Tamim is the first Persian Gulf leader to meet with Biden since his election, in a sign of shifting U.S. relations with the region. The Trump administration favored strong ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sometimes at Qatar’s expense, amid regional feuds. Biden, while maintaining strong military relations with all three, has at times kept the other two at diplomatic arms’ length.

Speaking alongside Tamim just before the Oval Office meeting Monday, Biden said he was designating Qatar a “major non-NATO ally,” putting it in a top tier of U.S. security partners who are not NATO members. Only Kuwait and Bahrain, other nations in the region with major U.S. deployments, are so-designated in the Persian Gulf.

Biden also addressed the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, saying he’d had “a productive talk last week” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and that “we continue to engage in nonstop diplomacy and to de-escalate tensions and attempt like the devil to improve security for our allies and partners and for all of Europe, for that matter.”

Referring to a contentious meeting of the United Nations Security Council Monday, in which Russia denounced the United States for “provoking escalation” and “whipping up hysteria” over Ukraine, Biden added that the United States used the meeting to detail their concerns over Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine, which administration officials fear could lead to an imminent invasion.

“Today at the United Nations we’ve laid out the full nature of Russia’s threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine as well as to the core tenets of a rule-based international order, and we continue to urge diplomacy as the best way forward,” Biden said. “But with Russia’s continuing its buildup of its forces around Ukraine, we are ready no matter what happens.”

The meeting, which started just after 2 p.m., lasted about an hour and 15 minutes.

Qatar hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command and about 10,000 U.S. troops. It has provided crucial assistance in the U.S. evacuation of civilians from Afghanistan and has managed U.S. interests there since the American withdrawal, as well as playing a key role in other areas of U.S. concern, including Iran and Palestinian issues.

Doha has never been shy about pointing out that it has been a dependable U.S. partner. “Our relationship with the United States has been strong for a long time,” proving it “can help, support, share views and deliver,” said a senior Qatari official, one of several from both countries who spoke about the visit.

Although one of the smallest countries in the region, Qatar is among the richest, with two-thirds control over the world’s largest natural gas field. The rest of the field belongs to Iran, less than 100 miles across the Persian Gulf, an economic and geographic proximity that obliged both to maintain a cordial relationship and has made Doha a valued interlocutor for both Tehran and Washington.

Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani arrived in Washington late last week, in advance of the emir’s visit, directly following meetings in Tehran with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian. Negotiations between world powers and Iran over revitalizing the 2015 nuclear deal have reached a crucial stage, with some progress reported although the United States and Europe warned that time for agreement is growing short.

Last week’s talks came amid reports that Iran was considering meeting directly with U.S. negotiators — talks thus far have been through European go-betweens — and might be willing to release at least some of the four U.S.-Iranian dual nationals imprisoned in Iran. Qatar supports both initiatives and has been among the countries urging the administration to be more proactive in defining what it is prepared to do in terms of sanctions removal in exchange for Iran returning to restrictions on its nuclear program under the 2015 deal.

The Persian Gulf countries also want to begin their own talks with Iran about regional concerns, which is unlikely to happen absent a full return to the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Since President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. participation from the JCPOA in 2018 and imposed ever-stiffer economic sanctions on Iran, the Iranians have rapidly increased their nuclear activities.

During the meeting Monday, Biden also announced what he said was a $20 billion deal between Qatar Airways Group and Boeing for 777X freighters, which he said “will support tens of thousands of good-paying U.S. jobs here in America” — a sentiment he and other administration officials echoed on Twitter.

In addition to his meeting with Biden, the emir is also scheduled for talks with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and members of Congress. Those talks are likely to focus on Afghanistan, where Qatar continues to play a central role in facilitating the evacuation of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens, permanent residents and at-risk Afghans.

Qatar is also seeking an answer on its long-standing request to purchase an estimated $600 million worth of armed drones, a request that has been pending for more than a year. The administration has declined to give a reason for the holdup. Although the Defense Department has reportedly encouraged the sale, the State Department — along with some members of Congress — is reportedly concerned it would upset the balance of power in the Persian Gulf.

Qatar has hosted U.S. talks with the Taliban through three administrations, up to the militant takeover of Afghanistan in August. Since then, Qatar has continued to provide a way station for those on their way to the United States.

Ongoing U.S. evacuation charters of Qatar Airways flights from Kabul were halted after Dec. 1 amid a series of disputes between the Qatar government and the Taliban over who would board the flights and how Kabul’s airport would be run. Those disagreements appear now to have been at least partially settled, allowing the first U.S. evacuation flight from Kabul in nearly two months to arrive in Doha last week.

A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters Sunday on the emir’s visit said the United States was “incredibly grateful to Qatar for its support for Afghanistan.” The administration also credits Qatar with helping to limit last year’s violent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

But the most urgent issue on the agenda was the gas supplies. In the event of a war between Russia and Ukraine, Moscow is expected to shut down pipelines that carry Russian gas through Ukraine to Europe.

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The administration and its European allies, fearing an energy crisis during the European winter, have been trying to arrange alternative supplies.