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Trump expands embrace of Persian Gulf monarchies as Qatar inks deals with U.S. companies

President Trump holds an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Iran in the Oval Office on June 24. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

President Trump expanded his embrace of Persian Gulf monarchies Tuesday, declaring it a “great honor” to host Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar, whom he described as a “highly respected man, a real leader,” whose government is “investing very heavily in our country” and buying “tremendous amounts of military equipment.”

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office before their closed-door meeting, Tamim said Qatar was planning to double its current economic partnership of more than $185 billion with the United States.

While Trump and Tamim watched approvingly, a Qatari government official signed commercial contracts with five major U.S. companies, including Boeing, General Electric, Raytheon, Gulfstream and Chevron. Qatar is also expanding its air and naval forces, in part with U.S. equipment.

On Monday night, Trump attended a dinner for Tamim hosted by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, along with more than 40 American business leaders.

While Trump emphasized that their private conversations would focus on commercial relations, U.S. and Qatari officials said discussions also included Tamim’s offer to mediate between the United States and Iran.

“It’s well known that Qatar has a relationship with Iran,” said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive issue. “I don’t think it would be any sort of formal mediation role. But we might look to them to pass messages and convey the seriousness of the administration’s attempt to de-escalate and build some sort of path to dialogue.”

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The emir’s visit comes as feuding kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula have continued to compete for U.S. favor, following an ongoing breach that began in May 2017. Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations severed relations with Qatar and imposed a land and air blockade against the tiny, energy-rich Persian Gulf nation.

The quarrel has put the United States, which maintains close military and diplomatic relations with all involved, in a difficult place as it tries to marshal a unified regional front against Iran.

“We’ll talk about the rift and the ways we can pull the gulf together,” the U.S. official said. Divisions in the region “are not helpful at this particular time” and “could be exploited by the Iranians,” the official said.

Trump, along with his son-in-law, White House adviser Jared Kushner, has been particularly close to Saudi Arabia and has praised its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in terms similar to those he used Tuesday about Tamim. Mohammed, Trump said after meeting with him at last month’s Group of 20 summit in Japan, is “a friend of mine” and “a big purchaser of American products and especially American military equipment.”

At various times, Trump has said that Saudi military purchases create hundreds of thousands, or, as he said at the G-20, “at least a million jobs,” in this country, although few of the major purchases outlined by the two sides when the president visited Saudi Arabia in early 2017 have come to fruition.

Trump initially sided with the Saudis in the inter-Arab feud, but he quickly backed away from the quarrel on advice of his senior national security team, which cautioned that the dispute was rooted in a century of animosity among the royal families. Both sides have spent millions in the United States on public relations campaigns denouncing each other, while the White House has sought unsuccessfully to bring them together.

Qatar hosts the primary U.S. air base in the region, home to about 10,000 American troops, and the operations center of U.S. Central Command. Al-Udeid Air Base “is incredible . . . right in the middle of the Middle East,” Trump said Tuesday.

Qatar’s wealth stems from the Pars natural-gas field, which spans the Persian Gulf between Qatar and Iran. The world’s largest, it is jointly owned by the two countries.

Before the current Arabian feud, Qatar recalled its ambassador from Tehran in early 2016 to show solidarity with Saudi Arabia after protesters ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, an attack triggered by Riyadh’s execution of a well-known Shiite Muslim cleric. But Doha reestablished relations with Tehran in August 2017 after the Saudis broke relations with Qatar.

Jassim al-Thani, attache for Qatar’s embassy in the United States, said the emir would not push for mediation with Iran but would offer its services if both Tehran and Washington agree.

As Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Bahrain and Egypt, have continued to exert economic pressure on Qatar — such as by denying overflight rights to its airlines — Doha has received support from Turkey and Iran, which has allowed Qatar to fly over its territory.

The emir visited the Pentagon after his arrival Monday, and he plans to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday and with the House and Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees before departing Thursday.

Officials from both countries said discussions would also include the situation in Libya, where Qatar supports the U.N.-backed government.