The governments of Qatar and the United States held the inaugural US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue in Washington on January 30, the latest effort by Doha to solidify support within the US State Department and Pentagon against the background of mixed signals coming out of the Trump administration.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis co-chaired the opening session with Qatari Minister of State for Defense Khalid al-Attiyah and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. The US Secretaries of Energy, Commerce and the Treasury also held discussions with their Qatari counterparts.
During the meetings, the Qatari ministers hinted at possible future military purchases of several billion more dollars beyond the mega-deals already signed in recent weeks.
In opening statements, both Mattis and Tillerson offered favourable words about the bilateral relationship. Mattis said that “The US enjoys a longstanding defense relationship with Qatar [and is] grateful to Qatar for their longstanding support of America’s presence and commitment to regional security, including information sharing and counterterrorism.”
Both Mattis and Tillerson called on all sides in the dispute pitting Qatar against a Saudi-led Arab quartet to calm tensions and said that a united Gulf Cooperation Council is necessary to ensure regional stability.
“A united Gulf Cooperation Council bolsters our effectiveness on many fronts, particularly on counterterrorism, defeating ISIS Daesh, and countering the spread of Iran’s malign influence,” Mattis said. Tillerson chimed in, “It is critical that all parties minimize rhetoric, exercise restraint to avoid further escalation and work toward a resolution.”
Qatar’s foreign minister said that “Qatar and its people have been illegally and unjustifiably blockaded” and thanked the US Congress and the Trump administration for taking what he said was a “just position” on the trade and travel boycott.
In fact, the Trump administration’s position on the dispute never has been perfectly clear, which has created bureaucratic openings in Washington that have allowed Doha to cultivate powerful allies. When the crisis first erupted, President Donald Trump tweeted support for the boycott and Riyadh’s position and voiced criticism of Qatar’s support for extremist groups, even suggesting that such support was coming from high levels in Qatar. A few weeks later, he offered to mediate the conflict. And in early January, Trump thanked Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani for his efforts to counter terrorism.
With these kinds of mixed signals coming from the top, virtually any official in Washington can present evidence to justify virtually any position.
Because Qatar hosts US and international forces at Al Udeid Air Base — from which the US military coordinates data and intelligence from satellites, drones and radar — Doha has spent considerable effort in cultivating friends in the Pentagon and within the US defense industry. During the Strategic Dialogue, US and Qatari officials issued a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, affirming the two countries’ joint commitment to “promoting peace and stability” and “countering the scourge of terrorism.”
The Joint Declaration also referenced the $24.7 billion Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program between the US and Qatar, and noted that US military sales to Qatar “have resulted in over 110,000 American jobs and the sustainment of critical military capabilities for the United States.”
The Qatari delegation also bore a gift for the US airline industry, as state-owned Qatar Airways announced that it has agreed to release detailed and audited financial statements in response to long-running accusations by US airlines that the carrier is illegally subsidized by its government.
A coalition representing the largest US carriers — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — praised the announcement as a victory for the US airline industry. The US airlines’ complaint also has targeted the two largest UAE-based carriers, Etihad Airways and Emirates.
Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.
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