Foreign Friends

The White House has labeled Qatar a “major non-NATO ally,” laying the foundations for a wave of new defense cooperations between Doha and Washington, DC.

In March 2022, US President Joe Biden recognized Qatar as a major non-NATO ally (MNNA), by issuing a presidential memorandum. The MNNA status is granted to foreign states that have “exceptionally” close ties with the US despite not being a NATO member. The designation became official during Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani’s state visit to the US, when the Amir of Qatar became the first leader from the Middle East to visit Washington since Biden’s election.

The US President praised Qatar’s exceptional assistance in joint military operations as well as its role as a mediator to deescalate military standoffs and tensions in the region.

President Biden said the designation marks the importance of Doha-Washington ties, adding that the MNNA status for Qatar was “long overdue.” Hopefully, the renewed defense alliance will stabilize the region in these challenging times. “The world today has reached a pivotal stage on all political, economic, environmental, and social levels, and this stage requires radical revisions to spare the world from reaching a state of imbalance,” the Amir of Qatar had previously observed.

Although the US and Qatar have always had close ties, strengthening their alliance makes sense in the wake of Russia’s military adventure in Ukraine, which has jeopardized the West’s energy security. Qatar is the world’s leading natural gas producer with a wide array of liquefaction plants and a fleet of gas tankers.

Therefore, Qatar is Europe’s best bet for avoiding a frosty winter in 2022, as it can deliver large amounts of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe to make up for Russia’s cut. However, designating Qatar as a major ally is primarily because of the country’s geopolitical importance in a volatile part of the world. Qatar hosts the largest US military presence in the Middle East, with 11,000 American soldiers currently stationed in Al-Udeid Air Base outside Doha. The base also hosts the headquarters of US Central Command Forward and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing. Since 2003, Doha has spent over USD8 billion on the maintenance and upgrading of Al-Udeid Air Base.

The US describes the security cooperation between the two countries “indispensable to supporting US military operations throughout the region.” The two countries have already inked a number of defense deals, building upon the 1992 Defense Cooperation Agreement that laid the foundations of defense cooperation between Doha and Washington by allowing US forces to be stationed in Qatari military bases.

Other notable defense agreements between Doha and Washington include the General Security of Military Information agreement in 2012, a major defense cooperation in 2014, and the sale of USD2.8 billion worth of defense articles in 2016. Now that Qatar is officially an MNNA, cooperation will be even greater.

The designation has symbolic value as a gesture of trust; however, the memorandum issued by the White House also specifies the potential relaxing of the Arms Export Control Act in Doha’s favor, which means Qatar will soon be able to purchase state-of-the-art American weaponry and ammunition as well as enjoy access to the defense surpluses of the US.

Qatar will now enjoy preferential access to American defense equipment, among other benefits. “As a MNNA state, Qatar will have the option to conduct cooperative research and development projects on defense equipment and munitions with the US, and private companies in Qatar will be eligible—as companies in NATO countries are—to bid on contracts to maintain, repair, or overhaul US military equipment,” explains R Clarke Cooper, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The recognition of Qatar as a strategic regional partner by the US will also pave the way for future cooperation between other US allies and Doha. Members of the EU, in particular, are excellent candidates for future defense cooperation. In 2021, Qatar aided the EU with the evacuation of EU nationals from Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul.

The EU, in return, has shown interest in playing a bigger role in maritime security in the Gulf region. Over the last few years, the EU has increasingly come to the conclusion that “there is a strong link between what happens outside of the EU’s borders and security within Europe.

In a rapidly changing world, security challenges have become more complex, multi-dimensional, and fluid.” In February 2022, the Council of the European Union concluded that the EU should extend its coordinated maritime presence to the Gulf region.

If this happens, Qatar can be a reliable partner for European forces, just as it has been a crucial ally for the US. As Qatar continues its ambitious military modernization program, partnership opportunities with allies such as the US and the EU will be a welcome development for the country’s armed forces.

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