By Andrew Mills
DOHA (Reuters) – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created diplomatic and commercial opportunities for gas exporter Qatar to expand energy sales to the West and strengthen its alliance with Washington amid tensions between the US and other Gulf Arab states.
Qatar has sought a largely neutral stance on the conflict, but while trying to take sides, its response has indicated that it can provide significant political and economic aid to Western partners.
With many European energy importers urgently looking for ways to reduce their heavy reliance on Russia, Qatar has suggested it could divert more gas to Europe in the future.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, have resisted Western calls for a rapid increase in oil production to stem a crude oil price hike caused by the conflict in Ukraine.
Those two leading Gulf Arab powers, which have spent years trying to isolate Qatar, have seen their own relations with Washington tense in recent years, in part because of concerns about US security obligations to its Gulf Arab partners.
Meanwhile, Qatar, which houses the largest US air base in the Middle East, was designated a major non-NATO ally of the United States last month — a status that neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia has been accorded.
It has tried to play a role in Iran’s nuclear talks and relayed messages between Tehran and Washington.
Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Monday. The talks focused on removing obstacles to completing the Iran nuclear deal, a source familiar with the Iran talks told Reuters.
“There was coordination with Washington ahead of the Qatari foreign minister’s visit to Moscow, especially regarding the JCPOA discussion,” the source said, using the acronym for the formal name of the nuclear deal.
A day before his trip to Moscow, Sheikh Mohammed spoke with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He also met colleagues in Germany and France, who are parties to talks with Iran along with the United States, Britain, China and Russia.
After the meeting, Lavrov renounced previous demands that had stalled negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
“It appears that Qatar has played a role in discussions on the fringes of talks with Iran. How direct and how consistent that role is is up for debate,” said Mehran Kamrava, a professor at Qatar’s Georgetown University.
“DO NOT TRY TO HEDGE”
While Doha, like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, has strengthened its diplomatic and economic ties with Moscow in recent years, it has maintained a strong partnership with Washington.
While the UAE abstained from a US-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution last month, and US President Joe Biden has yet to speak directly with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he met Qatari Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani at the White House in January.
“Qatar isn’t trying to hedge like Saudi Arabia and the UAE… The bottom line is that this small country sitting on this huge gas field that’s going to generate huge amounts of money believes it has only one ultimate source of protection. And that are the United States,” said Martin Indyk, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and former US Middle East Peace Envoy.
Of the world’s largest liquefied (LNG) producers, Qatar is one of the wealthiest countries per capita and is home to just three million people, 85% of whom are foreign workers.
On the international stage, Qatar’s pivotal role has been to host Afghan peace talks that led to the 2020 US withdrawal agreement.
It remains an essential link between Western countries and the Taliban-led government, which hosts the West’s Afghan diplomatic missions and even flies officials to Kabul, whose Qatar airport helps manage and control.
“Now, whenever there’s an opportunity, (Qatar) just go for it. They’re selling themselves as an extension of US foreign and security policy in a way no other Gulf country does,” said Andreas Krieg, a professor at King’s University. University in London.
‘A HUGE OPPORTUNITY’
When Qatar decided to increase LNG production by 2027, some wondered how Qatar would find customers. But now, amid strong demand and high prices, Western leaders are urging Qatar to ramp up supplies to Europe amid concerns over Russia, which currently supplies some 30-40% of the continent’s gas needs. provides.
“The renewed interest in diversifying Europe’s gas supply presents a huge opportunity for Qatar to sell the massive new supplies coming into service,” said Justin Alexander, director of Khalij Economics, a Gulf-focused consultancy.
Qatar’s energy minister, Saad Al-Kaabi, recently emphasized that new LNG volumes are intended for customers in Asia and Europe, based on previous reports that the extra gas was largely for Asia.
However, Qatar has not yet announced any new long-term European contracts, which Alexander said will take time to negotiate and require new infrastructure to receive Qatar’s LNG carriers.
(Reporting and writing by Andrew Mills; editing by Dominic Evans, William Maclean)
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