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Why Qatar Remains an Important American Partner

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In the wake of the horrific attack on Israel staged by Hamas terrorists on October 7, the relationship between Qatar and Hamas is coming under intense scrutiny among American observers. Some have argued that the United States should punish or at least heavily pressure Qatar, possibly alongside Turkey, as a result of their relations with Hamas and the wider Muslim Brotherhood. But shaking the foundations of the U.S.-Qatar security relationship, which has served the United States well since 1996, would be very unwise.

First, it is important to put Qatar’s relationship with Hamas in its U.S. and Israeli context. Hamas was at the center of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of avoiding any serious discussion of a Palestinian state. It has been widely reported in the Israeli press that Netanyahu made remarks at a 2019 meeting with Likud leaders suggesting that Israelis who oppose a Palestinian state should support the (mostly Qatari) transfer of funds to Gaza because maintaining a separation between Gaza and the autonomous zones in West Bank under the Palestinian Authority would prevent it from being established. That was not Qatar’s motivation in providing funds to keep Gaza afloat in the absence of a normal economy, but Qatar was clearly acting with the knowledge and acquiescence of Israel’s leadership.

Second, Qatar has two larger neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which seriously considered undertaking an act of military aggression against Qatar in 2017 at the outset of their blockade of travel and trade with Qatar. The large U.S. base near Doha seriously constrained any plans for such aggressive action, even as President Trump briefly seemed to support the Saudi-UAE side. While these countries have normalized relations and reopened embassies subsequently, the same rulers remain in power, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia remains a mercurial figure. Even after Qatar’s military buildup in subsequent years, it remains heavily overmatched by its neighbors. Thus, it would be highly irrational for Doha to use the Al Udeid basing rights as leverage against Washington, and it would shake the Qatar-U.S. relationship to the absolute core if the latter sought to move the base to either of those countries.

There are also several well-known obstacles to moving U.S. air assets to Saudi Arabia or the UAE. The State Department already paused the sale of F-35 fighter aircraft to the UAE due in part to concerns about potential Chinese influence and presence. It is also doubtful that Saudi Arabia would completely fund a U.S. base the way Qatar has. As the Biden administration’s recent negotiations with MBS over potential normalization with Israel have shown, MBS makes “asks” of the United States, not the other way around. Finally, it bears remembering that Qatar allowed Al Udeid to be used for attack missions in Iraq, even after Qatari officials had stated their opposition to the 2003 invasion. The UAE limited the use of the Al-Dhafra base during the 2003 invasion to non-lethal refueling and reconnaissance missions. Though the invasion of Iraq was clearly a mistake, the flexibility provided by our arrangement with Qatar when the chips were down, even as they wisely counseled us against it, was critical to the undertaking.

Finally, Qatar is currently undertaking delicate negotiations on behalf of both the United States and Israel with Hamas to seek the release of Israeli, American, and other hostages. Qatar is also presumably continuing to act as an intermediary between the United States and Iran as we seek to avoid escalation into a wider regional war and maintain some of the forbearance they have shown recently in their nuclear program. There will be a time for Washington and Doha to discuss Qatar’s relations with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Still, there is no reason to shake the foundations of the bilateral security relationship at the moment. While there is no prospect of near-term normalization with Israel, they will continue to have contacts on the issue and any new framework for governance in Gaza. That may be more productive under a new Israeli government—the events of the last two weeks have demonstrated the bankruptcy of Netanyahu’s approach toward the Palestinian issue.

Greg Priddy is a Senior Fellow for the Middle East at the Center for the National Interest.