Qatar’s role in international diplomacy and global security was highlighted in a meeting between the country’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on 6th June.
With world energy markets still struggling to absorb the impact of the war in Ukraine and global concern over rising food and commodity prices and the cost of living, leaders have found it difficult to make diplomatic breakthroughs or identify workable solutions to some of the most pressing issues in world politics.
Such impasses have demonstrated the need for diplomatic actors capable of engaging with all parties, exchanging messages and ideas and leveraging relationships across regional and geopolitical divides.
Sheikh Mohammed’s visit to Washington, D.C. comes after a frenetic period of Qatari diplomatic activity which saw the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani visit Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates between 12-15 May and Slovenia, Spain, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom between 16-24 May.
Various reasons lay behind the choice of destinations, including the offering of condolences in Abu Dhabi after the death of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Although a range of issues dominated discussions, the two most significant were European energy security and the stalled negotiations in Vienna over reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – both issues where Qatar has a role to play.
Energy and investment agreements featured prominently throughout the amir’s European trip, illustrating the newfound sense of urgency in the continent arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the belated acknowledgment of the need to diversify sources of imported supplies.
An energy agreement with Slovenia was on the agenda during Sheikh Tamim’s meetings in Ljubljana, while in Spain the Qatar Investment Authority announced plans to invest US$4.9 billion in energy security and green energy projects.
Germany and Qatar declared an energy partnership during the amir’s time in Berlin which coincided with an announcement that Qatar could begin providing Germany with LNG by 2024, earlier than previously anticipated.
A UK-Qatar Energy Dialogue was among the agreements launched in London alongside a Qatar-UK Strategic Investment Partnership and Strategic Dialogue.
The spate of energy agreements signed during the amir’s visit to Europe illustrated one aspect of Qatari diplomacy, namely its seat at the table when critical decisions are being taken that will shape a part of the international energy landscape for years, perhaps decades, to come.
While the disruption caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could hardly have been predicted when the Qatari leadership announced the plan to expand production in the North Field in 2017; the two-phased increase in LNG production from 77 million tonnes per annum to 110mtpa by 2025 and 126mtpa by 2027 has inserted Doha into a position of policy relevance on the international stage for the remainder of the 2020s at the very least.
This is consistent with the careful leveraging of Qatar’s energy resources to underpin and expand strategic and foreign policy partnerships since the 1990s.
Iran nuclear deal
Another central component of Qatari diplomacy is evident in the ways the Qatari leadership have engaged with their counterparts in the United States and Iran in recent months.
In late-January, the Qatari foreign minister traveled to Tehran to meet his Iranian counterpart days after speaking with Secretary of State Blinken and shortly before Sheikh Tamim became the first Gulf leader to meet President Biden since he took office in 2021.
Three weeks after the amir’s Oval Office meeting he hosted Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi who made his first visit as president to any of the Arab Gulf states.
A broadly similar triangulation of dialogue followed Sheikh Tamim’s 12 May trip to Iran to meet with Raisi and other senior Iranian leaders, as the foreign minister spoke with both his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, and Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Progress on restoring the JCPOA has been slow and has not yet delivered a return to the agreement by the US or by Iran. For domestic policy reasons, the Biden administration may be unable to make and deliver the guarantees sought by Iranian officials to return to compliance with a deal that a future US government could again walk away from as soon as January 2025.
These fundamental issues are not necessarily ones that third parties such as Qatar can engage in, as the fate of the negotiations may ultimately be decided by internal political calculations in Washington and/or Tehran.
Qatar’s mediation role
Where states like Qatar, which maintain relationships with parties that find it difficult to speak directly to one another, can productively engage, is in keeping open channels of communication and addressing specific issues that may arise.
An example was the foreign minister’s meeting in Moscow in mid-March with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, shortly after Russian officials had indicated that tensions with the US over sanctions related to the invasion of Ukraine could spill into and undermine the Iran nuclear negotiations in Vienna.
Any breakdown in the nuclear negotiations with Iran could trigger an escalatory spiral in the Gulf which would not be in the interests of any regional or international stakeholder.
The thrust of Qatari engagement since the Biden administration took office in 2021 has been to ensure that diplomacy continues and that dialogue eventually bears fruit.
Having the ability to talk with all parties can at least try to prevent the breakdown of negotiations with the negative potential consequences that might result.
Even if US and Iranian differences cannot be bridged at this moment, Qatari diplomacy could focus on issues such as working with the US and other states – including Iran – to rebalance energy markets and on any meeting that President Biden may hold with Gulf leaders should he visit the region in July.
Such an approach could address some of the secondary impacts of the main geopolitical standoffs and support attempts by policymakers from states directly involved to seek (admittedly elusive) progress of their own.