Qatar appears set to get a new US ambassador who has recently stressed the importance of national security during a confirmation hearing with government officials in Washington, DC.
Although Qatar is home to less than 10,000 Americans, the Gulf state hosts the largest US airbase in the Middle East, and the new appointment would come at a time of increasing economic and political cooperation between the two nations.
Most recently, she served as principal deputy assistant secretary for public affairs.
In a previous role as a regional State Department spokesperson, Smith was once referred to as “the face of the United States in the Middle East” by a professor at the University of Delaware, where she gave a presentation on public diplomacy.
According to a report on that talk, Smith spoke at length about the importance of transparency, and being clear and credible in explaining US policy decisions, and the reasons behind them.
The diplomat is poised to replace Susan Ziadeh, who has officially served as ambassador to Qatar since October 2011. If confirmed, this would be Smith’s first time heading a diplomatic mission as ambassador.
While there are multiple economic, cultural and military dimensions to the US-Qatar relationship, Smith repeatedly said during her confirmation hearing last week that national security would be her top priority if she becomes her country’s top diplomat in Doha.
Many of the questions Smith faced came from Republican congressmen, who represent the minority political party in the Senate.
Inquiries centered particularly around the recent release of five Taliban fighters from American custody in Guantanamo Bay to Qatar’s control in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive in Afghanistan.
Members of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations asked to hear more about the deal, while Republican Marco Rubio – who asked Smith for help in correctly pronouncing “Qatar” before posing his first question – wanted to know how the US would supervise the released prisoners and whether Qatari authorities were capable of monitoring their movements.
Smith wouldn’t discuss the US role in detail beyond paraphrasing remarks made by Secretary of State John Kerry, saying, “Qatar won’t be the only ones with eyes on these individuals.”
“If I am confirmed, this goes to the very top of my list of priorities. We will be working very closely with the Qataris, we will be engaging them very closely, verifying the restrictions they have put on these individuals and the information that they will be collecting on these individuals. (Qatar has) the capacity to do this.
We have a high degree of confidence in their capacity. We also assessed that they have the will to do this. Their Emir called (US President Barack Obama) and gave his personal assurances, his commitment to do this.”
Later in the hearing, Republican Ron Johnson questioned Smith’s confidence in Qatar to strictly police the movements of the freed Taliban prisoners and advised her to watch the video of their release.
“It doesn’t look like a particularly restrictive environment to me,” Johnson said.
For their part, the five Taliban members have said they will honor an agreement they made with Qatar following their release. What that agreement entails beyond the one-year travel ban has not been publicly disclosed.
Syria was the only other Qatar-related topic raised by senators at the confirmation hearing for Smith. The hearing was also for newly nominated US ambassadors to Egypt and Iraq.
“Because of of our inability, or lack of desire, or just whatever, in taking a lead relative to the Syrian opposition, Qatar has taken a role that’s been unhealthy,” said Democrat chair Robert Menendez.
The Gulf country has reportedly been supplying weapons to forces fighting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. This has left some in the West nervous because the opposition includes Islamist fighters.
However, there have been new signs that Qatar and the US are finding common ground in their support of moderate forces, highlighted by recent reports that American forces are training Syrian rebels in the Qatar desert.
For her part, Smith said Qatar and the US “are making progress with respect to coordination” and that the two countries “continue to find ways of coordinating and working with the moderate opposition.”
In her prepared remarks, Smith touched on several other diplomatic priorities, including:
- Plans to deepen military ties between the two countries. After referencing the American military presence at Al Udeid Air Base and last December’s renewal of the Qatar-US defense cooperation agreement, Smith suggested she would also like to see Qatar do more to disrupt financing for terrorist organizations.
- Noting that Qatar’s rapid economic growth and infrastructure spending plans present “tremendous” opportunities for American businesses, Smith said she would “advocate for US companies vigorously.”
- Highlighting the six American universities in Qatar at Education City, Smith said she would “work to expand our educational and cultural partnerships.”
Reuters reports that the Senate will vote to confirm Smith’s appointment before it recesses in early July. Assuming the nomination is approved, local residents may see Smith on the streets of Doha before she takes up her official post in the US embassy.
In a 2012 Atlantic article on work-life balance, Smith wrote that she typically takes a week off after arriving in a new country to settle in her family.