On 24 February, the Qatari Emir Shaikh Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani met with US President Obama in Washington. Discussions between the two leaders focused on the US-led coalition against Islamic State (IS) and other regional security developments including the situation in Syria, the ongoing unrest in Libya and Yemen, and the peace process between Israel and Palestine. It is also plausible that they touched on the current tensions between Doha and Cairo (see our last Qatar Report). The fact that the Emir was invited to meet with Obama highlights Doha’s continued regional influence.
Both countries share a number of mutual concerns and interests and this is demonstrated by Doha’s role in supporting international air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria by allowing Washington to use its al-Udeid Air Force base for the military action. The gesture is mostly symbolic given the US has used the base to support its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq since the early 2000s.
Furthermore, Qatar has also been engaged by the US to secure the release of foreign hostages held in Syria and Iraq. For example, in August the Government helped to free US journalist Peter Theo Curtis, who had been held hostage by the al-Qaeda linked jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) in Syria since 2012. Given its previous involvement in such negotiations, reports that Doha sought to secure the freedom of the two Japanese hostages before they were killed by IS, and is currently attempting to mediate the release of Lebanese soldiers held by JaN, are also plausible. Indeed, these efforts reinforce the importance of Qatar’s links with Islamists to the US, as well as to other regional Governments.
That being said, the relationship between Doha and Washington is strained by some differences. The US Government has been critical in the past of Qatar’s support for regional Islamists and has attempted to put pressure on Doha to take action against local jihadist fundraising. For example, in September, the US Treasury named a number of Qatar-based individuals as financial facilitators for jihadist groups. However, Doha has so far resisted pressure to introduce large-scale measures to restrict jihadist fundraising activity on its soil.
Despite these differences, the two countries’ shared interest in maintaining regional security will mean that bilateral ties are likely to remain stable for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the Emir’s meeting with Obama may also be part of a wider effort to strengthen its ties with the US and reassert its influence in the region amidst ongoing uncertainty over the foreign policy priorities of the new Saudi King Salman.