Qatar's Balancing Act

In March 2009, John Kerry returned from a trip to the Middle East perplexed by the foreign policy of a tiny Gulf nation. "Qatar can't continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday," he said.

On September 5, Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, revealed another enigmatic relationship: He hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Doha. It is widely known in the region that Iran and Qatar have become closer allies since Ahmadinejad
was elected. The Emir and Ahmadinejad are close friends.

But the Emir has another friend, too-- President Obama. U.S. Central Command has had a significant strategic presence in Qatar since 1996, and it built the current Army base, Camp As-Sayliyah - which has played a crucial role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars - in 2000.  At the U.S.-Islamic World Forum held in Doha in February, Obama called Qatar "a place where our countries come together to forge innovative partnerships in education and medicine, science and technology."
qatari emir and obama.jpg

So how does the Emir maintain relationships with both Obama and Ahmadinejad without undermining the trust of either? And why is Qatar the only GCC country to attempt this seemingly strange balancing act?

"If people are confused about Qatar's role, they shouldn't be because it has worked," says Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. "It's not as baffling as it might be at first glance."A closer look into current regional geopolitics helps explain how the Emir can afford to keep both countries close. And why it has been so successful at nurturing each relationship. 

Geographically, the Gulf connects Iran to the West. But Qatar has by far the closest relationship to Iran of any GCC country. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as an enemy.  The United Arab Emirates, also close to Iran, is still angry about Iran's seizure of Abu Masa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, three islands in the Strait of Hormuz, in 1971. Iran rushed to occupy the islands on the eve of the UAE's independence, right after the British guarantor left the region.

"If you are Qatar, you look across the water and you think, when Iran did have the opportunity to take a few Arab islands, they did it," explains David Roberts, a Qatari foreign policy Ph.D. candidate at Durham University in England who writes The Gulf Blog. "To me, that's one example of part of the underlying mistrust between the two [nations]."

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Despite that latent distrust, Qatar needs to keep up good relations - its livelihood as a nation depends on it. Ras Laffan, or RasGas, Qatar's natural gas production company, maintains its gas terminal at the northern tip of the country - the part closest to Iran.

If a conflict erupts between America and Iran, Roberts says, Qatar would literally be caught in the middle. "Iran, if it wanted to, could click its fingers and sever Qatar's money," he says, adding that he thinks it highly unlikely that Iran would ever attack Qatar. But even so, "Qatar needs to have the ability to peacefully go about their business of sucking all the gas out of that giant field." Iran, he says, could make that process very difficult.

Notably, the Iran-Qatar relationship is symbiotic: Iran needs Qatar as much as Qatar needs Iran. Ahmadinejad doesn't want to appear isolated. Having friends makes him - and Iran as a nation--seem more balanced and less psychotic. And if America does attack Iran, it helps to have a rich, amicable neighbor to provide humanitarian support.

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Elizabeth Weingarten is an editorial assistant at the New America Foundation. A former Slate editorial assistant, she also previously wrote for and produced the Atlantic's International Channel.

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