DOHA, Qatar – Clustered together in a makeshift operations center in a newly constructed compound in Doha, Qatari officials burst into joy last week as TV screens showed a plane carrying US citizens taking off from Kabul – the first since the United States left Afghanistan last month.
The sand-colored villa campus in the Qatari capital was built to host the Men’s Soccer World Cup next year. But these days, it is home to some of the estimated 58,000 people airlifted to Qatar in the chaotic final days of the war in Afghanistan.
About 1,200 miles away, in Taliban-held Kabul, Qatari technical teams have returned the tattered airport to service.
The jubilation in the operations center echoed the sense of relief and vindication that pervaded Qatar, an extraordinarily wealthy little country whose top-to-bottom relationship with the United States is experiencing a remarkable setback.
“They saved our ass,” said former Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Va., A former Navy SEAL who helped organize the evacuation flights. “The reality is that, more than any other country on a per capita basis, Qatar has taken the lead.”
Flashback four summers ago, when the United States denounced Qatar as a “high-level” donor to terrorism.
As a diplomatic crisis erupted in the Persian Gulf, the Trump administration made Qatar the aggressor, lending credibility to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies, who accused it of instigating Islamist unrest throughout the region. Blocked by its neighbors, Qatar has resorted to airlifting cows from Europe to keep milk flowing to its population, which numbers less than 400,000.
For some in the West, Qatar’s reputation has become that of a dubious ally who has played on all sides, including turning a blind eye to extremism. Despite being home to the largest US military base in the Middle East, Qatar has for years had ties to, and even hosts, groups like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iranian officials and the Taliban.
“This is the role of a mediator,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Lolwah Rashid Mohammed Al-Khater. “It’s not to take sides. It’s to keep channels open with all parties, so that we can facilitate discussions, facilitate things like the evacuation.”
Although US politicians aiming to be tough on terrorism are quick to publicly criticize Qatar, al-Khater said behind the scenes neither the Republican nor Democratic administrations have asked him to sever relations with any of the groups. .
“Once one of them is in power, they actually pursue the same strategy of encouraging us to continue in that role,” she said.
The approach, at least for now, seems to have paid off.
Qatar is at the center of almost every aspect of the US response to the collapse of Afghanistan. Not only were more American and Afghan evacuees flown to Doha than to any other intermediate station, the United States also credited Qatar with helping the Americans get to the airport safely. from Kabul. The Qatari ambassador to Afghanistan personally escorted US citizens through Taliban checkpoints.
With the closure of the US Embassy in Kabul, the new US diplomatic mission in Afghanistan is based entirely in Doha, a modern city of sleek skyscrapers and luxury shopping malls.
The decision of the United States to relocate its operations in Afghanistan to Qatar was far from a coincidence. In the years following the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban-in-exile maintained their political office in Doha, a neutral ground where US and Taliban officials could have limited interactions over the years, even as their military forces fought in Afghanistan.
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The United States’ new reliance on the gas-rich desert peninsula was blatant this month when Qatar hosted two of America’s top leaders – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken – at the same time, just days after the United States left Afghanistan. was complete.
Blinken’s first stop immediately after landing: a dinner with Qatari leader Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who greeted him with Austin in his Sea Palace. The emir fortress-like complex, topped by a giant purple and white Qatari flag, looks east across the Persian Gulf to the United Arab Emirates, its country’s occasional rival.
“Many countries have rallied to help the evacuation and relocation efforts in Afghanistan, but no country has done more than Qatar,” Blinken said the next day.
Al-Thani, tall, slim and fluent in English, is a graduate of the prestigious British military academy of Sandhurst, whose alumni include Prince Harry and King Abdullah II of Jordan. He has been on the throne since 2013, and official portraits of the emir and his father hang in government buildings and hotels across Qatar.
During the 2017 blockade, a new stylized image began to appear on taxis, billboards and in social media depicting the emir with bare head and strong jaw above the words “Glorious Tamim” in Arabic calligraphy. – an image which, for many Qataris, has become a symbol of mistrust against Saudi Arabia and its blockade allies.
With its exorbitant wealth, resulting from the largest natural gas deposit in the world, which it shares with Iran, Qatar has long sought to become a major player in diplomacy, finance, sport and regional security – and to win the good graces of both political parties. in the USA
In its sparkling “Education City” in Doha, top US universities like Georgetown, Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon have established satellite campuses, all paid for by Qatar. Next year’s World Cup will bring athletes and spectators from around the world to Doha, despite allegations of corruption in Qatar’s winning bid to host the games. Football’s governing body FIFA and Qatar deny the allegations.
When the Persian Gulf crisis erupted in 2017, Qatar invested tens of millions of dollars in one of Washington’s most sprawling lobbying and public relations campaigns, in an effort to restore its reputation.
Accused by the United States of being an “authorized jurisdiction” for terrorist financing, Qatar said it was taking steps to open its books, allowing Treasury Department officials to enter its central bank. And in 2018, Qatar funded an expansion of Al Udeid Air Base that included more housing and recreational facilities for 10,000 U.S. personnel based there.
Still, America’s burgeoning public dependence on Qatar could have implications for the delicate balance of power between U.S. allies and adversaries in the region, especially as the Biden administration defines its future relationship. with countries like Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which have their own complicated histories. with Qatar.
After years of stalemate in the Gulf diplomatic crisis, Saudi Arabia’s interest in pleading the fight appeared to wane and the blockade ended this year, before Biden took office.
Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf policy expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said other countries in the region, such as the United Arab Emirates, most likely envy the new bonhomie between the United States and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar, especially since President Joe Biden has signaled that the administration does “consider the Middle East and the Gulf as priorities”.
“Some of the other Gulf states have struggled to engage, especially in areas where they may not have made their presence felt in regional diplomacy” on Iran and other issues, he said. Ulrichsen said. “So these were overtures that were more on Qatari terms anyway, given the regional politics of the past five years.”