By Giorgio Cafiero, ASP Adjunct Fellow
Last month, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Doha on a regional tour to “reinforce” the United States and Qatar’s strong ties. While in the Arab Gulf emirate, which hosts significant elements of US forces, Mattis told Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani that “relationships get better or weaker, and I’m committed to making it better from our side.” The Pentagon chief emphasized the value of Doha’s contribution to Washington’s counter-terrorism efforts in the Middle East and regional stability more broadly.
The visit came amid growing strong criticism of Qatar in the US press. Opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and elsewhere have called on the Trump administration to pressure Qatar into severing its ties with a host of Islamists groups and individuals. Officials in Washington have also criticized the emirate for not doing enough in the struggle against Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremist forces in the Levant.
The Trump administration’s ‘electronics ban’ in March became another thorn in the side of US-Qatar relations. Last month, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker blasted Trump’s ban on passengers carrying electronics devices larger than a smartphone on certain US-bound flights from Doha and other airports in the Middle East and North Africa, maintaining that there were no legitimate security concerns driving the new administration to implement the ban. In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) many interpret the decision as an effort on the White House’s part to disadvantage Gulf-based carriers which their US competitors have long argued are unfairly benefiting from subsidies.
Despite these issues, Secretary Mattis came to the emirate with the intention of conveying the administration’s support for improving bilateral relations and enhancing cooperation in areas of mutual interest to both Washington and Doha. The Pentagon chief’s visit capitalized on momentum from the US military’s April 7 strikes on Syria. Doha, along with many of Washington’s Western and Middle Eastern allies, hailed the limited and targeted strikes against a regime which the Qataris have attempted to topple by investing billions of dollars into Sunni militias fighting Assad. Of course, it remains to be seen if, and to what extent, the White House follows up the April 7 strikes with further military action against the Syrian regime’s forces and infrastructure. Doha would welcome a stepped-up US military campaign to either topple or severely weaken the Damascus regime and shift the balance of power in favor of Assad’s Qatari/Saudi-backed enemies.
Doha’s relationship with Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood did not come up in Mattis’ conversations with the Qatari leadership, according to press reports. Instead, the first visit to Doha was aimed at improving US-Qatar ties without addressing all issues facing the relationship at once. Throughout the previous eight years, the Qataris were disappointed with the Obama administration for its reluctance to take more decisive action in Syria. There is now cautious optimism in Doha and other GCC capitals that Trump will restore US credibility in the Middle East and invest in Washington’s keys allies while taking their concerns about Iran and Russia’s expanded influence and clout in the region more seriously.
To be sure, Qatar’s relations with the Trump administration have not been as close as Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE’s. This is largely due to the White House’s concerns about Doha’s ties with various Islamist actors. Yet Mattis’ visit to Doha reinforced the fact that Trump’s administration views Qatar as a valuable partner in the Middle East, which hosts large elements of USCENTCOM and backs forces in Syria which are combatting both the Damascus regime and ISIS.
Economically, US-Qatar relations are deep with high levels of trade and investment between both countries further cementing strong bilateral ties. The White House views Qatar as a partner capable of helping Trump make good on his promises to strengthen the US economy in line with his “Make America Great Again” theme. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, Qatar Investment Authority, worth roughly USD 335 billion, carries much economic weight in the global economy. Securing more Qatari investment in the US will likely rank a high priority for the administration.
The question about how the Trump administration will view the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in the president’s vision of defeating “radical Islamic terrorism”, as articulated in his inaugural address, remains unclear, as do the implications for Washington-Doha relations. In any event, Trump’s administration is choosing not to address the sensitive Muslim Brotherhood issue so early on. Instead, the White House is first communicating that improving US-Qatar ties is an early foreign policy priority of this administration.
*Giorgio Cafiero is an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project and the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.