Qatar: Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy

The State of Qatar has employed its ample financial resources to exert regional influence often independent of the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Oman), an alliance of six Gulf monarchies. While fostering a close defense and security alliance with the United States, Qatar has intervened in several regional conflicts and has maintained ties to a wide range of actors who are often at odds with each other, including Sunni Islamists, Iran and Iran-backed groups, and Israeli officials. Qatar has maintained consistent dialogue with Iran, but the country also hosts U.S. forces that are attempting to deter Iran and conducting combat against major regional terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State.

Qatar’s support for regional Muslim Brotherhood organizations and its Al Jazeera media network have contributed to a backlash against Qatar led by fellow GCC states Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, joined by Egypt and a few other governments, severed relations with Qatar and imposed limits on the entry and transit of Qatari nationals and vessels in their territories, waters, and airspace. The Trump Administration has sought a resolution of the dispute, in part because the rift is hindering U.S. efforts to formalize a “Middle East Strategic Alliance” of the United States, the GCC, and other Sunni-led countries in the region to counter Iran. Qatar has countered the Saudi-led pressure with new arms purchases and deepening relations with Turkey and Iran. Some signs that the rift might be soon be resolved emerged in late 2019, but progress apparently stalled in January 2020.

Qatar’s leaders have looked to the United States to guarantee their external security since the 1980s, as do the other GCC leaders. Since 1992, the United States and Qatar have had a formal Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) that reportedly addresses a U.S. troop presence in Qatar, consideration of U.S. arms sales to Qatar, U.S. training, and other defense cooperation. Under the DCA, Qatar hosts up to 11,000 U.S. and coalition forces and the regional headquarters for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) at various military facilities, including the large Al Udeid Air Base. These facilities help U.S. forces participate in operations throughout the region. Qatar is a significant buyer of U.S.-made weaponry, including combat aircraft. In January 2018, Qatar and the United States inaugurated a “Strategic Dialogue” and, in January 2019, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to expand Al Udeid Air Base to improve and expand accommodation for U.S. military personnel. Qatar signed a broad memorandum of understanding with the United States in 2017 to cooperate against international terrorism, partly representing a joint effort to rebut claims that Qatar supports terrorist groups.

The voluntary relinquishing of power in 2013 by Qatar’s former Amir (ruler), Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, departed from GCC patterns of governance in which leaders generally remain in power for life. However, Qatar is the only one of the smaller GCC states that has not yet held elections for a legislative body. U.S. and international reports criticize Qatar for not adhering to international standards of labor rights practices, but credit it for taking steps in 2018 to improve the conditions for expatriate workers.

Like other GCC states, Qatar is wrestling with the fluctuations in global hydrocarbons prices that started in 2014 and are now compounded by the Saudi-led embargo. Qatar is positioned to weather these headwinds because of its small population, substantial financial reserves, and its favorable business conditions for entrepreneurs. But, Qatar shares with virtually all the other GCC states a lack of economic diversification and reliance on revenues from sales of hydrocarbon products. On December 3, 2018, Qatar announced its withdrawal from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in order to focus on its natural gas export sector.