© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov walks with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in Moscow, Russia September 11, 2021. Alexander Nemenov/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
By Andrew Mills
DOHA (Reuters) – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has opened up diplomatic and commercial opportunities for gas exporter Qatar to expand energy sales to the West and bolster its alliance with Washington amid U.S. tensions with other Gulf Arab states.
Qatar has sought a largely neutral stance on the conflict, but while trying to avoid choosing sides, it has signalled through its response that it can offer significant political and economic assistance to Western partners.
With many European energy importers looking urgently for ways to ease their heavy dependence on Russia, Qatar has suggested it could direct more gas in future to Europe.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in contrast have resisted Western calls for a rapid rise in oil output to contain a jump in crude prices caused by the conflict in Ukraine.
Those two leading Gulf Arab powers, which sought for years to isolate Qatar, have seen their own relations with Washington strained in recent years, partly over concerns about U.S. security commitments to its Gulf Arab partners.
Meanwhile Qatar, which hosts the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East, was designated a major non-NATO ally of the United States last month – a status neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia have been awarded.
It has sought to play a role throughout the Iran nuclear talks and has carried messages between Tehran and Washington.
On Monday Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Talks focused on lifting barriers to completing the Iran nuclear deal, a source with knowledge of the Iran talks told Reuters.
“There was coordination with Washington prior to the Qatari foreign minister’s visit to Moscow, especially with regards to the JCPOA discussion,” the source said, using the acronym for the formal name of the nuclear accord.
A day before his Moscow trip, Sheikh Mohammed spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He also met counterparts in Germany and France, which are parties to the Iran talks along with the United States, Britain, China and Russia.
After the meeting Lavrov stepped back from earlier demands that had stalled negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
“It does appear that Qatar has played a role in discussions on the edges of the Iran talks. How direct and how consequential that role is open to question,” said Mehran Kamrava, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar.
“NOT TRYING TO HEDGE”
Although Doha has in recent years, like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, strengthened its diplomatic and economic ties with Moscow, it has maintained a strong partnership with Washington.
While the UAE abstained from a U.S.-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution last month, and U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to speak directly to Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he met Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani at the White House in January.
“Qatar is not trying to hedge like Saudi Arabia and the UAE…The bottom line is this little country that’s sitting on this huge gas field which is going to generate massive amounts of money believes it has only one ultimate source of protection. And that’s the United States,” said Martin Indyk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. Middle East peace envoy.
Among the world’s largest producers of liquified (LNG), Qatar is one of the wealthiest nations per capita and is home to barely three million people, 85% of them foreign workers.
On the international stage, Qatar’s central role has been to host Afghan peace talks that led to the 2020 agreement for the U.S. withdrawal.
It remains an essential link between Western nations and the Taliban-led government, hosting the West’s Afghan diplomatic missions and even flying officials into Kabul, whose airport Qatar helps manage and control.
“Now, whenever there is an opportunity, (Qatar) just goes for it. They’re marketing themselves as an extension of U.S. foreign and security policy in a way that no other Gulf country is doing,” said Andreas Krieg a professor at King’s College in London.
‘AN ENORMOUS OPPORTUNITY’
When Qatar decided to hike LNG production by 2027, some questioned how Qatar would find customers. But now, amid strong demand and high prices, Western leaders are urging Qatar to boost supplies to Europe amid concerns about Russia, which currently supplies some 30-40% of the continent’s gas needs.
“The renewed interest in diversifying European gas supplies presents an enormous opportunity for Qatar to sell the vast new supplies coming onstream,” said Justin Alexander, director of Khalij Economics, a Gulf-focused consultancy.
Qatar’s energy minister Saad Al-Kaabi recently stressed new LNG volumes are meant for customers in Asia and Europe, pivoting from earlier messaging that the extra gas was largely for Asia.
However Qatar has not yet announced new long term European contracts, which Alexander says will take time to negotiate and require new infrastructure to receive Qatar’s LNG tankers.
(Reporting and writing by Andrew Mills; editing by Dominic Evans, William Maclean)