(January 30, 2022 / JNS)
Russia and Qatar are at opposite ends of the European natural-gas supply crisis, sparked by fears of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia is seen by the West as a provocateur; Qatar is framed as an erstwhile savior, expected to make up for potential Russian losses.
Counter to this perception, the two countries share indistinguishable policy positions towards Europe and the United States, and their leaders are acting in a similar fashion. Indeed, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is as much of a threat to the West as Russian President Vladimir Putin and should be treated as such by U.S. President Joe Biden.
Tomorrow (Monday), Biden is hosting Tamim at the White House; turning to one autocrat to address a problem caused by another tyrant: Putin.
Haggling with dictators to secure the free world’s energy supply is bad policy. It upends the West’s moral authority, and threatens U.S. national security and energy independence. In nearly every transaction between the two nations, America’s loss ends up being Qatar’s gain.
American energy dominance, with a special focus on increasing liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, was a key policy goal of the previous U.S. administration. Former President Donald Trump deregulated government interference so that American LNG would be “available to the world”—weakening the power of gas exporting giants such as Russia and Qatar.
As part of his vision, democracies would need to depend less on illiberal authoritarian states for a secure and stable energy supply. Within days of his inauguration, Biden went full throttle and inhibited the planned increase of American natural-gas supplies to global markets through a series of executive orders, undoing Trump’s action.
As Berlin faces a Moscow energy boycott and Kiev a potential Russian invasion, the Biden administration energy reversal has handicapped America’s ability to get ahead of the natural-gas dilemma in Europe. Biden’s policies are restricting his nation’s own domestic-energy development through higher taxes; hampering movement by suspending the transport of LNG on American railways; canceling the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline; and choking the future supply of gas by dropping public investment in new projects. He is thus jeopardizing the creation of new LNG export terminals at home, in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean.
In the wake of this energy folly, scrambling to secure an offset to Russia’s jingoism, his administration looks to a wayward American partner in the Middle East for assistance: Qatar. He will not be hosting one of the Middle East’s most deceptive and disreputable rulers, in a last-minute cry for help, ironically calling on Qatar to increase its oil and gas production—something that he wanted to cease as recently as November.
As it relates to their relationships with Biden, Putin and Tamim couldn’t be more distinct. Biden has described Putin as having “no soul,” has threatened him personally with sanctions and even called him a “killer.” He has lauded his personal relationship with Tamim, dined with him during working breakfasts at the White House and explored ways to further U.S.-Qatari ties.
Continuing the pattern, Biden sees Russia’s and Qatar’s relations with the United States through the same prism: Russia as enemy and Qatar as a friend. Biden condemns Russia’s influence operations, warmongering against Ukraine and human-rights abuses, both within and beyond its borders.
Conversely, he awarded Qatar’s diplomatic handling of the Afghanistan debacle by anointing Doha as the protector of American interests in Kabul, uses Qatar’s foreign ministry as a go-between with Iran, and now is hosting its ruler in Washington to ostensibly save Europe from an energy crisis.
While Biden characterizes the Russian bear grimacing towards Ukraine and Europe correctly, at best he fails to see the emir’s two-faced gas-export honey trap, due to short-sighted policy ignorance; at worst, he actually believes it’s a good idea to prioritize Qatar over the Saudis, Emiratis, Iraqis and Egyptians as America’s top Arab ally, warts and all.
What’s even more disturbing is that Russia’s and Qatar’s foreign policy and economic priorities end up aligning more often than not, especially when anathema to American interests. Both engage with the Taliban. They now work together to support the Syrian government. Each has a close relationship with Iran and undermines U.S. interests there. The same can be said of China.
Directly, Qatar is heavily invested in sanctioned Russian banks (VTB Bank), placed an $11.3 billion investment to prop up Russia’s gas industry and acquired a significant stake in one of Russia’s largest airports. Russia and Qatar are also similar in that that they both threaten the United States’ interests and its allies’ security. The former is clear about its hostility towards America; the latter is Machiavellian in its influence operations against the U.S. and its leaders.
Russia tried to influence the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections through unregistered and convicted foreign agents. Beyond Qatar’s paying former Trump and Biden administration officials tens of millions of dollars to lobby for its interests, it also had its own share of illegal American agents sent to jail for unauthorized political influence activities on behalf of Doha.
Russia’s state propaganda outlet RT was labeled a foreign agent by the U.S. Justice Department. So was Qatar’s Al Jazeera, for promoting “political activities” aimed at influencing Americans in the guise of a news organization.
“Journalism designed to influence American perceptions of a domestic policy issue or a foreign nation’s activities or its leadership qualifies as ‘political activities’ under the statutory definition,” wrote Jay I. Bratt, the chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence division, in a letter demanding the designation.
Russia bought the 2018 World Cup; Qatar bribed FIFA officials to secure the 2022 tournament. Then, Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the scheme “corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States.”
Russia is Europe’s worst violator of human rights; Qatar follows in the Middle East with its slave-labor system, as Congressman Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) pointed out, “Their kafala system of abusing and exploiting migrant workers, which amounts to modern slavery in many cases, remains firmly in place.”
Putin assassinates critics seeking refuge in countries allied with the United States, imprisons his opposition in gulags in Siberia and hosts American traitors like Edward Snowden in Moscow. Tamim is no better, financing or playing host to terrorist organizations like ISIS, Hezbollah, the Houthis, the Taliban and Hamas, all enemies of the United States and responsible for attacks on America’s allies, the deaths of American soldiers and the harming of innocent civilians.
Irrespective of the stark American differences with Qatar and Tamim’s similarities with Putin, Biden still invited the chameleon of the Gulf to the White House to save Europe. The Gas Exporting Countries Forum considers Qatar to hold the “world’s third-largest natural gas reserves,” and identifies the Emirate as the world’s “largest supplier of liquefied natural gas.”
It currently supplies 5% of its exports to Europe. Most of its long-term energy commitments are geared towards Japan and South Korea, but the country has indicated that it’s willing to help offset a Russian gas boycott of Europe.
Unlike the Russians, the Qataris have a unique ability to take America’s cake and eat it too. As opposed to the Russian playbook built on aggravated hybrid warfare, the Qataris wield influence by embracing those closest to the president in power. For example, during the Trump administration, Qatar undermined Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
This came as a response to the GCC blockade of Qatar, a move that a few months into office, Trump supported. He pointed out that Middle East leaders accused Qatar of financing radicalism. However, at the end of his administration, the president’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, embraced Doha in a speech and awarded the Qatari ambassador to the United States the Defense Department’s highest civilian medal.
Only the emir knows exactly what he will ask of the president in the Oval Office, but at what price to the United States and its allies, and at what benefit to the Qataris?
First, Qatar will ask the United States to urge Europe to shut down a probe into its anti-competitive market practices by the European Commission. Sure, when the balance is between keeping Europe’s lights on and investigating Qatar’s cornering of the gas market, national security may have a hedge on economic fairness—temporarily. The long-term consequences of such a move would further entrench Qatar’s influence over Europe; embolden Qatar’s position in other Europe-interested conflicts, much like in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya; and add Qatar’s energy supplies as a new arrow in Doha’s European influence quiver, very much in the same way that the Russians have used gas and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to blackmail Germany and other European nations.
Second, Doha will use the natural-gas play as a way to further increase its desired most-favored-ally status with the United States and dependence on American officials. The Qataris, almost uniquely, have more than any other country manipulated America’s diplomatic follies, national-security blunders and strategic ignorance as a way to enhance their own position vis-à-vis both the Trump and Biden administrations.
The Qataris will take this opportunity to secure commitments from the United States on a whole range of procurement projects, from purchasing Boeing jetliners to securing commercial spy-plane deals in South Carolina.
But America need not strike another Faustian bargain with Qatar in order to bail out Europe from Russia’s energy grip. Biden should reverse his administration’s policies that choked LNG development.
In addition to fast-tracking the export of American natural gas to Europe, Biden should bypass Qatar in favor of other friendly gas-exporting nations like Norway, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago. The Qataris should be made to answer for their behavior, not rewarded, especially not at the expense of the United States and its allies.
Gregg Roman is the director of the Middle East Forum.
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