DOHA, Qatar – Huddled in a makeshift operations center on newly built compound in Doha, Qatari officials cheered last week when television screens showed a plane hauling U.S. citizens from Kabul – the first since the U.S. 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 now it is home to some of the roughly 58,000 evacuees who were flown to Qatar in the chaotic final days of the Afghan war.
About 1,200 miles away in Taliban-controlled Kabul, Qatari technical teams have put the tattered airport back into operation.
The cheering at the operations center reflected the relief and justification that flowed through Qatar, a tiny, extraordinarily affluent country whose changeable relationship with the United States is taking a remarkable turnaround.
“You saved our butts,” said former MP Scott Taylor, R-Va., A former Navy SEAL who helped organize evacuation flights. “The reality is that Qatar has risen to the top per capita more than any other nation.”
Looking back on four summers ago when the US demonized Qatar as a “high-ranking” financier of terrorism.
When a diplomatic crisis erupted in the Persian Gulf, the Trump administration labeled Qatar an aggressor and credited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies who accused of fomenting Islamist unrest across the region. Blocked by its neighbors, Qatar resorted to air freighting cows from Europe to maintain the flow of milk to its population of fewer than 400,000.
For some in the west, Qatar has become a dubious ally who played all sides of the field, including looking at extremism. Although Qatar is home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, Qatar has had ties to groups like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iranian officials and the Taliban for years, and has even hosted them.
“That is the role of a mediator,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Lolwah Rashid Mohammed Al-Khater. “It’s not about taking sides. It’s about maintaining open channels with all parties so that we can facilitate discussions and make things like evacuation easier.”
Although crackdown on terrorism US politicians are quick to publicly beat Qatar up, al-Khater said that behind the scenes, neither the Republican nor the Democratic governments asked to sever ties with any of the groups.
“Once either of them is in power, they actually have the same strategy of encouraging us to keep playing that role,” she said.
The approach seems to have paid off, at least for the time being.
Qatar is at the center of almost every aspect of the US response to the collapse of Afghanistan. Not only were more US and Afghan evacuees flown to Doha than any other stopover, but the US also credits Qatar with getting the Americans safely to Kabul airport. The Qatari ambassador to Afghanistan personally escorted US citizens through the Taliban checkpoints.
After the US embassy in Kabul closes, the new US diplomatic mission in Afghanistan is based entirely in Doha, a modern city with elegant skyscrapers and luxury shopping malls.
The US decision to move its Afghanistan operations to Qatar was no accident. In the years following the US invasion of Afghanistan, the exiled Taliban held political office in Doha, a neutral place where US and Taliban officials could have limited interaction over the years, even when their forces in Afghanistan were against each other fought.
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The US’s new reliance on the gas-rich desert peninsula was strong this month when Qatar hosted two of its most senior US leaders – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken – at the same time, just days after leaving Afghanistan was complete.
Blinken’s first stop right after landing: dinner with Qatar’s guide, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who received him and Austin at his Sea Palace. The fortress-like grounds of the emir, crowned by a giant purple-and-white Qatari flag, look east across the Persian Gulf towards the United Arab Emirates, his country’s occasional rival.
“Many countries have supported the evacuation and resettlement efforts in Afghanistan, but no country has done more than Qatar,” Blinken said the next day.
Al-Thani, tall, slender, and laid back English, is a graduate of the prestigious British military academy Sandhurst, whose alumni include Prince Harry and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. He has been on the throne since 2013, and formal portraits of the emir and his father hang in government buildings and hotels across Qatar.
During the 2017 blockade, a new, stylized image appeared on taxis and billboards as well as on social media showing the emir bareheaded and with strong jaws over the words “Glorious Tamim” in Arabic calligraphy – an image that many Qataris symbolize the resistance to. became Saudi Arabia and its blocking allies.
With its exorbitant wealth stemming from the world’s largest natural gas field, which it shares with Iran, Qatar has long sought to establish itself as a major player in the fields of diplomacy, finance, sports and regional security – and with both political parties ingratiate themselves in the USA
In its sparkling “Education City” in Doha, leading US universities such as Georgetown, Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon have set up satellite campuses – all paid for by Qatar. Next year’s World Cup will bring athletes and spectators to Doha from around the world, despite allegations of corruption in Qatar’s successful bid to host the Games. The football association FIFA and Qatar deny the allegations.
When the Persian Gulf crisis erupted in 2017, Qatar poured tens of millions of dollars into one of the largest lobbying and public relations campaigns in Washington to restore its reputation.
Accused by the US of being a “permissive jurisdiction” over terrorist financing, Qatar said it is taking steps to open its books so Treasury officials can get into its central bank. And in 2018, Qatar paid for an expansion of Al Udeid Air Base that included more residential and recreational facilities for 10,000 US people stationed there.
But America’s growing public dependence on Qatar could affect the delicate balance of power between U.S. allies and adversaries in the region, especially as the Biden administration defines its future relationships with countries like Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, the have their own complicated history with Qatar.
After years of stalemate in the Gulf diplomatic crisis, Saudi Arabia’s interest in waging the fight seemed to be waning, and the blockade ended this year before Biden took office.
Kristian Ulrichsen, a golf policy expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said other regional countries like the United Arab Emirates are most likely to envy the new bonhomie between the US and Qatar, especially given President Joe Biden has signaled that the government does not “see the Middle East and the Gulf as priorities.”
“Some of the other Gulf states have difficulties getting involved, especially in areas in which they may not have made themselves felt in regional diplomacy,” said Ulrichsen. “So these were openings that, given the regional policy of the past five years, were more in keeping with Qatar’s conditions.”