By Lucia Leal
Washington, Jan 31 (EFE).- The United States announced Monday that it will grant military and economic privileges to Qatar as fears grow that Russia could cut off the supply of natural gas to Europe over the Ukraine crisis.
President Joe Biden welcomed Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to the Oval Office and informed him that he was planning to name Qatar a “major non-NATO ally,” a special status that carries with it both economic and military privileges.
Biden said that Qatar was “good friend, and a reliable and capable partner” and that he would inform Congress that he was designating the Arab country as a major non-NATO ally “to reflect the importance … of our relationship.”
A top US official assured EFE that the decision to grant the special status to Qatar had nothing to do with NATO or with Russia’s escalation of military moves that could presage an invasion of Ukraine, but rather were in response to the recent strengthening of commercial and defense ties between Washington and the emirate.
However, the White House confirmed that Qatar is one of the world’s producers of natural gas with whom the Biden administration has been discussing helping the European Union to find alternatives to the Russian supply of that energy source, which is used largely for heating homes and businesses, as well as cooking, during colder weather.
Several European countries, especially Germany, fear that a war in Ukraine could paralyze the flow of natural gas from Russia, which passes through pipelines in Ukraine and, in addition, they believe that Moscow could cut off other avenues of gas supply to Europe if Washington and its allies impose sanctions in retaliation for a potential military invasion.
Qatar is currently the world’s fourth-largest provider of natural gas to the EU, with 5.2 percent of all sales of the energy resource, below that of Algeria (8 percent), Norway (16 percent) and Russia (41 percent), on which the European bloc also depends for crude oil, according to 2019 figures compiled by Eurostat.
The EU said last week that it wanted to strengthen the energy alliance with Qatar and the US asked the emirate and other countries to increase their exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe.
The gas is liquefied so that it can be more easily transported in deeply cooled tanks instead of via pipelines.
Nevertheless, the White House had lowered expectations regarding whether Biden and the Qatari emir would announced any big agreement along those lines and neither of them referred to the issue before the cameras at the start of their meeting on Monday.
“Today, in the United Nations,” Biden said in his remarks welcoming the Qatari leader, “we’ve laid out the full nature of Russia’s threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine, as well as the core tenants of a rule-based international order. … We continue to urge diplomacy as the best way forward. But with Russia continuing its buildup of its forces around Ukraine, we are ready no matter what happens.”
The emir, meanwhile, said that his priority was to speak about security in the Persian Gulf and about other regional issues such as the search for “equal rights of the Palestinian people.”
Biden also thanked the emir for his help in guaranteeing that US citizens and Afghan collaborators could be evacuated from Afghanistan in recent months, after the military withdrawal of the US and its allies and the takeover of the country by the Taliban.
The US military bases in Qatar have been one of the main staging points, along with Germany, for US flights carrying Afghan civilians and collaborators who left Afghanistan.
That, along with Qatar’s support for the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group and bilateral “commercial and investment cooperation,” was one of the reasons cited by the White House for granting the emirate the special status Biden announced.
Qatar will be the 18th country to receive that status, with countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Argentina and Brazil benefiting from it already, moves by Washington that open the door to the potential delivery of defense equipment and the development of joint military training programs.
Biden also noted during his remarks that the Qatari delegation had signed an agreement whereby Qatar Airways Group committed to buying up to 50 new Boeing 777-8 jets, a deal worth $20 billion and which the president said will result in tens of thousands of good-paying jobs in the US.
The deal also reinforces Boeing’s competitiveness vis-a-vis Europe’s Airbus, which has had a contentious relationship with Qatar Airways.