DOHA, Qatar – Last month, when chaos took over the United States’ last minute efforts to evacuate more than 120,000 of its citizens and partners from Afghanistan, it found a tiny, affluent country that many Americans struggle to find on a map would suddenly be set up again as unique to help.
A sandy, sun-drenched peninsula in the Persian Gulf, Qatar has taken in around 60,000 Americans and Afghans, more than any other country. And with its ties to both the United States – it is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East – and the Taliban, it is well positioned to play a strong mediating role between the new Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the West .
The gas-rich country, which has long used its enormous wealth to beat over its weight, has a moment in the world spotlight.
Despite delivering tons of food and medical aid to Afghanistan and hosting the U.S. Defense and Foreign Ministers who flew to Qatar this week, it has drawn attention in the world of football where recently one of its greatest players, Lionel Messi, to the Paris Saint-Germain team that belongs to him. The country will also host the soccer World Cup next year.
“Qatar has always wanted to be a global player, whether it be hosting major sporting events or signing key players or being the regional hub for global politics and diplomacy,” said Michael Stephens, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an expert for golf policy. “They haven’t always got that balance right, but right now they seem to have taken the right initiatives at the right time.”
Qatar’s help with the Afghan Airlift was praised by President Joe Biden, and both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Monday to dine with the country’s 41-year-old monarch. Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.
“Many countries have supported the evacuation and resettlement efforts in Afghanistan, but no country has done more than Qatar,” Blinken said at a press conference in Doha on Tuesday.
“The partnership between Qatar and the United States has never been stronger,” he added.
The Qatar Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who stood next to him, called the United States “our most important ally”.
The sunny moment in front of a bank with US and Qatar flags marked a sharp turn in bilateral relations with the previous US administration, which initially supported a blockade against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. These countries, backed by President Donald Trump, accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and meddling in the internal affairs of other Arab states.
The blockade ended earlier this year, before Biden’s inauguration.
Now, it is Qatar’s good relations with outliers like the Taliban and Iran – relations that contributed to allegations of supporting terrorism – that have made it invaluable as a facilitator that enables Qatar to promote what calls it “preventive diplomacy”.
“Sometimes you can actually play that role with a small size because you don’t intimidate anyone,” Qatar’s deputy foreign minister Lolwa al-Khater said in an interview. “It’s a small country that nobody worries about. We’re not going to wage war against anyone. “
Qatar, which is smaller than Connecticut and has a population of around 300,000, shares a vast natural gas field with Iran, whose revenues give its population an annual per capita income of more than $ 90,000, one of the highest in the world, according to CIA World fact book.
Qatar has used this money to fund and promote its view of the region – one that includes political Islamists – through Al-Jazeera, its owned Arab satellite network, and to tackle its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup gain weight. Along the way, she has maintained connections with a number of Islamist groups, including the militant Palestinian Hamas in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
These links have proven useful to the West, which has relied on them to negotiate the release of hostages in countries like Syria. And Qatar hosted peace talks with the Taliban, who opened an office in Doha in 2013 with the tacit US approval.
The Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban on a schedule for the US withdrawal was signed in Doha last year. And since the US embassy in Kabul was evacuated last month, the US has moved its Afghan diplomatic operations to Doha.
“There is no doubt that they played their cards well,” said Stephens. “They feel that this makes them a useful ally of the West and also as a partner to talk to on broader regional issues, and that is what they have always wanted.”
Qatar has delivered 68 tons of food and medical aid to the Afghan capital, Kabul, in the past few days, Qatari officials said. Qatari officials and technicians have also flown to Kabul to meet with the Taliban and work with their counterparts from Turkey on the reopening of the city‘s international airport.
And Qatar is using its influence to urge the Taliban to honor their vows of moderation, said al-Khater.
“We’re trying to encourage the Taliban to have a more inclusive government that represents everyone,” she said. “Women’s representation, we’re not sure if this part will be successful, but at least we’re pushing.”
The Taliban have publicly given assurances that they will grant amnesty to former government officials and soldiers and allow women to work and study, activities that were largely banned under their previous government from 1996 to 2001, which brutally enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law .
How well they keep these promises remains to be seen. The group has not yet named a full government and has violently suppressed protests by women in Kabul. Elsewhere in the country, its fighters are accused of going door to door to track down ancient enemies. At home, Qatar is still in the midst of evacuation.
While around two thirds of the evacuees emigrated to other countries, around 20,000 are still in Qatar, which provides them with food and medical care.
Some of them, including Afghans who worked for media organizations like the New York Times, have been housed in brand new mansions built for the World Cup, but most live in al-Udeid, the sprawling US military base where the crowd, heat and limited sanitation was a major problem.
Al-Khater said these concerns are being addressed and that the Qatari government and related charities have built more shelters, toilets and field clinics and are serving more than 55,000 meals a day.
Gulf policy expert Stephens said it was unclear how long Qatar would benefit from its aid in Afghanistan, but like all Gulf states, it is looking for ways to improve its standing in Washington.
“They all want to be in Biden’s good book,” he said. “They know this government is not keen on the Gulf States, so they want to present themselves as a force multiplier rather than a problem.”