US President Donald Trump met Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani at the White House in Washington on Tuesday to “discuss regional developments, bilateral security cooperation and counterterrorism issues,” according to official statements.
Tamim’s visit to Washington was different from his previous visit last spring, as tensions between the US and Iran have escalated since then.
Qatar is allying itself with Iran, while at the same time hosting the main American military base in the region from which the US has been deploying fighters to deter Iran.
The meeting also coincided with ongoing US-Taliban meetings in the Qatari capital Doha, the only capital to host official representation of the Afghan insurgent movement fighting the US and the Afghan government.
Though the Americans are content that the Afghan talks, including a wider conference attended by government representatives in Doha this week, are going well, they want Qatar to be clear about its relationship with Iran.
Since the boycott of Qatar by its neighbours started two years ago, it has strengthened its business and economic relationship with Iran and Turkey. The Qatari emir discussed these issues in Washington, with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin attending the White House meeting on Tuesday.
Mnuchin is the main US official engaged with Qatar on ensuring that the current US sanctions on Iran are not circumvented with Qatari help.
Apart from Iran and Afghanistan, where the Americans want to reduce their military involvement and leave the situation to the Afghani parties to resolve, business and economic issues are the main topic of the Qatari emir’s meetings with American officials.
Trade between the two countries has reached $6 billion, with a pledge by Qatar to spend $45 billion more in the US in coming years. Doha wants to take the size of trade and investment between the two countries to quarter of a trillion dollars in the future, mainly made up of Qatari purchases of American products, including military equipment and investments in the US.
The boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt for its policies of supporting terrorism and meddling in its neighbours’ internal affairs is not at the top of the agenda for the Washington meeting.
The US has become convinced that this is not directly relevant to its interests and should be sorted out in the region between the parties concerned.
Other local issues concerning Qatar were awaiting the emir and his delegation in Washington, however. There have been reports on increasing spending by Doha on think tanks, access to officials and other ways to influence policymaking in Washington and New York.
Since the beginning of 2017, Qatar has spent at least $24 million on US lobbying efforts, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics, a US think tank.
Lobbying is acceptable in America, but it can be an issue if it appears to go beyond the bounds of law. The US department of education is currently investigating two American universities over their ties to Qatar and to determine what administrators did to ensure that they did not take money linked to terrorism.
Georgetown and Texas A&M universities are the focus of the administrative investigation that could be turned over to law-enforcement agencies if there are suspicions of breaches of rules and regulations.
As one Washington-based commentator put it, the Qatari emir’s visit to Washington this week “is all about money” and buying American, investing in America, stopping financing terrorist organisations and refraining from facilitating money to Iran getting round the US sanctions.
The main two regional issues on the agenda between the US and Qatar were Iran and Afghanistan, with the Americans also getting a top-up of billions of dollars of Qatari money.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: US-Qatar meeting