Conflict in Ukraine opens up diplomatic and energy opportunities in Qatar

* Qatar has suggested it could supply more gas to Europe

* Foreign Minister coordinated with Washington ahead of Lavrov talks

* Qatar’s contacts with the United States contrast with tensions between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia

* Gulf state serves as a link between the West and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

By Andrew Mills

DOHA, March 20 (Reuters) – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has opened up diplomatic and business opportunities for gas exporter Qatar to expand its energy sales to the West and strengthen its alliance with Washington in a context of US tensions with other Gulf Arab states.

Qatar has sought a largely neutral stance on the conflict, but while trying to avoid choosing sides, it has signaled with its response that it can offer significant political and economic assistance to Western partners.

As many European energy importers urgently look for ways to ease their heavy reliance on Russia, Qatar has suggested it could direct more gas to Europe in the future. .

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, by contrast, have resisted Western calls for a rapid increase in oil production to contain soaring crude prices sparked by the conflict in Ukraine.

These two major Gulf Arab powers, which have for years sought to isolate Qatar, have seen their own relations with Washington strained in recent years, in part due to concerns over US security commitments to its partners. Gulf Arabs.

Meanwhile, Qatar, home to the largest US air base in the Middle East, was named a major US non-NATO ally last month – a status neither the United Arab Emirates nor Saudi Arabia did not get.

He sought to play a role throughout the Iranian nuclear talks and carried messages between Tehran and Washington.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The talks focused on removing obstacles to reaching the Iran nuclear deal, a source familiar with the talks with Iran told Reuters.

“There was coordination with Washington ahead of the Qatari foreign minister’s visit to Moscow, particularly regarding discussions on the JCPOA,” the source said, using the acronym for the official name of the organization. nuclear deal.

A day before his trip to Moscow, Sheikh Mohammed spoke with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He also met with counterparts in Germany and France, which are parties to the Iran talks with the United States, Britain, China and Russia.

After the meeting, Lavrov backed down from earlier demands that had stalled talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

“It appears that Qatar played a role in discussions on the sidelines of the Iran talks. How direct and consequential that role is is debatable,” said Mehran Kamrava, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar.

“DO NOT TRY TO COVER”

If Doha has in recent years, like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, strengthened its diplomatic and economic ties with Moscow, it has maintained a strong partnership with Washington.

While the United Arab Emirates abstained from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution drafted by the United States last month and US President Joe Biden has yet to speak directly to the de facto leader of the Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he met Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar at the White House in January.

“Qatar is not trying to hedge like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates… At the end of the day, this small country that is sitting on this huge gas field that is going to generate huge amounts of money believes he has only one ultimate source of protection. And that is the United States,” said Martin Indyk, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and former US envoy for peace in the Middle East.

Among the world’s largest producers of liquefied natural gas (LNG), Qatar is one of the richest countries per capita and has barely three million inhabitants, 85% of whom are foreign workers.

On the international stage, Qatar’s central role was to host the Afghan peace talks that led to the 2020 agreement for the American withdrawal.

It remains a vital link between Western nations and the Taliban-led government, hosting Western Afghan diplomatic missions and even ferrying officials to Kabul, including the airport that Qatar helps manage and control.

“Now, whenever there is an opportunity, (Qatar) goes for it. They present themselves as an extension of American foreign and security policy in a way that no other Gulf country does,” he said. Andreas Krieg, professor at King’s. College in London.

“A HUGE OPPORTUNITY”

When Qatar decided to increase LNG production by 2027, some wondered how Qatar would find customers. But now, amid strong demand and high prices, Western leaders are urging Qatar to boost supplies to Europe amid concerns over Russia, which currently supplies around 30-40% of the country’s gas needs. continent.

“Renewed interest in diversifying European gas supplies presents a huge opportunity for Qatar to sell the vast new supplies to come,” said Justin Alexander, director of Khalij Economics, a Gulf-focused consultancy.

Qatari Energy Minister Saad Al-Kaabi recently pointed out that the new LNG volumes were destined for customers in Asia and Europe, building on earlier messages that the additional gas was largely destined for Asia.

However, Qatar has yet to announce new long-term European contracts, which Alexander said will take time to negotiate and require new infrastructure to receive Qatar’s LNG carriers.

(Reporting and writing by Andrew Mills; Editing by Dominic Evans, William Maclean)