Search Penny Hill Press

Friday, June 8, 2012

Qatar: Background and U.S. Relations

Christopher M. Blanchard
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Qatar, a small peninsular country in the Persian Gulf, emerged as a partner of the United States in the mid-1990s and currently serves as host to major U.S. military facilities. Qatar holds the thirdlargest proven natural gas reserves in the world, and its small citizenry enjoys the world’s highest per capita income. The emir of Qatar, Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has managed a course of major economic growth and very limited political liberalization since replacing his father in a bloodless palace coup in 1995. The emir has undertaken several projects to capitalize on Qatar’s hydrocarbon resources, improve educational opportunities for Qatari citizens, and pursue economic diversification. As part of Qatar’s liberalization experiment, the Qatari monarchy founded Al Jazeera, the first all-news Arabic language satellite television network, in 1995. The network has proven influential and controversial since its establishment, including during recent unrest in the Arab world. In an April 2003 referendum, Qatari voters approved a new constitution that officially granted women the right to vote and run for national office. Long-delayed elections for two-thirds of the seats in a national Advisory Council outlined by the new constitution are planned for 2013. Central Municipal Council elections were held in May 2011.

Following joint military operations during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Qatar and the United States concluded a Defense Cooperation Agreement that has been subsequently expanded. In April 2003, the U.S. Combat Air Operations Center for the Middle East moved from Prince Sultan Airbase in Saudi Arabia to Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase south of Doha, the Qatari capital. Al Udeid and other facilities in Qatar serve as logistics, command, and basing hubs for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan. In spite of serving as the host to a large U.S. military presence and supporting U.S. regional initiatives, Qatar has remained mostly secure from terrorist attacks. Terrorist statements indicate that energy infrastructure and U.S. military facilities in Qatar remain potential targets. U.S. officials have described Qatar’s counterterrorism cooperation since 9/11 as significant; however, some observers have raised questions about possible support for Al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups by some Qatari citizens, including members of Qatar’s large ruling family.

Human rights concerns persist. The 2010 State Department human rights report on Qatar notes that basic civil liberties are restricted and states that the foreign workers who make up most of the country’s population of 1.8 million “in many cases worked under circumstances that constituted forced labor.” Since 2007, the State Department has reported that the safety and labor rights regulations that have been enacted remain largely unenforced, and foreign diplomats’ visits to labor camps revealed “the majority of unskilled foreign laborers living in cramped, dirty, and hazardous conditions, often without running water, electricity, or adequate food.”

Qatari officials have taken an increasingly active diplomatic role in recent years, seeking to position themselves as mediators and interlocutors in a number of regional conflicts. Qatar’s deployment of fighter jets and transport planes to support NATO-led military operations in Libya signaled a new assertiveness, as have Qatari leaders’ calls for providing weapons to the Syrian opposition. Qatar’s willingness to embrace Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban as part of its mediation and outreach initiatives has drawn scrutiny from some U.S. observers. Unrest in Syria and Hamas-Fatah reconciliation attempts have created challenging choices for Qatar, and Qatari leaders now host Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal following his split with the Asad regime. The Obama Administration has not voiced public concern about Qatar’s multidirectional foreign policy and has sought to preserve and expand military and counterterrorism cooperation with the ambitious leaders of this wealthy, strategically located country.

Date of Report: May 30, 2012
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: RL31718
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail Penny Hill Press or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.