Washington: President Joe Biden is hosting the ruling leader of Qatar at the White House on Monday as he looks for the gas-rich nation to step up once again to help the West as it faces the prospect of a European energy crunch if Russia invades Ukraine.
Qatar played a central role in aiding last summer’s US military evacuations of Afghan helpers and US citizens in Afghanistan, hosts the biggest American air base in the Middle East and served as a go-between with the Taliban for the last three US administrations as they tried to wind down America’s longest war.
Now, with some 100,000 Russian troops massed at the Ukraine border, experts say Qatar - the world’s second-biggest exporter of liquified natural gas, or LNG - is eager to help Biden again but might only be able to offer limited assistance if Russia further disrupts the flow of energy supplies to Europe.
“Qatar sees this as an opportunity to further improve its relationship with the US after Afghanistan,” said Yesar Al Maleki, an energy economist at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “But it is going to be very hard to do because there isn’t excess supply.”
Qatar is already producing at full capacity with much of its supply under contract to Asia. Even if some Pacific allies of the US - including India, Japan and South Korea - are persuaded to divert some LNG orders it has contracted to Europe, it will only have a small impact in softening the blow, according to energy analysts.
The White House said that Biden and Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, would also use Monday’s meeting to discuss Middle East security and the situation in Afghanistan, where humanitarian conditions have deteriorated in the aftermath of last year’s US military withdrawal and Taliban takeover. The leaders are also expected to discuss the status of US efforts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
But efforts to draw contingency plans should Russia move to cut Europe from gas supplies is perhaps the most pressing matter on their agenda.
Crunch has worsened
Natural gas future prices surged last week amid growing market fears a potential conflict could disrupt Russian exports transiting through Ukraine to Europe. The crunch has been worsened by Russia, which typically supplies about 40 per cent of Europe’s natural gas supply, reducing its exports by about 25 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020 despite high worldwide prices.
Biden administration officials said the two leaders will discuss the Ukraine situation but declined to comment on what, if any, commitment the president may ask of Sheikh Tamim in addressing the mounting European energy crisis.
Russia has repeatedly said it has no intention of invading Ukraine even as the Biden administration has warned that military action could be “imminent”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has dismissed concerns that Russia could cut off European gas supplies as “fake hysteria”.
Biden administration officials heaped praise on Qatar for assisting the US military evacuation of thousands of US citizens and Afghans during the chaotic ending to the American war with the Taliban. Qatar continues to operate passenger flights for those fleeing Afghanistan and has served as a way station for the US as it processes visas for thousands of people fleeing Taliban control. Qatar’s ambassador in Kabul even personally escorted convoys of evacuees to the airport to help ensure their safe passage.
Biden, according to the White House, told Sheikh Tamim in a private phone call last year that the Afghanistan evacuation “would not have been possible without the early support from Qatar to facilitate the transfer of thousands of people daily.’’