On January 31st, President Joe Biden designated Qatar a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) to the US, making it the third country of the Gulf region after Kuwait and Bahrain to receive the designation and one of only 18 countries globally. MNNA status bestows significant benefits and privileges on holders, including preferential access to advanced US military technology and defense equipment. While Qatar did already enjoy close ties with America, receiving this title indicates a symbolic push within US administration to deepen bilateral security and trade cooperation with Doha. It will also enhance Qatar’s military capabilities and strategic positioning with other American allies in the region. The announcement of the MNNA designation proved timely given the escalation of the Ukraine crisis and the recent talks about Qatar’s potential role as an energy supplier to Europe, in the face of potential disruption of Russian energy flows.
How Qatar Gained MNNA Status
At a bilateral meeting at the White House this week, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and US President Joe Biden announced that Qatar was being designated as MNNA. President Biden cited Qatar’s unmatched and continuous assistance during last year’s US evacuations in Afghanistan and during the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza as key reasons for the designation. In both situations, Doha served as a liaison and mediator between America and the Taliban and Hamas. In Afghanistan, Qatar’s role was essential to the rescue of US citizens and Afghan refugees by operating passenger flights for those fleeing and serving as a temporary host-country while America processed visas.
US-Qatari ties run much deeper than their recent cooperation in 2021. Militarily, defence cooperation is a foundation of their strong bilateral relationship from when Qatari troops fought with US forces in the 1990 liberation of Kuwait. Qatar is a crucial military partner for America in the Middle East, and in 2013 the two countries renewed their ten-year defense cooperation agreement. Doha is also home to the Al-Udeid Air Base, the largest and most important US military base in the Middle East, to which it has contributed more than $8 billion in expansion. The base houses in part the US Central Command (CENTCOM) Headquarters, the US Air Force Central Command, the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Syria, and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing of the US Air Force. More than 13,000 American military personnel are stationed in Al-Udeid and over 100 aircraft operate from the facility, which serves as a launchpad for tens of thousands of operations against ISIS. In addition, Qatar has increasingly chosen the US to provide training for its armed forces and purchased American defense equipment. In 2014, Qatar signed an $11 billion contract to provide Qatar with Apache attack helicopters and other air-defense systems. Later, in 2016, Washington further approved the sale of 72 F-15QA fighter jets to its Gulf partner in a deal worth $21.1 billion.
Economically, the US is Qatar’s largest foreign direct investor and Doha is America’s second largest Foreign Military Sales (FMS) partner globally. From 2018 to 2019, American exports to Qatar grew by over 47 percent and totaled $6.5 billion. Although government officials said that the MNNA designation is not related to energy matters, it is interesting to note the chosen moment for the appointment amidst intensifying tensions with Russia and an energy crisis looming, given that speculation around Qatar gaining this status started in 2020.
Benefits & Security Implications of MNNA Status
MNNA status is given to “exceptionally” close US allies who are not members of NATO but maintain significant relations with American forces. Although MNNA designation does not come with NATO-like security and defence guarantees (unless specified), it is still a powerful symbol of a nation’s closeness to the US.
As an MNNA country, Qatar is now eligible to store advanced American military equipment, weapons, and munitions on its territory and outside of US military facilities; receive $3 million USD for counter-terrorism research with focus on surveillance technologies; buy depleted uranium ammunition (used for armour plating and penetration to make anti-tank weapons); and receive loan materials and supplies for cooperative development from American companies. Additionally, Qatar will receive preferential access to military and commercial space technologies that will create multi-million-dollar business opportunities for Qatari defence companies in the maintenance and repair of US weapons platforms. President Biden’s decision to designate Qatar was evidently motivated not by a practical rationale but for reasons of strategy. Qatar already had relatively free trade in arms and military cooperation with the US and as such, did not necessarily need this status of distinction given the benefits it enjoyed. Thus, its MNNA nomination was likely a matter of Washington further consolidating its overall ties with a key Gulf partner as to ensure greater stability of the region.
Nonetheless, for Doha the decision has positive implications for increasing its domestic defence industrial base and homeland security capabilities while also providing access to a previously closed defence market. In addition, for Qataris the status may prove helpful in the country’s $500 million USD bid for the purchase of MQ-9 Reaper drones, a deal which has been withering for two years. The designation will also elevate Qatar’s strategic standing with other American allies, both in the region and globally. For the US, having local Qatari companies start bidding in defence contracts will make the prices more competitive which will ultimately result in smaller expenses for Washington. Finally, the MNNA will provide America with a greater guarantee of having Qatar-the world’s second largest exporter of liquefied natural gas- on-board to be an energy supplier. It will be interesting to see if and how this decision will affect US relations with other key Gulf actors like the UAE, with whom its once-strong alliance now seems to be declining and Saudi Arabia which has come close to gaining the MNNA status but never received it.