President Joe Biden welcomes Qatar’s ruling leader to the White House on Monday as he seeks the gas-rich nation to once again step in to help the West as it faces the prospect of a European energy crisis if Russia invades Ukraine.
Qatar played a pivotal role in assisting with last summer’s US military evacuations of Afghan aides and US citizens from Afghanistan, hosts the largest US airbase in the Middle East and served as a conduit with Taliban for the last three US administrations as they tried to end America’s longest war.
Now, with some 100,000 Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, experts say Qatar – the world’s second largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, or LNG – is eager to help Biden again, but may only be able to offer. limited help if Russia further disrupts flow of energy supplies to Europe.
“Qatar sees this as an opportunity to further improve its relationship with the United States after Afghanistan,” said Yesar Al-Maleki, an energy economist at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “But it’s going to be very difficult to do because there’s no oversupply.”
Qatar is already producing at full capacity with much of its supply contracted to Asia. Even if some peaceful US allies – including India, Japan and South Korea – are persuaded to divert some LNG orders they have taken to Europe, this will have little impact. to soften the blow, according to energy analysts.
The White House said Biden and Qatar’s ruling emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, would also use Monday’s meeting to discuss Middle East security and the situation in Afghanistan, where humanitarian conditions are dire. deteriorated following last year’s US military withdrawal and Taliban takeover. . The leaders are also expected to discuss the status of US efforts to resuscitate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
But efforts to draw up contingency plans if Russia decides to cut off gas supplies to Europe are perhaps the most pressing issue on the agenda.
Natural gas futures prices surged last week amid growing fears that a potential dispute could disrupt Russian exports transiting through Ukraine to Europe.
The crisis has been aggravated by Russia, which typically supplies around 40% of Europe’s natural gas supply, cutting its exports by around 25% in the fourth quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020 despite prices global high.
Any Russian invasion of Ukraine would almost surely trigger economic sanctions from the United States and its European allies.
This could lead to oil and gas shortages around the world and, most likely, an increase in energy prices that could shake the global economy.
Biden administration officials said the two leaders would discuss the situation in Ukraine, but declined to comment on what engagement, if any, the president might ask al Thani to address the growing European energy crisis. .
Russia has repeatedly said it has no intention of invading Ukraine, even though the Biden administration has warned that military action could be “imminent”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed concerns that Russia could cut European gas supplies, calling them “fake hysteria”.
Biden administration officials have praised Qatar for helping the US military evacuation of thousands of US citizens and Afghans during the chaotic end of the US war with the Taliban.
Qatar continues to operate passenger flights for those fleeing Afghanistan and has served as a crossing point for the United States as it processes visas for thousands of people fleeing Taliban control. The Qatari Ambassador in Kabul even personally escorted convoys of evacuees to the airport to ensure their safe passage.
Biden, according to the White House, told al Thani in a private phone call last year that the evacuation from Afghanistan “would not have been possible without Qatar’s early support to facilitate the daily transfer of thousands of people”.
“Many countries have stepped up to help evacuation and relocation efforts in Afghanistan, but no country has done more than Qatar,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Doha in April. September.
Blinken spoke last week with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani about the Russian troop buildup, according to the State Department.
The relationship improved after difficulties with President Donald Trump.
The Republican backed a blockade launched in 2017 against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.
Trump also publicly accused Qatar of being a “very high profile” funder of terrorism, but later reversed his stance on the blockade.
Saudi Arabia and other neighbors have accused Qatar of tolerating or even encouraging support for extremist groups, including the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
The White House anticipates that al Thani could ask in conversations with administration officials that Biden, a Democrat, approve a $500 million sale of M-9 Reaper drones.
Demand has languished since 2020, when Trump was still in office.
The Biden administration says the contingency plan being developed won’t just rely on “one or two” vendors. Instead, the effort would require “rather smaller volumes from a multitude of sources” to compensate for a Russian cut, according to a senior Biden administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Suppliers in Australia – the world’s largest supplier of LNG – as well as Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the United States are among those Biden administration officials have sought to help if needed.
Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a joint statement on Friday that they were working to ensure “sufficient and timely supplies of natural gas to the EU from various sources across the world to avoid supply shocks” as they develop contingency plans.
Craig Pirrong, professor of finance and energy markets at the University of Houston, noted that LNG export facilities in Qatar and the United States, which turn gas into liquid form so that it can be transported long distances, have been operating near capacity for months as economies have recovered from the coronavirus pandemic and demand has picked up.
Large global suppliers could potentially get marginal additional supply if natural gas prices rise even higher, but analysts said a squeeze in the market could prove unavoidable.
“The market will allocate the gas where the demand is high,” Pirrong said. “Supplies that would otherwise have gone to Asia will go to Europe, which will cushion some of the impact in Europe.
But that just won’t replace the lost supply if the Russians shut off the gas. »