On 30 January 2018 the US and Qatari governments held the inaugural Strategic Dialogue in Washington DC. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis co-chaired the opening session with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Khalid al-Attiyah and Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. Additionally, some sessions were attended by U.S. Secretaries of Energy and Commerce along with Qatari Minister of Energy and Industry and Minister Economy and Commerce. The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and the Qatari Minister of Finance co-chaired the closing ceremony. This meeting is the first of its kind between the two countries, and, according to a memorandum of understanding, represents the beginning of an annual strategic dialogue forum. Both countries consider launching a strategic dialogue a sign of the strength in their bilateral relations, which “established a shared vision for the future of their strategic partnership.” To this end, Qatar has successfully circumvented the efforts of the blockading countries to weaken its relationship with the United States.
Message to the Blockading Countries
Since the onset if the 2017 Gulf Crisis, Qatar has followed an intricate strategy to deal with its US relationship and its relationship with the blockading countries separately. Qatar is weary of the blockading countries refusing to come to a settlement or even escalating the tensions. The strategy aims to address outstanding issues and problems between Qatar and the United States. It was designed to offset the blockading countries’ attempts to score US support and their strategic timing of the blockade to coincide with the arrival of Donald Trump to the White House.
Perhaps the most important message conveyed by the United States-Qatar Strategic Dialogue was primarily aimed at the countries imposing a blockade on Qatar, based on false accusations, since the summer of 2017. These countries accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism, interfering in domestic affairs, and rapprochement with Iran, in addition to other charges. The four countries tried to sell these charges to the US administration through joint US-Israeli lobbies, backed by Saudi economic power, and through building relationships with figures like the US president's son-in-law. Although these allegations were initially supported by President Trump, the State and Defense Departments rejected the charges and the blockade. They pressed Trump to take a more balanced position, in order to protect US interests in the region, such as counterterrorism efforts and containment of Iranian regional policies, especially as Qatar hosts the US Airbase.
Since September 2017, Qatar has worked extensively to improve its standing in Washington, and Trump's attitude has balanced out. These changes followed his two meetings with Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, whose country is leading the Gulf mediation efforts, and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. In the meeting that he then held in New York, Trump asserted that he and the Emir of Qatar had “been friends a long time” pledging to solve the Gulf crisis "pretty quickly". He went further to stress that US-Qatari relations were not confined to the Gulf crisis, but included "trade and many other things.” President Trump and the Emir of Qatar also spoke on the phone last month. According to a White House statement, the two leaders discussed ways to boost bilateral ties in the fields of security and economy. Trump stressed the need for the Gulf Cooperation Council to be strong and focused on addressing regional threats. The statement also noted that Trump thanked Qatar for its efforts in combating terrorism and extremism in all forms. This marks Trump’s retreat from previous accusations that Qatar supports and finances terrorism.
The steadfastness of Qatar's leadership, its non- susceptibility to blackmail and threats, and its willingness to cooperate with the US State Department to find solutions to outstanding issues is the main lever behind these significant developments. Had the Qatari leadership caved to threats from the outset in order to subvert the blockade, the US position would remain unchanged.
The change in Trump's attitude towards the Gulf crisis to become more consistent with US State, defense and intelligence institutions led to the strategic dialogue between the United States and Qatar. During the dialogue sessions, the US secretaries of Defense and State focused heavily on the need to reach a solution for the Gulf Crisis. According to Foreign Secretary Rex Tillerson, "It is critical that all parties minimize rhetoric, exercise restraint to avoid further escalation, and work toward a resolution." Defense Secretary James Mattis agreed that "a united Gulf Cooperation Council bolsters our effectiveness on many fronts, particularly on countering terrorism, defeating ISIS/Daesh, and countering the spread of Iran’s malign influence.”
The most important outcome of the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue is the official US expression of "its readiness to work jointly with Qatar to deter and confront any external threat to Qatar’s territorial integrity that is inconsistent with the United Nations Charter.” This appears to be an indirect reference to the Emir of Kuwait’s remarks during his visit to Washington last September, when he claimed that his country's mediation efforts had prevented military intervention in Qatar by the blockading countries. The Qatari Minister of Defense, Khalid al-Attiyah, also asserted that the countries of the blockade actually considered military action against his country.
According to US experts, the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue sends a clear message, especially to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that the continued attempts to isolate and escalate tensions with Qatar are no longer acceptable in Washington. This US position reflects the blockade’s negative impact on US interests in the Gulf region and the Middle East in general. Eight months of attempts to play on US contradictions did not materialize into any achievements for the blockading countries.
Most Significant Agreements
The Joint statement defined the most important points of understanding reached by both parties. The parties agreed to enhance cooperation in four main areas:
1. Political Cooperation
According to the joint statement, both states expressed their desire to enhance the scope of their bilateral relations. They also stressed the need to find an immediate solution to the Gulf Crisis that respects the sovereignty of Qatar and preserves the unity of the GCC to face regional threats and ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for all its citizens. The two parties also discussed regional security and stability, including ongoing conflicts in a number of countries in the region and joint efforts to defeat ISIL, and other matters.
Both parties stressed the vital contribution of their defense partnership to the security and stability of the region. The United States also praised Qatar's contributions to support the large US military presence at Al Udeid base. The two parties “issued a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, affirming the two countries’ joint commitment to promoting peace and stability and countering the scourge of terrorism”, and the US committed to ensuring Qatar's security and territorial integrity against any external threat. According to the joint statement, the two sides discussed their $ 24.7 billion foreign military sales program, which saw Qatar purchase the latest US military systems, and discussed Qatar's plans to strengthen its military capacity in various areas in coordination with the United States.
According to Qatari Defense Minister Khalid al-Attiyah, the "Qatar Vision 2040" for military cooperation with the United States includes a plan to expand the air base, build new housing and facilities and increase capacity at dormitories. According to a representative for the US Air Force, the proposed improvements in Qatar "represent a transition from an expeditionary environment with temporary facilities, to a base with an enduring infrastructure capable of sustaining long-term operations.” In addition, al-Attiyah also announced that Qatar is “building new naval ports that will be able to accommodate U.S. warships, for port visits or permanent basing.” According to al-Attiyah, Qatar has purchased F-15 and C-17 fighter planes from the US in recent years. US Defense Secretary Mattis noted that the past few weeks have seen the Qatari air force provide logistic support to NATO's operations in Afghanistan.
The joint statement also noted that the United States and Qatar are committed to strengthening their security partnership and efforts to eradicate terrorism and violent extremism. The two countries reviewed their joint efforts under the Memorandum of Understanding on Counterterrorism signed in July 2017 and mentioned the need to strengthen those efforts, especially regarding “information sharing, countering the financing of terrorism, aviation security, and capacity building.”
4. Trade and Investment
Both countries stressed their commitment to promoting bilateral trade. Qatar is investing more than US $100 billion in the US economy, including US $10 billion in infrastructure projects, according to Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. He added that Qatari companies invest in US financial services, health care and technology markets, while US companies in Qatar are engaged in construction, energy and services industries, as well as Qatar hosting six US universities in Education City.
Qatar has emerged from the Strategic Dialogue with the United States successful. For the first time, the United States has officially declared that it will not allow any military aggression against Qatar. The White House has confirmed that Qatar is a strong and reliable regional partner, especially with respect to maintaining regional security and stability and combating terrorism. As al-Attiyah pointed out, one of the greatest determinants in the failure of the blockading countries’ plan “is that they did not account for the United States as an institutional country, and the White House, the Department of State, and the DOD—they always consult with each other, and they run the country as an institutional country, so it’s not something where they think an individual can take a decision.”
Accordingly, American sovereign institutions have checked US policy towards the Gulf crisis, and restored some balance. Nonetheless, it is still too early to talk about a coherent US strategy in this regard with a president like Trump whose temperament is unpredictable. Needless to say, the United States has also collected significant gains from intra-Gulf differences. Competing Arab states usually vie to curry favor with the dominant state in the region by appeasing it, giving the US significant leverage in the region.
 “Joint Statement of the Inaugural United States-Qatar Strategic Dialogue,” U.S. Department of State, January 30, 2018, at: https://goo.gl/q4FTYC
 “Remarks by President Trump and Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani Before Bilateral Meeting,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 19, 2017, at: https://goo.gl/nzTJHL
 “Readout of President Donald J. Trump’s Call with Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar,” The White House, January 15, 2018, at: https://goo.gl/eKmBtT
 “Remarks at the High-Level Opening Session of the Inaugural U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue,” U.S. Department of State, January 30, 2018, at: https://goo.gl/GyDMmf
 “Joint Statement…” U.S. Department of State
 “Remarks by President Trump and Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah of Kuwait in Joint Press Conference,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 7, 2017, at: https://goo.gl/ZdmWgp
 Lally Weymouth, “Qatar to Saudi Arabia: Quit trying to overthrow our government,” The Washington Post, February 2, 2018, at: https://goo.gl/xQ4sJw
 Krishnadev Calamur, “America Wins the Gulf Crisis,” The Atlantic, Jan 31, 2018, at: https://goo.gl/5EGQPE
 “Joint Statement…” U.S. Department of State
 Marcus Weisgerber, “Qatar Wants to Host US Ships, Expand Air Base For American Families,” Defense One, January 31, 2018, at: https://goo.gl/ek44UQ
 Josh Lederman, “Seeking closer ties, Qatar to expand base used by US troops,” The Washington Post, January 31, at: https://goo.gl/pPtX5S
 “Remarks at the High-Level Opening Session…”, U.S. Department of State
 Susan B. Glasser, “The One Phone Call Qatar Desperately Wants Donald Trump to Make,” Politico, February 01, 2018, at: https://goo.gl/MFDp45