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Guns, Oil and Education: Qatar’s Evolving Relationship with the U.S.

The State of Qatar declared independence from Great Britain on September 3, 1971 and the U.S. recognized it two days later, establishing diplomatic relations in March 1972. The American Embassy in Doha was launched the following year, and the first resident U.S. Ambassador to Qatar presented his credentials in August 1974. The relationship has developed over the decades, especially in the defense sector. Qatar hosts U.S. Central Command Forward Headquarters and has supported North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. military operations in the Arabian Peninsula area.

Bilateral relations are strengthened by person-to-person exchanges and economic interests. Hundreds of Qataris come to the U.S. for university study and six U.S. universities have branch campuses in Doha: Texas A&M, Cornell, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth and Northwestern. On the economic side, the U.S. is Qatar’s largest foreign investor and source of imports. One hundred and twenty U.S companies have offices in Qatar, particularly in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors. The two countries signed a trade and investment framework agreement in 2016, and Qatar announced a plan to invest $45 billion of its sovereign wealth fund in the United States within five years.

Changes in the relationship between the U.S. and Qatar since its independence were observed first-hand by the U.S. ambassadors posted there. Andrew Killgore was U.S. ambassador to Qatar from 1977-1980; he was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in June 1988. Kenton Keith was ambassador to Qatar from 1992-1995, and was interviewed by Kennedy in June 1998. Patrick Theros was the ambassador from 1995-1998; Kennedy spoke to him in April 2002.

To learn more about the Arabian Peninsula, post-colonial nations, or to read the oral histories of Killgore, Keith or Theros, please follow the links.

“He said: ‘I want to help President Carter’”

Andrew Killgore, U.S. ambassador to Qatar (1977-1980)

KILLGORE: These small countries were just recently independent from Britain. Britain had pulled back from east of Suez. Generally, the policy was to keep them disarmed or almost no arms, don’t sell them any arms, don’t get into any arms race down there. Try to keep on pretty good relations, because we get lots of oil down there. (Killgore is seen at left.)

Qatar, after all, why do we have an embassy there? Because it has 700,000 barrels of oil a day capacity, plus probably the largest gas fields in the world. Stay on good terms. Try to build them up. Try to get on good personal terms with them, try to make the United States look good. Try to build up trade to the extent you can.

Basically a very easy assignment for me. My Arabic was good.

The holding by the Iranians of our diplomatic hostages in Tehran, was something that the Arab countries were acutely ashamed of. They said, “This is not Islam. We don’t want you to think this is Islam. It’s not Islam.” So that was a very important thing going on all the time, the arms business, and of course, the price of oil.

Oil was getting up there. Oil was $12, along in there. Eventually it went up much higher than that. In any case, I carried out my instructions.

I went to the Emir and said, “Please don’t raise the price of oil. I’m speaking for President Carter. It’s a personal message from him.” (Sheikh Khalifa is depicted at right.)

I told him I had a number of rationales that had been given, none of which I wanted to use, but essentially I said that, “President Carter is a very good man, and from the things that he said, he’s going to try to seek a solution to the whole Arab-Israel problem, and he has his opposition at home, and he needs strengthening.”

The Emir said to me, “You can count on me.”

As it happened, President Carter had made a speech somewhere in New England a few months earlier in which he talked about a Palestinian homeland. Sheikh Khalifa, who was the Emir, said, “I don’t care what the others do. I’m not going to raise prices. I’m going to keep them right where they are, and you can tell the President.” That was the end of it.

He said, “I want to help President Carter.”

Of course, by this time it was known that Qatar had a gigantic gas field offshore, called North Field now, maybe 500 trillion cubic feet, a gigantic thing, in which there was considerable interest.

I did everything I could to promote interest in that, because I wanted the American companies to be involved in the exploitation of it.

 “There was nothing really in place except a residue of goodwill”

 Kenton Keith, U.S. ambassador to Qatar (1992-1995)

KEITH: [Bilateral relations were] friendly but not very profound. We had close relations with the Qataris in the Gulf War. They allowed us to have a squadron of fighter planes based in the Doha region. (Keith is seen at left.)

But it is fair to say that we didn’t have much of a relationship beyond that. There was no major U.S. involvement in their oil and gas industry. There were no major companies there doing large contracts of any kind. We had no military agreement. Once the war was over and we withdrew our planes, there was nothing really in place except a residue of goodwill.

We had a situation in which the Crown Prince, Sheikh Hamid Bin Khalifa, was really taking over the day-to-day administration of the country and was just installing his own Cabinet, a youthful Cabinet composed of family members and technocrats who had a personal loyalty to him. So September 1992 was an important point of departure.

Then a month later, there was a skirmish on the border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in which Qataris died. That precipitated a very serious crisis between the two countries, one which required my rather constant presence with the leadership of the country. It was at that point that I developed a close relationship with the then-Crown Prince, who later became Emir, and I think a certain amount of trust was developed at that time.

Then things really started to change with regard to U.S. involvement in the oil and gas industry. At our request the Qataris allowed one of our ship-building companies to last-minute bid on a contract for natural gas tankers.

It was clear that they wanted to see the U.S. show more interest in developing their gas fields. I make the point because I consider this the real beginning of a rapid process that involved American companies in Qatar’s most critical economic sector. In the summer of 1992 that process was just getting underway, with Mobil leading the way.

By the summer of 1995, there was a great deal of cooperation on every level. At the beginning Mobil was part of a consortium of French, Japanese and American companies that were building infrastructure and marketing Qatar’s immense reserves of natural gas.

By 1994 Mobil had its own separate deal with Qatar. Then Occidental won a major off-shore oil production deal. Very quickly other American companies were winning major contracts. It all started in 1992.

This went very smoothly. I know this came as something of a surprise to some of my Department [of State] colleagues because they had still not fully understood how determined the Qataris were to cooperate with us on defense security issues.

My communication on the pre-positioning issue was basically with Central Command in Tampa. They asked whether the Qataris might agree to pre-positioning [of military materiel.]

When I took it to the Qatari government the answer was immediately positive. The Minister of State for Defense let me know Qatar would agree as long as it didn’t cost them any money; they were still trying to scrape together the money to develop their gas. The cost of a barrel of oil was going south. (Their budget was based on oil at $19/barrel, and at that time it was hovering around $15.)

They said, “Yes. You can take this as blanket approval.”

When I went back to the Department to report this, they couldn’t quite believe it. But CENTCOM did, and entered into serious negotiations within weeks.

“They were looking to be America’s best friend in the Gulf”

Patrick Theros, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar (1995-1998)

THEROS: The Qataris were trying to build a political relationship and a security relationship with us, which I thought was a good idea, and insofar as I could, I did what I could to help the Qataris build that relationship.

That said, at the beginning we didn’t make much headway with Washington. Washington was clearly not interested. The big issue was how much more can we stuff into Bahrain and what were we going to do with the forces in Saudi Arabia. Qatar was an afterthought.

We had signed an agreement for pre-positioning in Qatar and that was to be the U.S. Army’s largest pre-positioning site outside the United States. But it was essentially seen as a warehousing function. It had a permanent staff of maybe 250 people to look after the equipment. It was not an operational deployment at all. And every now and then we would do an exercise with the Qataris.

The Qataris, of course, were determined to change that, but the one way they could have done that was the one way they didn’t want to do it, which was to make major arms purchases, because to get American attention, like the UAE does, is to show up and say, “I want to buy eighty F-16s.”

And the Emir didn’t think buying twenty F-16s was worth it. He had already bought twelve French airplanes, and as far as he was concerned, that was the end of it. He wasn’t interested in anything else.

They made it very clear from the beginning that they were looking to be America’s best friend in the Gulf. From beginning to end, they wanted to do it in a dignified fashion; they didn’t want to be obsequious.

But they had made a conscious decision, having broken with the Saudis and having watched the U.S. rescue Kuwait, that the most prudent course of action was to develop a relationship as close as possible to the United States, and they were approaching it in a multifaceted way.

Whether it was on the American side, leaning towards American companies to develop a natural gas field, or encouraging the U.S. military to be active there, a constant question I would get from the emir every time I would see him would be, “How many American citizens are living in Qatar right now?”

He was constantly disappointed that the number was not climbing faster than it was. When I arrived there were about two thousand American citizens living in Qatar; by the time I left it was about five thousand. The lobby had concluded that I had somehow failed in my mission…

Well, when I was there, the Qataris still had inherited the French military. Their equipment was largely French; their training and military philosophy belonged to the French. They were trying harder and harder to get in with the Americans.

The American military, at the operational level, was perfectly happy to accommodate them, but at the national military security policy we weren’t doing so well. They weren’t constantly on our screen.

For example, on the positive side, every time some ship would come by, the Qataris would run out there and ask for an exercise. You couldn’t get within three hundred miles of Qatar and some Qatari wouldn’t show up asking for an exercise.

They wanted to do this all the time. Unscheduled exercises, scheduled exercises—all the time they just wanted to exercise with us and the U.S. military loved that. The quality of their troops, the quality of seamanship at sea was superb.

” He wanted to be remembered as the ‘Education Emir'”

Most of this developed after I retired, but began during my tenure. In our very first meeting, the Emir Sheikh Hamad told me that he wanted to be remembered as the “Education Emir.” He had a project to bring an American university to Qatar as an incentive to reform Qatar University and make Qatar, once again, a mecca for education in the region. (In the 1950’s Qatar had the only secondary school on the lower Gulf, an institution that educated the vast majority of lower Gulf political leaders of that generation.) (Georgetown University in Qatar class of 2016 seen right.)

It became the centerpiece of what I was doing. At first we tried to find a single University to set up a branch campus in Qatar. My first choice was Ohio State. (I was also thinking of a Big Ten football power!)

At this point, I got my first lesson in university politics. University of Virginia hired a high-powered well-known woman to lobby Sheikha Moza, the Emir’s wife, to convince her that Ohio State was not up to her standards. We also tried several other universities but to no avail. Finally, Sheikha Moza figured out why looking for a single university did not work, after all the well-paid consultants could not explain it.

The Qataris had only one basic condition: the university would have complete freedom to teach however and whatever it wanted but it would issue a transcript and degree from the home school, not from the Doha campus. This required a high-quality university to protect its degree by having the same teaching staff, including tenured faculty.

Tenured faculty are a funny lot. Incentives that history department tenured faculty have offer no appeal for engineering tenured faculty, and so forth. You could not write a one-size-fits-all contract with a single university.

Therefore, Sheikha Moza decided that we would go after single faculty per university. Texas A&M provided the engineering school; Georgetown its School of Foreign Service; Cornell-Weill, the medical school; Carnegie Mellon an IT faculty; Northwestern its journalism faculty, and Virginia Commonwealth a school of design art.

Each of these universities is a leader, if not the best in its field. I was asked to recruit Texas A&M and Georgetown. Texas A&M had rejected a previous recruitment attempt because the person sent out tried to get money from them, I discovered.

Once convinced that I was not in this for a commission, they came along. Georgetown (my alma mater) was also difficult, but I take pride in helping both schools set up in Doha. They are now the very best and most successful American campuses in Qatar and in the Middle East…

The Qataris wanted to discuss, in the Defense Department, where they fit in our national strategy. That was their objective on this trip: Where did they fit in the American national strategy. How could they influence it? What role did they play? What did the Americans expect of them?

And from that point of view the trip was a complete failure. They never engaged us on that subject. Mind you, most non-European countries failed to engage us on that subject. It has now become customary in the Gulf — it had become by then — for virtually every ally, partner, or whatever you want to call them, in the Gulf to either accept or reject the role we told them to play, or some part of it; but there was never a dialogue.

At no point in my tenure was there ever a dialogue with the Gulf countries over how to formulate American national security policy in the Gulf. It was the Americans who decided what it is they wanted to do and it was up to the Gulf country to decide whether they wanted to go along with it or not go along with it.

Generally, we wanted them to do so many different things that it was possible to do six and reject three and still get away with it. The underlying strategic dialogue never took place. The Qataris were trying to engage us in the underlying strategic dialogue and got nowhere.