How Qatar went from regional outcast to key Biden ally

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Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani became the first Gulf Arab leader to visit the Biden White House on Monday. It’s a trip that underscores the tiny state’s unrelenting ambition to remain a key international player and its ability to walk back from the brink five years after a regional embargo risked turning it into a Middle East backwater.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain cut off diplomatic and economic ties with Doha, accusing it of cozying up to their adversaries including Islamist groups and Iran. Then-President Donald Trump appeared to take credit for the move, and it seemed as though it was only a matter of time before Doha caved, with its regional clout diminished.

But Qatar persevered, and its fortunes have now seemingly turned. It will be the third Gulf country after Kuwait and Bahrain to be designated the title of major non-NATO ally, granted to close friends that have strategic working relationships with the US military. “I think it’s long overdue,” Biden said.

Ironically, the very policies Qatar was demonized for by its neighbors may have been what catapulted it back into the international limelight.

In 2020, Qatar brokered Washington’s talks with the Taliban, a fruit of the decades long, often controversial ties it maintained with the extremist group. Those talks served as a precursor to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Doha also cushioned the botched exit last year by facilitating evacuations and became a hub for travel to Kabul.
Doha’s cordial ties with Tehran also appear to have paid off. As Iran and the US arrive at a critical juncture in negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, Doha seems to be engaging in shuttle diplomacy. Sheikh Tamim’s visit to Washington comes just days after his top diplomat visited Tehran. It’s unclear if the emir was carrying a message.
Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter of liquified natural gas, is also playing a role in another global flashpoint offering to help with contingency planning in case of disruptions to energy supplies in Europe should Russia invade Ukraine.
The contrast between the Biden and Trump administrations’ view of the Gulf couldn’t be starker. Trump made history by picking Saudi Arabia for his first overseas trip and his family forged close ties with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. A year into his presidency, Biden is yet to have a phone call with the prince.

The digest

UAE to introduce corporate tax rate

The United Arab Emirates is introducing its first ever federal corporate tax on business profits in June 2023, as the country seeks to realign with newly introduced global taxation standards. The standard statutory tax rate will be 9%, but 0% on profits up to Dh375,000 ($102,000) “to support small businesses and startups”.

  • Background: The Gulf oil exporter had previously only imposed corporate tax on oil companies and banks. In October 2021, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) introduced a deal, agreed by 136 countries — including the UAE — that ensured multinational enterprises worldwide will become subject to a minimum 15% tax rate from 2023.
  • Why it matters: The UAE has long benefited from its tax-free status to carve out a role as an international commercial, energy and tourism hub. The move will be seen as its first step to committing to the OECD target.

US says Iran talks entering ‘final stretch’

It’s time for the US and Iran to start making tough political decisions as talks on a nuclear agreement enter the “final stretch,” a senior State Department official said Monday. Some of the most critical decisions are yet to be made, he said.

  • Background: A landmark deal was reached between the two countries in 2015 aimed at reining in Iran’s nuclear program. The Trump administration pulled out of the deal in 2018; President Biden has promised to reenter the deal, but a conclusive agreement has not yet been reached.
  • Why it matters: This could be the closest the two sides have been to reaching a new deal, and only a handful of weeks remain to conclude it, considering Iran’s pace of nuclear production, said the US official.

UAE intercepts Houthi missile during Israeli president’s visit

The United Arab Emirates blocked a Houthi missile attack, intercepting the projectile and destroying it on Monday. The third such attack in the last fortnight came during Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s first visit to the Gulf state.
  • Background: Monday’s attempted strike comes after a drone attack on Abu Dhabi which killed three foreign workers, along with another foiled missile attack. All three were claimed by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are fighting a Saudi-led coalition.
  • Why it matters: Life has continued as normal in the UAE since the assaults began, but repeated strikes could quell expat appetite to stay in the country.

What we’re watching

Libya was supposed to hold presidential elections in December, but they were postponed again, raising questions about the legitimacy of the political process.

US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Noland, told CNN’s Connect The World on Friday that the “the challenge is to make sure that you don’t set a date that passes again and then lose credibility, but not wait so long that Libyans lose faith in the process altogether.”

The backstory

Iran qualified for the soccer World Cup 2022 on Thursday. But that alone isn’t what made news in the Islamic Republic — it has qualified for the tournament five times before. This time, however, female spectators were allowed to attend for the first time in three years.

About 2,000 women watched the qualifying match at Tehran’s Azadi stadium, only the second time for women to attend a major game since the 1979 Islamic revolution. They were seated in a female-only section and entered through a designated area.

The move found support from none other than Ahmad Khomeini, the great grandson of the founder of the Islamic regime that banned female spectators from sporting events.

“It’s great to see women cheering on the national team. Hopefully, there will be more participation, equality and freedom for women in our country,” said the up-and-coming cleric to more than 900,000 Instagram followers.

Women at the World Cup qualifer match between Iran and Iraq on January 27. I

Women’s rights defenders aren’t cheering the move just yet though. The world soccer governing body FIFA has been piling pressure on Tehran to allow women to attend qualifying matches since 2019. Women are still banned from attending domestic tournaments and the authorities, who say the rule is in place to “protect women,” have given no indication that they’ve had a change of heart.

Iran is the only country in the world to ban women from attending football and other sports in stadiums, according to Human Rights Watch. The issue remains a hot topic in the country and was the subject of the 2006 Iranian film Offside, which follows a group of girls as they dress up like boys to attend soccer matches.

In 2019, female soccer fan Sahar Khodayari died after setting herself on fire upon being charged with “appearing in public without a hijab” when she attempted to enter Azadi stadium “dressed as a man.”

By CNN’s Adam Pourahmadi.

Picture of the day

Respect between rivals: After his side's 2-1 win in the quarterfinals of the African Cup of Nations on Sunday, Egypt's Mohamed Salah consoles Morocco's Achraf Hakimi. Egypt will play hosts Cameroon in the semifinals on Thursday.

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