Why does Qatar Need Ukraine’s Sea Ports?

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In a recent move, that went largely unnoticed by the international media, Qatar signed a memorandum of cooperation with Ukraine’s Sea Ports Authority. The agreement establishes cooperation between the two countries in a variety of fields, including maritime routes and navigation, active alliances in transport and ports, exchanges of expertise,  and investment opportunities and seaport. The growing relationship has also left room for growth, potentially in aviation and investment. All of this comes as part of Qatar’s “package” in expanding its maritime trade and connectivity of ports in the country.  Qatar’s Hamad Port, which opened in December 2016, is already connected to 40 ports across three continents. Qatar’s interest in Ukraine does not begin or end with the ports.

In July, the countries signed additional agreements aimed at areas related to youth and sports. Additionally, the two countries will hold a first session of the Qatari-Ukrainian Joint Commission on Economic, Trade, and Technical Cooperation, which will take place in Doha September 30-October 2.  Earlier in May, Ukraine has approved a visa-free regime with Qatar (and also, Antigua and Barbuda). That points to an expected increase in trade and other business visits between the two countries, since neither country is known to be a popular vacation destination at the moment. Qatar, for its part, simplified travel for over 80 countries. Indeed, this agreement came in the light of a state visit between Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and Qatar’s Prime and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani, which led to an agreement to increase trade and economic cooperation between the two countries. These steps follow Ukrainian International Airline’s expressed interests in providing regular and charter flights to Qatar and in getting permits towards that end.

The visa agreement was just one of the six agreements the countries signed at the time. In March, Ukraine and Qatar signed an agreement to avoid double taxation. At the time, Poroshenko was on a Middle Eastern tour, first visiting Kuwait, likewise to expand agreements, and then stopping by Doha.  The countries also signed a defense cooperation agreement at the time, similar to MoU signed in Kuwait.  Qatar views Ukraine as a strategic military partner, due to Ukraine’s experience in combat, and is looking to purchase military equipment, such as anti-tank armament. Qatar is likewise looking to invest in Ukraine, and to develop joint production of  armaments, equipment, and ammunition. The two countries are also reportedly in talks about LNG supplies, with  Poroshenko stating that he views the diversification of gas supplies to Ukraine a matter of national security.

Cutting off gas to Ukraine has been a tactic Russia has used to pressure Ukrainian governments on a variety of fronts in the past. Indeed, gas shortage has been a threat to all of Europe, which is why the latter has worked hard to find sellers other than Putin. Qatar  has been one of the countries that has stepped into to fill in the vacuum.  For that reason, Europe’s relationship with Qatar is likely to only grow closer with time. These developments are also bringing Russia and the US to a potential showdown over “pipeline politics“, with President Trump questioning Nord Stream 2, the latest pipeline which is invested into a by a number of European companies, and which would run directly from Russia through the Baltic Sea to Northern Germany, Europe’s largest economy, bypassing Ukraine entirely and starving it off fuel.  In essence, Trump’s administration is challenging Russia’s dominance of the market.

These developments come in light of the rumors that Saudis Arabia, UAE, and Israel had initially encouraged the United States to lift sanctions on Russia related to its invasion of Ukraine in exchange for Russia’s agreement to work to move Iranian forces out of Syria. That story is more than a bit apocryphal, given that the Middle Eastern leaders are fully aware of the close relationship between Russia and Iran, and Russia’s interest in developing a foothold in Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa.  Yet Qatar continues to spread the myth that President Putin’s endgame in his recent Helsinki summit with President Trump was the lifting of sanctions on Ukraine, in exchange for Iranian withdrawal from Syria.  What game is Qatar playing here – and is the United States an unwitting enabler of a policy that has little to do with addressing the US interests in countering Russia’s and Iran’s aggression and supporting allies in Europe and in the Middle East?

On the surface, Qatar and  Ukraine are made for each other. Ukraine is a poor, struggling, war-torn country with a long history of government corruption, which is courageously trying to rebuild itself. It is largely pro-Western, but is still heavily dependent on outside help, and the ongoing process of civil society reforms and initiatives is going to be slow and painful. Qatar, on the other hand, is the richest country in the world, per capita. It is ready to take on business risks that few other investors are – and that will certainly benefit some of Ukraine’s industries, if not the country overall. Furthermore, it appears to be working to the benefit of Ukraine’s agenda – bringing attention to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its destabilizing role inside the rest of the country. What’s not to like?

And Qatar, too, at first glance appears to have legitimate interests in pursuing the foreign policy that it does. Acquisition of access to foreign ports is natural for a country, where trade plays such a central role in new investments and growth of its economy; it’s part and parcel of full integration into today’s globalized world. Lest anyone forgets, Qatar is also on the lookout for additional ways to circumvent the air, naval, and land blockade imposed upon it by many of its GCC associates, particularly the Anti-Terrorism Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain).  Qatar’s adversaries can make navigation and economic engagement with Qatar a little more cumbersome, but in the end cannot block Qatar from forming relations with most other countries, who care little about the blockade. Ukraine’s ports are just another way to show the seemingly ineffectual nature of the blockade. However, regarding Russia, Qatar is most likely playing a double game with Ukraine. After all, it has not explicitly criticized Russia’s warmongering, at most, pushing for an unrealistic diplomatic solution that will make it look like a legitimate power broker without forcing it to take any position that would compromise its own growing trade with Russia.

On a more disturbing note, Qatar has had a long term strategy of acquiring foreign ports, and thus expanding independent geopolitical influence. In that way, it is looking to compete with Saudi Arabia, but especially with UAE, which is known for having access to a broad variety of ports. If Ukraine is badly off enough, it may be only a matter of time before Qatar makes a bid that Kiyiv cannot refuse. Qatar’s focus on seapower is not new. It has paired up with Turkey with respect to housing Turkish navy and financed Erdogan’s defense deals with Sudan, all in opposition to Saudi efforts in that country. UAE is scrambling to control ports in Africa, chiefly to stave off Iran’s threats to block off the Horn of Africa waterways, just as it has threatened Bab al-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz – but Qatar is mirroring this strategy. Ukraine’s port has been largely overlooked up until this moment, yet it is vital, particularly from the perspective of nearby Turkey, Qatar’s growing trade partner and strategic counterpart.

Turkey, too, has been making moves to grow closer to its neighbor – in part, to counter Russia’s regional expansion, and in part, to secure its perch to Europe. And Ukraine has been relatively limited in staving off Turkey’s disturbing forays. For instance, recently, Turkish forces succeeded in abducting two Erdogan critics out of Ukraine territory. Ukraine arrested and extradited a Turkish blogger, accused by Erdogan of taking part in the failed 2016 coup – a widespread accusation which has targeted many critical or insufficiently obsequious members of the press, and other strata of Turkey’s formerly vigorous civil society. A Turkish firm, meanwhile, is building a wind farm in Ukraine, while the two countries are advancing a joint An-188 co-production negotiations.  Turkey also agreed to supply military drones to Ukraine, which despite recent lethal aid from the Trump administration, is still woefully short on modern military equipment to counter the Russian military. There are also plans to build an international logistics center in Ukraine, and part of Ukraine’s strategy to economic prosperity is to use its many strategic waterways and portsto advance its role in the international arena. Ukraine may be the answer to Turkey’s ambitions of becoming an energy corridor, now being heavily challenged by Russia and Iran. One idea, of course, is linking Ukraine to the friendly Azerbaijan’s energy, transit, and transportation supply route. Qatar, in the meantime, stands to benefit whichever way wind blows, and as usual is looking to play all sides.

Doha realizes that Ukraine is more than merely a corrupt impoverished country, which will eagerly sell access to its ports in exchange for recognition, a few words of support, and a hefty sum of money, which will seem even more generous given the country’s neglect by the international community and a lamentable overall economic condition. What most analysts are missing is that Ukraine provides an important geostrategic access to Europe’s territory, a fact already being exploited by Iran and China, which have firmly established themselves inside the country to build business ties, buy up cheap weapons, cut deals in a corrupt, chaotic environment with all sorts of actors, and to gather intelligence.  Indeed, its growing military cooperation with this underscrutinized corner of Europe sends a clear signal to the other GCC neighbors that Qatar is going big and going after everyone’s interests everywhere, not just in the Middle East or Africa anymore. Qatar is successfully implementing a truly global strategy of influence, seeking to use and weaponize any country with a weak government that has not already been coopted by its rivals. Indeed, Russia to some extent remains Qatar’s strategic economic competitor in Europe.

Doha is looking to play off US tensions with Germany over its heavy handed investment into Russia which presents a challenge to smaller countries like Ukraine. Along with Turkey, Qatar is seeking to provide a viable alternative to Europe, while scoring additional points with the already-friendly White House. To that, Saudi Arabia, UAE, at al. have little to offer. If anything, Saudi Arabia may be positioning to get rapped on the knuckles by the administration for its growing overtures towards Russia, with regards to energy. From KSA’s perspective, these growing trade relations over oil and gas are a legitimate step for Saudi Arabia to diversify its economy and partnerships, in the world where alliances are increasingly ephemeral and where Russia is growing its foothold in the Middle East, even as the United States is looking to withdraw.

However, to the American observers, given the latest tensions with Russia, and despite the administration’s signals that it is ready to lift some sanctions levied over Russia, when other countries do that, it is not what would be considered a friendly step. Retaining influence in Europe, despite tough rhetoric on NATO and recent tensions over tariffs, remains a top priority for the administration, and Russia’s access to Europe through manipulation of gas would present a serious challenge to US interests. As far as the administration sees it, Qatar appears to be a willing partner in the promotion of US interests in that area, while the Anti-Terrorism Quartet is at best not particularly useful, or due to some of its recent defense and economic deals with Russia, is part of the problem. Qatar, cunningly, is positioning itself to be seen as a counterbalance to Russia, at least rhetorically. Practically speaking, it is doing exactly the same thing as the Saudis – engaging in lucrative deals with Moscow, which will benefit its defense and position in the world. However, by managing to throw in a few diplomatic-sounding wrenches in the media, Qatar made itself out to be seen as a staunch support of the Trump position in this matter.

Qatar’s strategy of political influence is now expanding far beyond the US-abandoned African continent and right in the face of the US interests in its European allies. However, Doha’s PR experts have managed to package this move in a way that speaks to the appearances of appealing to the Trump administration’s agenda priorities, despite, in fact, being a duplicitous and self-interested strategy of playing off US allies in a much wider game of thrones.  Until the United States and its other Middle Eastern allies wise up to Qatar underhanded and subtle moves, and cut short these ambitions that in the long run threaten US economic strategy in Europe, as well as potential freedom of international waterways (in conjunction with Turkey, and in the future, possibly Iran), Doha will continue to expand its geopolitical reach at everyone else’s expense.

Acerca de Irina Tsukerman

Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.

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