US President Joe Biden said on Monday he plans to designate Qatar as a major non-Nato ally, granting a special status to the Middle East partner.
Mr Biden made the announcement as he met Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in the Oval Office. The president said he would notify Congress of the designation “to reflect the importance of our relationship".
Sheikh Tamim told reporters that he would discuss regional security with Mr Biden and also push for equal rights for the Palestinian people. He earlier met Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and is scheduled to meet members of Congress this week.
“It opens up a whole new range of opportunities — essential relationships — not just with the United States bilaterally but with other allies,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said of Qatar's new status.
“It does open up opportunities of co-operation with the [Nato] alliance.”
Under US law, a country becomes a major non-Nato ally 30 days after the president notifies Congress of the designation.
Designating Qatar as a major non-Nato ally will provide Doha with myriad benefits related to arms transfers and security co-operation, but it falls short of a formal defence pact.
The designation will give Qatar eligibility for certain defence loans and equipment for research and development as well as priority delivery of excess US defence articles. It will also allow the US to place its war reserve stockpile in Qatar outside of its bases.
Seventeen other countries currently enjoy major non-Nato ally status, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.
Afghanistan is still formally listed as a major non-Nato ally despite the Taliban's takeover of the country last year.
Qatar played a central role in aiding last summer’s US military evacuation of Afghanistan and hosts the biggest American airbase in the Middle East. It also served as a go-between with the Taliban for the last three US administrations as they tried to wind down America’s longest war.
"It is no exaggeration to say that Qatar's actions saved thousands of lives," Mr Austin said during his meeting with Sheikh Tamim. "We've also been able to keep the Kabul airport open because of you."
Now, with about 100,000 Russian troops massed at the Ukraine border, experts say Qatar — the world’s second-biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, or LNG — is eager to help Mr Biden again but might only be able to offer limited assistance if Russia further disrupts the flow of energy supplies to Europe.
A senior administration official told reporters before the meeting that Mr Biden and Sheikh Tamim would discuss "ensuring the stability of global energy supplies".
Qatar is already producing at full capacity, with much of its supply under contract to Asia. Even if some Pacific allies of the US — including India, Japan and South Korea — are persuaded to divert some contracted LNG orders to Europe, it will only slightly soften the blow, energy analysts say.
The White House said that Mr Biden and Sheikh Tamim would also use Monday’s meeting to discuss Middle East security and the situation in Afghanistan, where humanitarian conditions have deteriorated following the Taliban takeover.
The leaders are also expected to discuss attempts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian in Tehran last week.