US quietly reaches agreement with Qatar to keep operating largest military base in Middle East

In this handout photo from the US Air Force, an airman guides an F-16 Fighting Falcon during training at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Jan. 24, 2022.

In this handout photo from the US Air Force, an airman guides an F-16 Fighting Falcon during training at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar, January 24, 2022.Capt. Mahalia Frost/US Air Force/APCNN — 

The United States has quietly reached an agreement that extends its military presence at a sprawling base in Qatar for another 10 years, three US defense officials and another official familiar with the agreement told CNN.

The deal, which has not been announced publicly, highlights Washington’s reliance on the tiny Gulf country that has recently played a central role in mediating the release of Americans from captivity in Gaza and Venezuela.

The Al Udeid Air Base, located in the desert southwest of Doha, is the biggest US military installation in the Middle East and can house more than 10,000 American troops.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Al Udeid last month where he thanked Qatar for their increased spending on the base.

But he made no mention of the renewal and the Biden administration has not publicized it – at a time when Qatar has come under growing scrutiny for hosting senior Hamas leaders. Qatari officials have countered that it was only after a US request during the Obama administration that Hamas was allowed to open a political office in Doha.

The base has been a pivotal hub for the US Central Command’s air operations in or around Afghanistan, Iran and across the Middle East. The Qatari and British Air Forces also operate from the base.

The extension comes as the US has bolstered its presence in the region amid escalating threats from Iran-backed militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

After Hamas kidnapped some 240 hostages from Israel on October 7, Qatar has been the primary go-between with Hamas to broker the initial release of scores of the Israeli and international hostages. It continues to be central in the talks to try to revive hostage negotiations, coordinating with the CIA and Israel’s Mossad, as well as Egypt.

Their part in the months of negotiations over Americans detained by Venezuela was less public but came to light after President Nicolas Maduro released 10 Americans last month in exchange for a close ally accused by the US of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars.

Qatar’s involvement in both sets of negotiations has been seen as an extension of the mediating role the country has taken on with other US enemies, including Iran and the Taliban. Its vast oil and natural gas wealth, coupled with ability to act as a facilitator, allow Qatar to punch above its weight, analysts say.

While their hosting of Hamas leadership was no secret, the brutality of the October 7 massacre in Israel has ignited criticism of Qatar and calls for them to expel Hamas.

President Joe Biden has spoken about his conversations with Qatar’s emir but at times hasn’t given them the credit they feel they deserve. Biden did not mention Qatar in a November op-ed in The Washington Post, while Egypt and other Middle East allies were referenced. Nor did Biden highlight Qatar’s part in the release of the detainees in Venezuela in his official statement.

The Pentagon also declined CNN’s request for comment Tuesday.

Thousands of Afghans were flown from Kabul to Al Udeid during the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. US military personnel struggled to provide for the massive influx of refugees from what Biden called “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history.”

Qatar has committed billions of its own funds upgrade the facilities for US Airmen at the base. Al Udeid became CENTCOM’s main air base in 2003, shifting forces and assets from the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, where the presence of a large number of American military personnel was more sensitive and controversial.

While Austin didn’t announce the extension of the Al Udeid agreement during his visit at the base last month, he did say that the US and Qatar “will formally take steps forward to expand and reinforce our bilateral defense relationship.”

“We’ll do this through Qatar’s commitment to contribute significant resources to increase capabilities here at Al Udeid Air Base, and that will support both of our forces for years to come,” Austin added.

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