Ukraine showdown casts shadow over Qatar gas summit

Doha (AFP) – Major natural gas exporting nations on Sunday began meetings in Doha to discuss how to meet skyrocketing world demand as tensions surrounding Ukraine stoke fears in Europe about gas supplies from Russia.

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Experts from the 11-member Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) started meetings in the Qatari capital, ahead of ministerial level talks on Monday and heads of state and government on Tuesday.

Member states include Russia, Qatar, Iran, Libya, Algeria and Nigeria -- who together account for more than 70 percent of proven gas reserves -- and the meetings opened as Ukraine complained of "new provocative shelling" on the frontline between its forces and Russian-backed rebels.

With Europe's fears growing that Russia will invade Ukraine, natural gas prices are at close to double the level they traded at in late 2020.

European nations are frantically seeking alternative supplies to Russian gas, which feeds 40 percent of the European market.

They have looked in large part to Australia and the United States, which are not forum members, and Qatar, but most producing nations say they have little spare capacity to fill the gap.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is set to meet with leaders from fellow GECF member states on Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was invited but is not expected in Doha.

But Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, who has rarely left his country since taking office, Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley are all due to take part in the summit.

GECF member states are focusing on ways to increase output in the medium term. Qatar, a major producer of liquefied natural gas, has embarked on a huge project to increase production by 50 percent by 2027.

Thierry Bros, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris who specialises in the gas industry, said the forum would probably reaffirm its message to Europe that it needs to sign long term contracts to secure a guaranteed supply.

All producing countries will have to make massive investments to increase their output, but the European Union has long resisted contracts of 10, 15 or 20 years.

Because of the huge investment needed, all the producing countries want to "maximise revenues and guarantee a long term market for their gas commodity," Bros said.

Qatar has increasingly sought to boost its diplomatic sway as a mediator and facilitator, so the Ukraine crisis could also be discussed, according to Andreas Krieg, a security specialist at King's College London.

"It would be quite an opportunity if Qatar could use the forum to offer their good offices to the United States to mediate between them and Russia," Krieg said.

Qatar's emir and Iran's president are expected to discuss efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers when they meet privately.