NEW YORK // The defence deal between Doha and Washington this week signals the Qatari emir’s desire to build his country’s small military into a force capable of playing a role in regional multinational missions, analysts say.
The two sides agreed to an US$11 billion (Dh40.4bn) deal for Patriot missile defence systems, Apache attack helicopters and Javelin anti-tank missiles on Monday.
Qatar, whose 11,800-member force make is the second smallest army in the Middle East, ahead of Bahrain, has relied on the presence of a major US airbase near Doha, which co-ordinates US operations across the region, for protection and deterrence against adversaries such as Iran.
The US moved its facilities to Qatar from Saudi Arabia in 2003, and a defence cooperation agreement renewed last year allows them to remain in Qatar for another decade.
But Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, appears to be taking steps to strengthen its military capabilities, making army service mandatory for men and overseeing a range of arms procurements from US firms that will culminate with dozens of new fighter jets.
“In Qatar I think there is a change in military orientation – with Emir Tamim there’s a re-energised push for professionalisation,” said David Roberts, lecturer in defence studies at King’s College London in Qatar.
Barack Obama, the US president, and his foreign policy and defence officials have been pushing GCC allies to take on aspects of Washington’s traditional security role in the region as it negotiates a deal with Tehran over its disputed nuclear programme, cuts back defence budgets at home, and looks to refocus on its interests in East Asia.
Under Mr Obama, the US has sought to only engage in military intervention through multinational coalitions, such as the one in Libya in 2011, where Qatar provided most of its small air force to provide air support.
“Libya had a huge part to play in … the idea that Qatar is a force multiplier,” Mr Roberts said. “The leadership thought: ‘This is quite interesting: if we can play a small but really important role in much wider multinational missions, then that’s really good.’”
Qatar received “enormous positive PR” for its role in Libya, said John Duke Anthony, a Gulf expert and founder of the National Council on US-Arab Relations, “so why not look for other opportunities where Qatar can show its stuff, including that [it’s] a team player”.
Qatar’s ambitions appear to be modelled in part on the pioneering role, among GCC countries, that the UAE’s armed forces have played in multinational operations in Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan.
“I sense that Qatar does have aspirations to be somewhat akin to the UAE in terms of transnational operations,” said Michael Knights, a specialist in Gulf security at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (Winep) who has helped train Qatari forces.
The Apache helicopters, along with its fleet of C-17 transport planes, indicate that the “expeditionary capabilities of Qatar are now building”, Mr Knights said.
The C-17 planes have already been used to help Islamist rebels in Syria, though Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist militants has led to unprecedented tensions with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The aircraft transported arms from Libya to Turkey, for delivery to Syrian rebels, according to flight plan information released by UN experts as well as the recent publication of a photo showing a Qatari C-17 “purportedly in Libya”, said Jeremy Binnie, the Middle East editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly.
“You could argue these aircraft have already increased Qatar’s regional influence.”
This week’s deal, the largest of the year for the US, also underscores a relationship that continues to strengthen despite concern in Washington over Qatar’s relationship with Islamists across the region and a failure to stem private funding for extremist groups in Syria.
“The fact that the US defence secretary signed an 11-billion-dollar deal … with the same country that only four months earlier a top US Treasury official bemoaned as a ‘permissive terrorist financing environment’ might seem incongruous, but the deal speaks to the overwhelming importance of Washington’s security partnership with Doha – and Doha’s with Washington – over other issues,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a Gulf expert at Winep.
The US would like the deal to align with its long-standing request that the GCC countries integrate their defences into a regional security umbrella, especially for missile defences to guard against Iranian ballistic missiles.
Deals such as this are intended to “enhance our security relationships with the GCC countries”, said Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman for the Middle East.
He said such deals not only improve security integration between individual countries and the US but also among GCC members.
“US equipment purchases in general make it easier for all of our forces to train and operate together.”
But such “interoperability” between GCC militaries is unlikely in the near future, analysts said, because of concerns over sovereignty and the potential for undermining individual national interests.
Each member’s strategic position, especially on Iran, differs.
“By acquiring the Patriot PAC-3 systems, Qatar could make a significant contribution” to the US plan of networking the GCC’s air defences to “form a regional shield against Iranian missile attacks”, Mr Binnie said, adding that given the intra-GCC tensions, such interoperability is “highly unlikely”.
The GCC does have a shared security force, the Peninsula Shield Force, and Saudi Arabia – the largest and most powerful GCC member – supports more security integration. Riyadh proposed in December a 100,000-strong force under joint command. But those plans have not materialised.
In the coming year or two, Qatar will purchase up to 72 fighter jets, likely from France and the US, though they will likely be different models from those of other GCC members, making the possibility of a truly coordinated forces even more remote, the analysts said.
Despite the internal politics and differing perceptions of the threat posed by Iran, Qatar’s purchase of the Patriot missile batteries does signal increased coordination with the US and, tacitly, complements rather than competes with its neighbours’ missile-defence systems.
Rather than buy the super high-end THAAD systems that guard the UAE and Saudi, which would have been redundant, Qatar instead “went for the sensible option of being just another link in the chain of the GCC” defences, Mr Knights said.