Qatar has introduced compulsory national service alongside a steep rise in defence spending in a bid to expand and modernise its relatively small armed forces. Published in MEED, 14 April 2014
Some of Qatar’s youth could be in for a bit of a shock in the coming months, when the first batch of young men are called up for national service at the army’s North Camp. The plans for a mandatory period of army training were first announced in November 2013 and came into effect in early March, when Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani issued his approval for the law.
Almost all Qatari men aged 18 to 35 will be expected to take part. Anyone who leaves education after secondary school will have to serve four months, while those who go on to university will serve for three months. The permanent training camp is still being built, so for now, the young men will have to train in temporary facilities at the site.
However, there are some escape clauses for anyone uneasy at the prospect of military drills, assault courses and early-morning inspections. Anyone who fails to pass a health check will not have to enrol, nor will anyone who is an only child. Students and graduates of military colleges are also exempt. More significantly, in terms of numbers, the law only affects men. Women could be obliged to take part in the future, according to Major General Mubarak Mohammad al-Kumait al-Khayarin, who heads the national service programme, but the details of what might be expected of them have yet to be finalised.
The first recruits will don their military fatigues later this year. About 2,000 people will take part initially, but the minister of state for defence, Major General Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah, says they may bring in more than one batch a year. Once they have finished their service, they are free to return to civilian life, although the army will welcome anyone who wants to sign up for a career in uniform, he says.
The local press has, unsurprisingly, offered a broad welcome to the plan, but there are some doubts among others according to one Dubai-based defence industry analyst. “There has been a mixed reaction to it,” he says. “Three months is quite disruptive if you are already in a job, particularly if you are just starting out in a new job, but it is not really long enough to learn many new skills.”
The UAE has also begun experimenting with a national service programme and, in contrast to Qatar, it has opted for far longer periods of training. On 19 January, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the UAE, announced his country’s plans on Twitter following a cabinet meeting.
The UAE’s National & Reserve Service Law imposes a mandatory period of military training for Emirati men who are 18 years or older and allows women to volunteer for training. Those who have graduated from high school will have to serve for nine months and anyone without that qualification will have to serve for two years.
“The new law adds another layer to the national defence force to further protect our nation, secure its borders and preserve its achievements,” Sheikh Mohammed tweeted to his followers. Once they have completed their period of national service, the Emiratis will become part of the country’s reserve force, alongside retired soldiers.
With its shorter training periods and smaller population to draw from, it is an open question whether Qatar’s programme will to do much to alter the character of its military. The country’s armed forces currently number less than 12,000, with the vast majority serving in the army – only 1,800 people are employed in the navy and just 1,500 in the air force, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a UK think-tank.
In terms of equipment, the IISS says the army has 30 main battle tanks, along with more numerous reconnaissance vehicles and armoured personnel carriers. There is one special forces company, an armoured brigade and three mechanised infantry battalions. The navy and coast guard have 22 patrol and coastal combatant boats between them, and are armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles. The air force has 18 combat jets including 12 Mirage fighters and six Alpha jets.
The IISS describes the country’s armed forces as generally well-trained and motivated. Nonetheless, their limited scale and capabilities means that Qatar, like the rest of the GCC, continues to rely on the US as the ultimate guarantor of its security. While neighbouring Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet, in Qatar it is the US Air Force that takes the lead, with an air and space operations centre run from the Al-Udeid air base some 30 kilometres southwest of Doha.
Doha is investing in bolstering its own air force capabilities, however. An order for 36 fighter jets, with options to buy 36 more, was expected by the end of last year, but is now due to be finalised by the middle of this year, after the US reportedly asked for more time. Alongside the US’ Boeing with its options of the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the F-15 Strike Eagle, the other companies vying for the contract are the UK’s BAE Systems with its Typhoon and France’s Dassault Aviation, which is offering the Rafale jet.
Whichever option Qatar chooses will mark a significant expansion and modernisation for the air force. The country’s existing Mirage fighters were bought from France in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War and some of them were used on patrol over the skies of Libya during the revolution that unseated Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. At the time, that was seen as a success for Qatari foreign policy, but events since then have cast a shadow over the small country’s ambitions to be a regional player. Qatar’s ally in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Mursi, was unceremoniously unseated last year and there have been many critics of its support for Islamist groups in Syria’s civil war.
Whether or not the new emir can regain the diplomatic upper hand, modernising the country’s armed forces is something that will continue. Upgrading Qatar’s air defences has been seen as a priority area for some time, as can be seen from what it has been buying from the US. Over the past two years, Doha has requested some $24.9bn of military equipment from the US, including 46 helicopters, at least 1,200 missiles and early-warning radar systems.
Not all these deals have yet gone ahead, however, and indeed, Qatar has been a relatively light spender on military equipment in recent years, when compared with other Gulf states. According to the most recent Balance of Trade report from US-based research firm IHS, Doha spent $650m on military imports in 2012 and $354m in 2013. In those years, it was outspent by many countries in the region, ranging from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iraq in the immediate neighbourhood to Israel in the Levant and Algeria, Egypt and Morocco in North Africa.
The momentum that is building up, however, suggests the picture will start to change in the coming years. IHS estimates that Doha will spend about $1.4bn on military imports in 2014. That would place it fifth in the regional league table, behind Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq and Israel, and just ahead of Algeria, but it could rise further up the ranking in the future.
However, Qatar has not been so keen as some other Gulf countries – notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE – on tying in such deals to ‘offset’ programmes, in which technology and skills are transferred to the buying country as part of the initial purchase agreement. Instead, it has preferred more straightforward joint ventures and memorandums of understanding to secure access to the defence systems it needs.
There have been some efforts to develop an indigenous industry, however, notably with coastal patrol boats. Nakilat Damen Shipyards Qatar, a joint venture between Qatar Gas Transport Company (Nakilat) and Dutch shipbuilder Damen Shipyards, specialises in naval patrol boats. “Qatar is very pleased it has made its own coastguard boats. The boats are always pride of place,” says one Doha-based defence industry analyst. There was fresh support for this venture at the Doha International Maritime Defence Exhibition & Conference (Dimdex) in March, when the government signed a deal to order six patrol boats to be built at the Ras Laffan shipyard. That was part of a wider spending spree that local media reports suggest came close to $24bn.
Most of Qatar’s purchases in recent years have come from the US, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, although France, Italy and Turkey have also been sources of equipment. Washington has been keen to push GCC governments to act more closely when it comes to military procurement, with US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel saying during a trip to the region in December that the US would like to expand its security cooperation with the GCC states, “including the sales of US defence articles through the GCC as an organisation.”
But as the Dimdex activity shows, there is little enthusiasm for this in Qatar or indeed among the other Gulf countries. Indeed, the current diplomatic stand-off between Doha on the one side and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the other over Doha’s support for the Brotherhood suggests that is not something that is likely to happen any time soon. Combined with the fears over a US pivot to Asia and away from the Gulf, there are clear incentives for cash-rich Qatar to spend more on its own forces and train more of its young men, and perhaps women too.
“National service is partly about boosting the skills and experience of young Qataris, but it is also partly to build up the country’s defence capabilities,” says the Dubai-based defence analyst. “If they’re spending more money on defence equipment then they need more people to operate that equipment.”