Qatar draws US in closer with promise of more defence spending

Published in GSN, 8 February 2018

A combination of deft diplomacy and a willingness to spend heavily on military equipment and training appears to have secured firm US support for Qatar, judging from statements made at the first US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue in Washington on 30 January. The outcome of the meeting – which is destined to become an annual affair – will provide a boost to confidence in Doha as it continues to look for ways to ensure its security in the face of the dispute with the GCC-3 of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and in the face of President Donald Trump’s ‘bromance’ with the Al-Salman leadership in Riyadh.

Doha has pursued a policy of spending freely from multiple sources since June 2017 to draw its allies in closer. That has seen it order fighter jets from the US, France and the UK worth more than $20bn (GSN 1,050/9). It has also entered talks with Russia to buy its increasingly popular S-400 air defence system.

Such deals appear to be particularly influential with the Trump administration, given the president’s campaign rhetoric of putting “America first” and securing more manufacturing jobs. Qatar has a programme of some $24.7bn worth of foreign military sales (FMS) with the US, which “has secured more than 110,000 American jobs”. Even more spending is expected in the future. A joint statement at the end of the Strategic Dialogue mentioned that Qatar had “highlighted the continued opportunity for future FMS and direct commercial sales… which could lead to several billion dollars of future acquisitions and training in the near term.” The potential spending includes the development of an expeditionary amphibious capability.

The presence of foreign military bases in Qatar is another critical element to ensuring security which is also now in line for further growth. The swift arrival of Turkish troops at the start of the crisis last summer is thought to have played an important role in dissuading the GCC-3 from taking any overt military action against Qatar (GSN 1,040/5). A second batch of Turkish troops arrived in late December.

More important is the US air base at Al-Udeid, headquarters of the US Combined Air Operations Center and Central Command (Centcom) Forward Headquarters, and home to 11,000 US personnel. Defense minister Khalid Bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah said in Washington that Doha was keen for the base to be classified as “permanent”. The US appears to be cautious about this, but the two sides are working on an expansion of the base, which Doha is paying for. In the closing joint statement, the US said expansion offered “the possibility of an enduring presence, as with US facilities in Europe and the Pacific”.

That initiative should put an end to talk, promoted by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, that the US might relocate its operations from Al-Udeid to elsewhere in the Gulf, perhaps back to Prince Sultan airbase in Saudi Arabia, where the US had a regional base before the politics of the post-9/11 period saw it decamp to Qatar (GSN 1,039/4).

Overall, Qatar appears to have played a canny political and diplomatic game over the past eight months. As the crisis erupted last year, Trump lined up beside the GCC-3 in condemning Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism. More recently he has taken a far softer line, telling Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani that the US wants a strong Gulf Co-operation Council that is focused on countering regional threats (GSN 1,052/6). US secretary of state Rex Tillerson went further during the strategic dialogue, saying at one point that “Qatar knows that it can rely on the United States to stand with it in terms of compliance with all UN treaties to preserve the sovereignty of the State of Qatar”.