By 2024, Qatar will obtain an unprecedented number of military gears and aircraft. The volume of its air force will reach 96 aircraft by 2024. Development of this arsenal correlated to the 2017 Gulf diplomatic crisis. With the recent détente in diplomatic relations with its regional counterparts, Qatar found itself with an impressive arsenal and very little staff to use it. How will Qatar utilize these forces and are they efficiently used to confront real security threats in the Persian Gulf region?
The Qatari military equipment is to increase exponentially over the next few years. Qatar has implemented a spectacular procurement plan for its air forces. Its Army and Navy are following the same path. In the wake of the diplomatic resolution with its regional enemies, Qatar must find a new way to effectively absorb this arsenal.
The Qatari defense procurement has tremendously increased over the last two decades. Pieter Wezeman, a Senior Researcher on the arms and military expenditure program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), depicted the Qatari military force as a “complete transformation from very small armed forces – as can be expected from a small country – to the armed forces which will be amongst the largest in size and technology and most capable per capita compared with any country in the world.”
These games of thrones and divisions within the GCC and Arab world have allowed Iran's Al Quds force to use, train and assist personnel, limited arms shipments, provision of Iranian volunteers and support of the Lebanese Hezbollah to have far more impact than should ever have been the case. Like the failure to properly provide and target aid to the weaker Arab states, and the slackness in the effort to fight extremism, they have done immense damage to the Arab world
Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies
With only 2 million people spread on 11,000 km², Qatar is one of the smallest countries in the Persian Gulf region. However, the little nation ranks 82 in terms of military power (according to the GFP review). It relies mainly on the imports of expensive military technologies. Its geographic weakness and absence of strategic depth have led to further increasing its spending on military equipment to protect its territory from regional adversaries. Territorial disputes with its neighbours (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq) have increased its armaments procurement. The small country was particularly shocked by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the absence of protection from Saudi Arabia. Qatar, particularly, had a confrontation with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that have allegedly attempted a coup against Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in 1996. Since then, the Qatari leadership went on to assume that Saudi Arabia was a threat to such a small territory.
However, this threat did not encourage Qatar to adopt the same direction as Bahrain in the GCC region but, on the contrary, the country took on more assertive and independent defense and foreign policies. Qatar has invested massively in its foreign policy and supported the Arab Spring movements in 2011 with the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2014, this stance triggered the first diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, threatened by the active Qatari policy in Libya, Syria, and Egypt. Its bold diplomatic stance correlated with its large military build-up plan, supported by its Western counterparts and Turkey.
“In terms of [armaments] deliveries, Qatar has gone from a minor arms importer before 2014 to a significant one in the years since, based on a series of major contracts signed over the past two years. It is expected that its arms imports will be even higher in the coming years,” Pieter Wezeman emphasized.
Despite low oil prices, countries in the region continued to order more weapons in 2016 perceiving them as crucial tools for dealing with conflicts and regional tensions
Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
In 2017, the GCC-Qatari crisis fostered a new phase of Qatari arms procurement. The diplomatic crisis spurred a wide armament program with the help of the USA, the UK, France, and Turkey. Qatar increased its air force to reach 96 fighter jets and went on to order more since then. Billions of dollars were spent on the protection of its small territory.
According to Gawdat Bahgat, Professor of national security at the Near East South Asia Centre for Strategic Studies of the National Defense University, “the reason for the Qatari military build-up is mainly the perception, rightly or wrongly, that Saudi Forces (probably with support from other allies) were going to invade Qatar in 2017 and engineer a ‘regime change’.” The diplomatic crisis stems from the Qatari-Saudi rivalry. The catalysts were the Qatari national and powerful media channel, Al Jazeera, and its relations with Turkey. Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, added that “the growing Qatari role as a US ally, the expulsion of thousands of Qatari tribesmen of Saudi origin over the past two years [from Qatar] and Qatar’s growing anger at Saudi Arabia’s hegemony and domination in the GCC” were also stumbling blocks in the Saudi-Qatari relations. These tensions culminated with the Qatar’s blockade and the suspension of its diplomatic ties with the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian block.
The Qatari defense procurement is not ready to stop. The natural resources of the small nation provide enough money to pay for costly technology from Western partners. Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world. According to CIA reports, Qatar’s oil resources would have the same production level for the next 23 years. The same report states that the Qatari natural gas resources are the third-largest in the world and are shared with Iran. Qatar recently entered a phase of military modernization to compete with its regional rivals.
However, the way Qatar will absorb such a quantity of military equipment remains obscure. In 2017, the defense procurement in Qatar was so massive that there was not enough national military or operational ground to operate it. In the wake of the Al Ula GCC Summit, Qatar and Saudi Arabia solved their diplomatic clash and Qatar “suddenly found itself with a lot of gear and no clear path forward,” as Riad Khawaji put it.
In 2017, the Qatari forces integrated 12 more Mirage 2000, 18 transporter aircraft, and 46 new helicopters. In the same year, Qatar also ordered a new wave of equipment including 36 F-15QA jet fighters and 24 Apache helicopters from the US, 24 Eurofighter Typhoon warplanes from Great Britain, 28 NH-90 helicopters from Italy, and 36 Rafales from France. With the delivery of the ordered weapons, the Qatari fleet will double in size by 2024. There still needs to be determined the reason why such amounts were set and whether it is appropriate regarding the regional security issues.
International Interoperability as the Operational Interface
The Qatari strategy to absorb military procurements is to rely on external interoperability. This concept allows for theoretically obtaining better training for more operational situations by sharing its military equipment and knowledge to intensify its military force with coordinated nations. It also gives Qatar an opportunity to build a long term defense diplomacy with foreign powers acting as security guarantees for the small state.
Interoperability is enshrined in the Qatari doctrine of Joint Military Building coined in 1996. The aim is to demonstrate that Qatar is not alone in the region and its regional adversaries cannot attack it without jeopardizing their relations with the USA, France, and the UK or risking a confrontation with Turkey. Yezid Sayegh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre think tank reported that “for decades, GCC states have concluded massive arms deals with the US and other leading western countries as a form of premium insurance: the GCC helps keep western defense industry jobs, and in return, the West protects the GCC states from external threats.” Qatar wants to obtain the same benefits by its military cooperation with its foreign partners.
At a practical level, Qatar welcomed a permanent foreign military presence on its territory; the American deployment on the Qatari ground was the base of their defense cooperation. The ratification of the Defense Cooperation Agreement in 1992 allowed high-level military cooperation between Qatar and the USA. The American troops could accede to the Qatari military facilities in 2002, at the Camp As Sayliyah in Doha, as the headquarters for the CENTCOM forces and then to the Al Udeid airbase, the biggest American foreign base in the Middle East, where 8,000 American troops have been stationed, participating in operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan and during Operation Inherent Resolve. Al Udeid airbase has been strategic for the American operations due to the fact that 80% of the refuelling took place in it.
With increasing tensions with Iran, American troops deployed more military force such as F-22 combat aircraft in Al Udeid base. The 2019 US-Qatari strategic dialogue extended the previous security cooperation with the expansion of the Al Udeid base with Qatari funding and export of more American weapons approved by the US Department of State. The deployment of American forces on the Qatari ground helped the latter’s forces to increase Qatar’s military, limited to 12,400 men (reserves included).
Qatar’s security hinges particularly on the American presence on its territory, playing the role of security insurance, a strategic deterrent against a potential military attack from Saudi Arabia. Another advantage is the massive training, exercise, and planning experience shared with the Qatari forces. This American experience is also communicated to other regional neighbors paving the way for potential regional interoperability. According to Anthony Cordesman, “the GCC states also gain from access to sophisticated US command and control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems that they cannot afford even collectively, and from US warfighting experience in actually using such systems in combat.”
The massive armaments procurement helps Qatar to maintain a high level of defense cooperation. The deployment of Western militaries on its territory provides necessary training for imported weapons. Qatar has participated in American joint exercises, increasing its integration into operations led by one of its defense partners. These relations and arms procurement would help Qatar to benefit from the military force of its defense cooperatives and to be able to answer to more military threats and act as a powerful deterrent. On paper, this strategy seems fine. It reality, it can be extremely costly and politically tricky.
One of the main challenges of this policy is the balancing between different defense partners. Qatari foreign policy is a delicate equilibrium between divergent partners and interests. According to Anthony Cordesman, “Qatar’s position remains precarious because its strategy depends on the careful balancing of many competing forces – religious extremism, the West, the GCC, Iran, and its population. Qatar’s future trajectory is a function of how well it manages to chart its course without allowing any of these forces to get in the way. How well Qatar can maintain these contradictions without any of them getting beyond control, however, remains an outstanding uncertainty.”
The Qatari leadership dramatically increased its relations with Turkey since 2012. The alliance with a regional power sharing the same rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and a common ideological views, helped Qatar to overcome its diplomatic isolation during the crisis in 2017. According to Gawdat Bahgat, “the only way to address this threat was also to ally with another major regional power – Turkey.” Turkish troops are present on the Qatari ground since October 2015 with the building of the Tariq Bin Ziyad military base operated by Turkey in Doha. And 5,000 Turkish troops were stationed in Qatar following the diplomatic crisis. The Turkish defense industry also benefitted from its cooperation with Western defense industries and developed a stronger defense industrial base there. Qatar has also ordered plenty of new weapons from Turkey since 2017: 100 tanks, 585 armored combat vehicles, 25 self-propelled howitzers, and six armored unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).
Qatar should find the way to absorb the military advanced technology that it’s going to acquire in the coming years into an effective armed forces in order to complete its military modernization. Qatar is planning to spend billions of dollars to increase its military power, particularly its air force capabilities, but it suffers from staff shortage
Brahim Saidy, Associate Professor of Diplomacy, Security and Defense Studies, Qatar University
Recently, Qatar has allegedly reached an agreement with Turkey regarding the temporary deployment of its 36 warplanes (such as Rafales and Mirages) on the Turkish territory. In parallel, Qatar has also signed deals to train its operatives in the USA and in Italy to manage new aircraft (M-346 and Leonardo T-346). These parallel deals with divergent counterparts can be very challenging at the political level. France, one important military ally, could oppose the deployment of French aircraft in Turkey at a time of negotiations on similar warplanes in Greece and India. Despite the absence of real technical risks with the deployment, these delicate balancing moves between different allies could put at risk the interoperability policy of Qatar through its trying to cooperate with too divergent partners in the military field.
Development of National Capabilities
The Qatari leadership is trying to cash in on its defense cooperation with Western powers to increase its national capabilities and its skills to operate its weapons and maximize its potential. The 2017 crisis demonstrated to the Qatari leadership the need to develop its national military power and to act more independently of its foreign allies.
The perceived threat of other Gulf states waging military action against Qatar is probably one reason why Doha signed a defense agreement with Ankara at the end of 2014. The 2017/2018 GCC crisis, however, has given Doha the chance to accelerate its massive military build-up, mainly focusing on high-tech weapons and advanced air, naval, and land capabilities
Ali Bakir, Senior Researcher at Ibn Khaldon Center
The first step taken by the Qatari leadership was increasing its military reserves. Qatar has implemented mandatory military service for men between ages 18 and 35 and opened military careers for women. However, the low number of Qatari citizens could not provide for the needs to operate all the Qatari gears. So, 85% of the Qatari military is composed of non-citizens from Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan. This trend is also visible in the Qatari society where Pakistani, Iranians, and Indians comprise a majority in the country. This imbalance raises the issue of the Qatari dependency on mercenaries or private military contractors, or another form of foreign support.
According to Anthony Cordesman, “Qatari training and readiness are good for such a small force, but the army is capable of operating largely at the battalion level, with limited combined arms capability and negligible capability for manoeuvre warfare and combined arms.” Cordesman also states that this weakness hinders Qatar to play a major military operation and build a strategic role in the Gulf region. Qatar can only participate in coordinated operations and play small actions. The country relies mainly on the foreign partners’ presence on its territory and keeps its forces at a minimal readiness.
Despite some nonsense about the size of Arab Gulf military efforts – and burden sharing – spouted by both President Obama and President Trump, every Arab Gulf state except Qatar routinely spends more of its GDP on security than the United States. Most spend far more than twice the 2% of GDP the U.S. is asking of its NATO allies
Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies
Another challenge for Qatar in the absorption of military technologies and gaining military independence is the lack of potential technology transfer to the country. Indeed, according to Dr Brahim Saidy, Associate professor of Diplomacy, Security and Defense Studies at the Qatar University, the Qatari military defense industry is still in its infancy. The Qatari industrial base, in general, is weak but its research and development branch is growing.
Qatar relies mainly on direct technology transfers and joint ventures to build rudimental industrial capabilities. The stake is to decrease its over-reliance on the USA that tends to disengage from conflicts in the Middle East and avoid the costs of its foreign procurement; it could remove the hurdle of authorizations for arms exports from the West. Developing the industrial defense sector at the national level could also create a new economic sector for countries dependent on exports of energy products, also very volatile.
In Qatar, the tool to ensure such a cooperation is Barzan Holdings, established in 2016 and made public in 2018 by the Ministry of Defense. The group is “the first Defense and Security Company responsible for empowering the military capabilities of the Qatar Armed Forces.” Its being established in 2018 was very late compared to its regional rivals. Barzan Holdings aims to ease technology transfers in the defense industry and provide the framework for innovations in this sector. Barzan is also the platform for direct investments and joint venture deals, a way for Qatar to improve its technological capabilities and defense industry. It helps the government to integrate procurement projects to maximize their effectiveness.
In 2018, for example, Qatar signed a joint venture with Italy: the Barzan Holdings with the Italian Beretta group. Beretta group committed itself to build an assault rifle plant in Doha and transfer technology to Qatar and develop new weapons. Another deal was announced in 2018 with Fincantieri and its subsidiary, Seastema, to develop unmanned vessels and facilities related to the production of these weapons. Barzan Holding implemented other joint ventures with Kongsberg and Qinetic, defense companies from Norway and the UK respectively.
Qatar is also trying to obtain a similar synergy with Turkey. In November 2017, the Turkish Ambassador to Qatar, Fikret Ozer emphasized that the defense industry between the two countries was the cornerstone of the cooperation. Turkey supported Qatar in the opening of a factory for military gear in Doha.
Unfortunately, these initiatives are not sufficient for building the national defense industry. Anthony Cordesman criticized the national defense industry in GCC countries. According to him, the lack of sophistication of these production facilities would limit costly projects to assembly lines with no actual technology transfers and development. In Qatar, the lack of its national heavy industry blocks development of the defense industry and the possibility to produce high-quality weapons independently. The technology transfers from the West are limited to basic assembly lines and this suggests the lack of political will to share technological know-how.
Absence of Consistency Between Procurement Plans and Regional Threats
The reliance of Qatar on foreign weapon procurement and defense alliances can hinder the design of a military strategy to answer regional threats.
On the one hand, the imports of western weapons are not adapted to answer asymmetric and hybrid threats in the Persian Gulf region. The GCC crisis that imposed an embargo on Qatar and isolated it on the international stage was held in the informational and cyberspace against the Qatari News Agency. Qatari military alliances with Western powers could not protect the state from such situations.
On the other hand, the over-reliance on Western defense partners also hinders building of regional integrated security architecture to answer such threats. Iranian military and its proxies have perfectly identified the gaps in the Gulf missile defense systems and their lack of coordination for detection of low altitude weapons. Anthony Cordesman highlights that “Iran does not so much project power, it exploits Arab division and weaknesses. This lets windows of opportunities for hybrid actors, such as Hezbollah and Houthis, with little technical means to inflict serious strategic threats to GCC states. Iran with a far lower GDP and an outdated air force could produce an efficient ballistic and cruise missile force threatening the strategic assets of its regional rivals.”
Recently, GCC cooperation could be visible only on an ad hoc basis with operations against ISIS and in Yemen but no efforts in the long term could come to fruition. The GCC joint military unit, Dir Al Jazeera was dismantled in 2005, allegedly due to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar or the will of Saudi Arabia to be more independent. Anthony Cordesman added that “each GCC country still pursues its security efforts with far too little emphasis on standardization, interoperability, common efforts to develop focused mission capabilities and deterrent efforts, and integrated air, maritime, and missile defense systems.”
Cordesman severely criticized this trend and the lack of defense cooperation between these states. He qualified the wasteful defense procurement from the GCC states as the “glitter factor”, the procurement of weapons without any military operational doctrine or strategy. Qatar spends a bigger share of its GDP in defense procurement than the USA. Western military allies rely on selling of their weapons to maintain their defense industries. They did not have any interest to propose a real framework to streamline the procurement plans in the region. This situation only led to the growing arms race in the Persian Gulf region with little effect on the security architecture.
Author: Justine Mazonier
©New Defence Order. Strategy №1 (72) 2022