DOHA: Since the Qatar diplomatic crisis started, one response by the emirate has become increasingly clear—Doha is using its extraordinary wealth to fund a massive push in defense spending.
A flurry of military contracts have followed since Saudi Arabia and its allies dramatically cut all ties with Qatar last June, accusing the 2022 World Cup host of sponsoring terrorism and cozying up to Riyadh’s bitter regional rival, Iran.
Isolated by and increasingly vulnerable to its more powerful neighbors, Qatar has in the past eight months subsequently announced military contracts worth some $25 billion (20 billion euros).
“While Qatar’s defense spending has been increasing for a number of years, the more recent spending surge appears to be directly related to the crisis,” says David Roberts, assistant professor at King’s College London.
Doha bought F-15 planes from the United States barely a fortnight after the crisis began and at the same time as US President Donald Trump appeared to take the Saudis’ side in the dispute.
In December it signed a Rafale fighter jet deal with France during a visit to Qatar by French President Emmanuel Macron.
That deal caused consternation among some officials in Britain —desperate for its own bilateral deal as it negotiates its withdrawal from the European Union—until days later London too signed an agreement to supply Typhoon jets to the Qatari air force.
Britain will also supply air security during 2022.
Last month it was announced that Qatar was in talks to buy Russian air defense missiles.
Sandwiched between the air force deals, Qatar, bordered on three sides by water, also negotiated a multi-dollar billion contract to buy seven Italian navy vessels.
There has also been military diplomacy.
In the past few days Qatar’s defense minister, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, has said the emirate also wants to host the US Navy.
It is already home to the largest US airbase in the Middle East, Al-Udeid, which houses some 10,000 American troops.
And Turkey, which also has a military base in Qatar, could also deploy naval forces there.
Symbolically, during December’s National Day celebrations, Qatari troops paraded with recently acquired Chinese short-range ballistic missiles.
“It’s a massive investment into the military,” says Andreas Krieg, a military adviser to the Qatari government until last year.
This huge leap in spending—until 2013 Qatar was spending around $3 billion a year on defense, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute—reflects Doha’s fear of invasion especially at the beginning of the crisis.
Qatari officials admit privately they were stunned when the crisis began, taken completely unaware by the Saudi-led states.
Despite the sometimes bizarre nature of the crisis—Doha flying in thousands of cows, protest songs and Qatar missing from a map at the Louvre Abu Dhabi —fears of invasion initially ran very deep.
“There was concern that the initial diplomatic and economic measures imposed on Qatar on June 5 might be the prelude for military action,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in the United States.
Krieg adds that Qatar’s fear of invasion stretches back to 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain abruptly pulled their ambassadors from Qatar.
Their dispute was resolved—or at least papered over until last summer—but its impact is not forgotten.
Expect the unexpected
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani took over from his father Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani just months before that dispute.
A former member of the Qatari air force who attended Britain’s Sandhurst military training academy, Sheikh Tamim broke from his father’s policies and poured more of his country’s gas riches into defense spending.
“The military had been underfunded for many decades,” says Krieg.
“Regardless of the crisis, there was always a demand to get new equipment for the air force, navy and land forces.”
Roberts adds: “I think Qatar’s leaders are trying to expect the unexpected.
“So while they may feel that a military action is unlikely, their expectations have been consistently wrong thus far, so Qatar needs to plan for the worst.”
Military contracts also have value beyond mere weaponry —and for Qatar it’s also a way of diplomacy, cementing its relations with key countries.
Lolwa al-Khater, foreign ministry spokeswoman, told AFP that bilateral defense deals help to “strengthen these partnerships”.
Roberts adds they “deeply intertwine” Qatar’s security with Washington, Paris or London.
“Qatar wants these states to have an increasingly direct stake in Qatar’s security and stability,” he says.
But despite the spending, Qatar’s military capabilities pale into comparison to those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Ultimately its long-term security may depend on another investment—Al-Udeid.
“We shouldn’t underestimate that the greatest guarantor is Al-Udeid,” says Krieg, referring to the presence of US troops at the base on its territory.