In response to an increasingly volatile geopolitical situation involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the West, Qatar’s program of military modernization has diversified over the last 10 years allowing it to retain a certain flexibility. This armament program has, however, tended to prioritize air and sea, with a real focus on equipment quality, supplier diversity, training and management. This has meant that Qatar now has one of the most modern air forces and ambitious navies in the Middle East.
According to Pieter Wezeman, a Senior Researcher on the arms and military expenditure program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Qatari military is going through 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.” Following continued investment in air and sea, Qatar is now turning its attention to its land forces, which require extensive modernization in both material and training. A reconsideration of what high-tech materials key allies have to offer could bring balance.
Qatar in the air
Qatar’s quest for rapid military modernization is most palpable in the development of its air force. The 2022 World Cup would prove to be a milestone, as the country aimed to show off its new military prowess and modern hardware to the world. Notably, it received its first Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft in August 2022 as part of a far-reaching deal signed between Qatar and BAE systems back in 2017. This deal includes a multitude of Typhoons and Hawk advanced jet trainer aircraft and underlines a strengthening of military ties between Qatar and the UK. “Today’s Typhoon delivery is another exciting milestone for our joint UK-Qatar collaboration, which will see the sharing of training and expertise between our respective air forces and will ensure both our nations stay at the forefront of defence capability. This joint project underlines how much Britain values its Middle East partnerships,” said Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defense of the United Kingdom.
Indeed, Qatar’s procurement policy has seen it diversify its supplier base. This has results in the acquisition of a number of different fighter jets from its various allies, including a shipment of up to 60 F-15s from the United States, to be brought up to 72 with the acquisition of 12 Dassault Rafale fighters from France. This diversification of suppliers has also meant a diversification of pilot training schemes, with Qatari pilots benefiting from training programs with the Royal Air Force, the USAF and the Armée de l’Air’s Rafale squadrons. The use of a plethora of different suppliers is intelligent, as it allows the Qatari air force to ride any manufacturing issues with one or more supplier, by then falling back on a different supplier, building resilience to supply chain issues as a result, whether grounded on political or simply industrial justifications.
Qatar at sea
Qatar’s ambitious naval expansion is part of an increasingly rapid development of navies across the Gulf states. This continued effort for naval autonomy underlines countries like Qatar’s long-term objectives to rely less on US hegemony for regional security. This has led the country to make a number of determined naval acquisitions over the last few years in the framework of its various alliances and programs of military cooperation.
Qatari Naval Staff Maj. Gen. Al-Sulaiti has been put in charge of the country’s naval modernization program: “Our borders are open to large areas of ocean, which makes them vulnerable to smuggling and illegal maritime incursions,” he said. “As the majority of trade is done by sea, and our national economy also is mostly based on gas and oil wealth located offshore, all this and more makes the mission of defending this national and economic structure an extremely important issue.”
In this context, back in 2017 Qatar announced a €5 billion deal with Italy for 7 Italian naval vessels, including a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) amphibious vessel (“Al Fulk”). This multi-use vessel is key advance for the country’s navy, allowing it to carry out regional operations and increase interoperability with naval allies: “The LPD is a niche capability that could be the backbone of a multinational operation in the region and significantly augment the capabilities of partner navies,” said Andreas Krieg, CEO of the London-based consulting firm MENA Analytica. “It could function as a hub for greater maritime operations in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.”
Qatar on land
Qatar’s significant acquisition program and procurement policy for its air and sea branches have undoubtedly highlighted the country’s extensive ambitions for strategic autonomy. It’s army, however, a little way to go before its land forces can be considered up to such high standards, even though it does have one of the most well-equipped armies in the Middle East.
The diversification of the Qatari MoDs procurement policy is reflected in its army, which has long-standing partnerships with western allies, most notably France and Germany. The former was for years Qatar’s principal supplier of a wide range of armored vehicles, such as the AMX-30 battle tank or antitank VAB HOT APCs. In recent years, however, Germany has become Qatar’s go-to supplier of modern combat vehicles, such as the Leopard 2A7+ main battle tank, the PzH 2000 155 self-propelled howitzer on tracked armored, Dingo 2 HD 4×4 armored vehicle and Fennek a 4×4 light reconnaissance armored vehicle.
This approach would suggest Qatar’s current Infantry Fighting Vehicle procurement program will logically lead it to the ARTEC Boxer, a 33-ton, 8×8 multirole vehicle developed in Munich. There are two considerations, however, that the Qatari MoD would be wise to heed. Firstly, much like its air force, a diversification of suppliers would mean protecting itself against any structural issues such as export restrictions (which are known to be a problem in Germany). Secondly, despite the famous deutsches Qualität, German manufacturers of late have encountered some serious manufacturing problems, such as the recent scandal involving its Puma IFV armoured vehicles.
In addition to quality being a problem at times, Germany, given its own military ambitions, may soon face tensions in its supply chains in addition to political problems over arms exports. One way around these difficulties for Qatar would be to consider the French alternative. The French firm Nexter has developed its VBCI-2 armed with a 40 CTA current and 40mm gun. The vehicle’s chassis is now combat proven on operations in difficult conditions such in Afghanistan, and the Sahel, which tend to be extremely demanding on VBCIs in terms of wear and sustainability… The turret is at the cutting-edge of modern defence technology, and offers the ability to fire 40 mm telescoped medium-caliber munitions including explosive, air-burst, and arrow rounds capable of penetrating up to 140 mm of armor, or defeating drones swarms, which tend to be a game-changing threat to any ground facilities or tactical units, as highlighted on a daily basis in Ukraine, or a little closer to home, in Yemen.
The relevant choice of partners based on their geopolitical reliability, on their degree of commitment to military alliances contracted with them, the relevant selection of equipment with regard to their proven qualities, their sustainability and their interoperability in joint operations with deployed allies… These are just a few of the crucial parameters to be taken into account for a country which wants to play a major role in the geopolitical game of chess in the Middle East region.