April 9, 2018 | Real Clear Defense

Retail Therapy: Isolated Qatar Hopes Spending Will Spur New Alliances

Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani is set to visit the White House on April 10 where he will meet with President Trump. The emir’s visit comes as Qatar – isolated regionally by a Saudi-led blockade – is in the midst of a major charm offensive designed to repair relations with the United States. But while the recent U.S.-Qatar strategic dialogue and the emir’s upcoming visit signify the centrality of America to Qatar’s geopolitical calculus, Doha is concurrently hedging its bets and diversifying its international support.

Qatar is attempting to overcome its isolation by purchasing arms abroad to enhance its partnerships. Over the past month, Qatar established its first government-owned defense company, which will manage strategic procurement, and hosted a high-profile defense exhibition. Qatar has been steadily increasing its military imports, spending almost as much in 2016 as it did the previous four years combined. Through such imports, Doha aims to maintain its strong relationship with Turkey and court peripheral European powers, while working to maintain its relationship with the United States.

Since the start of the Saudi-led blockade, Qatar has relied heavily on its partnership with Turkey, and recent spending reflects the prominence of this relationship. At Qatar’s recent exposition, Turkish companies inked over $700 million in defense deals. For example, one Turkish firm will build a military training center outside of Doha. Turkish companies will also supply Qatar with drones and patrol vessels.

In addition to Turkey, Qatar aims to court peripheral European powers with military hardware purchases. Norway’s Kongsberg signed the largest deal in its history last month, potentially worth over $1.9 billion, and established a joint venture with Doha, boasting of the “huge potential” in Qatar.

Qatar has also invested heavily in its relationship with Italy. At the recent defense expo, Italian defense company Leonardo received a €3 billion helicopter order. Italy’s Beretta also inked a deal for small arms and a Qatari joint venture. Almost immediately following the onset of the Saudi-led blockade, Doha announced a €5 billion warship deal with Italy’s Fincantieri. Qatar’s spending seems to be paying off: Italy’s defense minister attended the recent weapons expo and praised Doha’s counterterrorism efforts.

Although Doha’s relationship with Washington hit a rocky patch last year, Qatar has tried to deepen its ties with the Pentagon. Qatar hopes to make permanent the American presence at Al Udeid Air Base and has invested in facilities to that end. The emir recently signed a deal with NATO that will permit the alliance’s personnel to enter and transit Qatar and use Al Udeid facilities, showcasing Doha’s desire to enmesh itself into U.S.-led defense operations. Doha has also continued to invest in American systems, like the Patriot and F-15.

But as it prepares to host the Qataris, the United States should be aware of Doha’s attempts to diversify its defense spending in an effort to protect itself from U.S. retrenchment should U.S.-Qatari relations cool significantly. Although Qatar appeared to enjoy a diplomatic victory with its strategic dialogue in February, the appointment of the more hawkish Mike Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson as America’s chief diplomat will cause some consternation in Doha. Similarly, John Bolton’s accession to the national security advisor post will worry the Qataris, given the former UN ambassador’s support for listing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, which will ramp up the pressure Doha is under.

Moreover, despite acknowledging the centrality of the U.S. partnership, Qatar continues to pursue regional policies that are detrimental to U.S. interests. For example, it remains unwilling to end its support for Hamas, refusing to admit that the group pursues anything but legitimate political action. Moreover, it has yet to significantly improve its record on terror finance. With its recent purchases and defense sector restructuring, Qatar is working to recruit more allies so that it can resist pressure from the United States to alter its stances.

In response, the United States should coordinate policy with European allies being courted by Doha, to ensure that reforming Qatar’s record on terror precedes any strategic, permanent partnership. While U.S. pressure on Turkey is unlikely to alter Ankara’s relationship with Doha, the U.S. must signal to Qatar that complicity with Ankara’s overtly anti-U.S. agenda will threaten Doha’s vital partnership with Washington.

With its massive war chest, Doha thinks it can buy a third option in which it continues to support terrorism while protecting itself from any U.S. blowback or retrenchment by pivoting to other partnerships. While its strategy may work to a limited extent, its military retail therapy cannot entirely fix its isolation.

Alexandra Gutowski is a senior military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @angutowski

Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @varshakoduvayur.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.