US-Qatar F-35A Deal: A Bed of Diplomatic Nails
“We are going to move ahead, we hope, with designating Qatar a major non-NATO ally.”
Announced Timothy Lenderking, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Gulf Affairs, in a conference call on September 17, 2020. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met at Washington DC bestowing the status of a non-NATO ally on Qatar. This means that Qatar will gain preferential access to US military equipment and technology, free surplus material, prioritised cooperation on training and expedited export processing. The other Arab Gulf states including Kuwait and Bahrain are among the 17 states which enjoy Major non-NATO ally (MNNA) status, besides hosting the US Navy's Fifth fleet. However, the US recognition of Qatar has sparked off a series of rows in the aftermath of Qatar's bitter relations with nations like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt since 2017. The US, which enjoys strong diplomatic relations with all the powerful Middle Eastern states has been viewing the rift as an attempt to thwart the Trump administration’s efforts to contain Iran. A new united Middle East led by the United States seems to be the game plan to rain on Iran's parade.
The Quartet Blockade against Qatar
The Qatar-Saudi Arabia diplomatic tensions, often referred to as the Second Arab Cold War, had been the result of a fallout between Qatar and Saudi Arabia who shared a severely antagonistic relationship since the beginning of the Arab Spring Revolution, which had created a power vacuum in the region. David S Cohen, the then Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had famously called Qatar a safe haven for “terrorist financiers to operate with impunity.” Qatar had been supportive of the revolutionary wave, while Saudi Arabia had opposed it tooth and nail. The fight on grounds of soft power has also escalated between the two nations - Qatar's broadcaster Al Jazeera supported the Arab Spring, which was construed by Saudi Arabia as attempts to topple its monarchy. The Saudis had also been wary of Qatar's stable relationship with Iran, thus, framing the conflict with Qatar as a ramification of the Iran-Saudi proxy conflict - all stemming from Saudi Arabia’s trouble with the infiltration by Iran and Iran-backed militant groups into the Arab Spring.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have been steadfastly opposing any action by Qatar and Turkey and their support of democratic, Islamist and Salafi extremist groups during the Syrian Civil War. Post the Saudi execution of Nimr al Nimr in 2016, which drew worldwide condemnation from human rights groups and international organisations, Qatar severed all diplomatic ties with Iran. During the Yemeni Civil War in 2011-12, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia fought side-by-side against the alleged Iran-backed Houthi militants. It is important to note that the undercurrents of this fight may be traced to an ambition to gain regional hegemony, thus, in spite of being members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) the animosities continue to exist, resurfacing now and then. All hell broke loose in June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Maldives, Mauritania, Senegal, Djibouti, Comoros, Jordan, the Tobruk based Libyan government severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and blocked Qatar's sea routes and airspace. Saudi Arabia went a step further blocking the only land route Qatar shared with Iran. The reaction came as a prompt response to Al Jazeera allegedly airing negative information pertaining to it's fellow GCC nations and its policy of “going soft" on Islamist terror groups by allowing terror financiers to operate freely within its borders. Ron Prosor, an Israeli diplomat went so far to regard it as “the Club Med for Terrorists.” Thus, is it no surprise that close proximity between Qatar and the US has been a cause of concern for the other GCC members which includes UAE and Saudi Arabia.
US-Qatar ties down the Age
The Qatar and US deal of 2020 shouldn't be treated as a case in isolation, rather a culmination of mutually beneficial ties handed over from decades ago. Since 1992, Qatar has been instrumental in building military ties and currently plays host to the US Central Command's Forward Headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Centre. It also has the Al Udeid Air Base and the As Sayliyah Army Base, among which the former is the largest American airbase in the Middle East. In 2014, the US sold $11 billion worth of arms to Qatar which also included the AH 64 Apache attack helicopters, Javelin and Patriot defence systems.
The signing of the $12 billion deal regarding the purchase of 36F-15 QA strike aircraft imported from the USA in 2017 may also be treated as a milestone in the bilateral relationship of the two nations. The governments of the United States and the State of Qatar held their third Strategic Dialogue on September 14 and 15, 2020. The United States and Qatar signed a Memorandum of Understanding on education, culture and sports in addition to a Statement of Intent (SoI) designating 2021 as the US-Qatar Year of Culture and an Announcement of Intent for Qatar to host an investment forum in the United States in 2021. Furthermore, the United States also recognised Qatar’s effective leadership to establish peace and reconciliation among contending factions in Somalia and Sudan. The two nations noted an increase in bilateral trade where US exports to Qatar increased by 39% between 2018 and 2019. The United States remains Qatar’s largest foreign direct investor and largest trading partner. The two nations had also discussed the $26 billion Foreign Military Sales program which continued to increase the capability and capacity of the Qatar Armed Forces. The progress in these areas will be reviewed at the Policy Working Group meeting in Washington DC in the first quarter of 2021.
The 2020 Deal: A Bed of Nails
The US intervention in this area was evident in September 2020, when David Schenker, the State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East stated that the three-year-old blockade might be lifted within a span of “weeks”. Thus, Kuwait and the United States have made an attempt to mediate a rift which was acting as a stumbling block in Washington's aim of uniting the Middle East against Iran. Schenker said, “These are two sides that are dug in... and yet there is a recognition that this is a distraction from Iran.” However achieving diplomatic victory is a far cry as the boycotting nations set 13 demands which include the closing of Al Jazeera Media Network, downgrading ties with Iran and cutting links with Turkish Brotherhood. However, the Israel factor plays an important cameo. The United States is considering selling F-35s to Qatar as a side deal to the US-brokered agreement between Israel and UAE dubbed as the Abraham Accord. Israel, which had previously signalled stiff opposition to a UAE-US deal, is bound to express similar sentiments towards the deal with Qatar. The Qatari and UAE F-35 deals have to take into consideration the decade-old US-Israel deal that states any US weapons sold to the region must not impair Israel's “qualitative military edge”, thereby ensuring that US weapons furnished to Israel are “superior in quality” in comparison to the ones sold to its neighbours. However, the fifth-generation fighter jet F-35A which is estimated to cost around $80 million has its fate hanging in the air, influenced by the potential havoc it could wreck and alter diplomatic relations in the oil-rich Middle East. Thus it remains imperative for the US to take into consideration the geopolitics in this area lest it becomes a diplomatic graveyard of its ambitions in this region.
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