by Matthew Hedges and Giorgio Cafiero
Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990/1991 taught Qatar that its alliance with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s powerhouse—Saudi Arabia—was an insufficient guarantee of security. One of Doha’s key takeaways from the war was that its best protection from external threats was a close military alliance with the world’s sole superpower at the time, the United States.
Qatar’s military participation in the US-led coalition’s campaign against Iraq laid the grounds for Washington and Doha to form a close alliance that remains strong today. By President George H.W. Bush’s final year in office, Washington and Doha signed a formal Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) that established America as the Arabian emirate’s security guarantor.
Under the DCA, Qatar became the host of (at first) 5,000 US forces when the US relocated its regional headquarters for US Central Command (CENTCOM) from Saudi Arabia to Qatar’s al-Udeid base in 2003. Although the relocation did not end close security and counter-terrorism cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the transfer was driven by clerical pressure in the kingdom to expel US military forces as well as Washington’s interest in operating from Qatar. Also, unlike the Saudis, the Qatari authorities did not restrict freedom of movement of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Throughout the months-old GCC crisis, Qatar has relied on the presence of more than 10,000 US military personnel at al-Udeid as a security guarantor against any military action by a member of the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Despite pressure from several think tanks, academic institutions, military elites, and lobby groups, the US defense and diplomatic establishment has taken pains not only to maintain normalcy in US-Qatar military relations but also deepen bilateral ties. For instance, the two countries subsequently signed a fighter jet deal and a counter-terrorism Memorandum of Understanding.
Diversification of Security Alliances in a Multipolar World
Regardless of how confident the Qataris might be about the future of Doha and Washington’s defense partnership, the emirate has been seeking to diversify its security alliances. In the GCC, Qatar was not alone in viewing the Obama administration’s Middle East policy as a reason to explore complementary external security allies and partners. Largely due to Washington withdrawing support for longtime ally Hosni Mubarak during 2011, GCC states began looking for new foreign partnerships.
Yet Qatar was alone within the GCC in negotiating with Turkey in 2014 to host a joint military base—Tariq bin Ziyad. Qatar incorporated Turkey into its set of security allies largely out of fear that Riyadh would one day make good on its 2014 threat to blockade the emirate. As a militarily experienced and strong country with many of the same positions on regional issues that Qatar embraced, Turkey was a NATO member and an influential state in the Sunni Muslim world that Doha could turn to without creating much backlash from the emirate’s traditional Western allies.
When the current GCC crisis broke out, Turkey had around 100 troops stationed at the Tariq bin Ziyad base. Yet Ankara moved swiftly to deploy more Turkish forces to Qatar and strengthen bilateral military cooperation. Within the first two weeks of the crisis, Turkey deployed five armored vehicles to the emirate, and the following month officials in Ankara vowed to send 3,000 more Turkish troops.
If Washington would ever relocate the CENTCOM’s regional headquarters back to Saudi Arabia or to the UAE in the future, Turkey would be the most logical country for Doha to turn to for more military muscle. Yet for Qatar there are risks in growing too dependent on Turkey from a national security standpoint. The country’s armed forces are spread thin in military operations in northern Syria and southeastern Turkey. Then there’s the purge of alleged coup plotters in Turkey’s military. Not lost in the equation are Ankara’s efforts to avoid jeopardizing its close ties with ATQ countries in the sectors of investment, banking, defense, construction, and tourism.
Within this context, Doha is likely to turn more toward Europe to further diversify its security alliances. Although no single European country is likely to establish its own base in Qatar, numerous European Union (EU) members—United Kingdom, France, Germany, and/or Italy—might consider setting up a multinational base in the emirate—similar to the Combined Maritime Forces in Bahrain—in exchange for significantly more Qatari investment.
After the Qatar crisis erupted, Doha reached out to Russia not only to gain Moscow’s help in mediation but also to cement closer ties with a power that has become increasingly prominent in the Middle East’s security landscape since 2015. Thus far, Moscow has been careful to maintain a neutral stance in the Gulf dispute. A withdrawal of US troops from al-Udeid could possibly lead to a Russian base in Qatar. Yet such a scenario may seem unlikely given Moscow’s ties with the ATQ countries, unless the Kremlin sees a way to do so without causing too much backlash from its Arab allies.
Iran has played a pivotal role in maintaining Qatari resilience throughout the blockade, primarily in the areas of commerce, aviation, and food security. Yet according to one Qatari source, the Iranian military deployed naval forces to its waters near Qatar’s to fend off any Emirati naval forces heading toward the emirate, suggesting that Tehran would not sit by idly if the Qatar crisis escalates into a military confrontation. Although Qatari-Iranian relations are moving in a new direction based on a shared threat perception of Saudi Arabia, it is nearly impossible to imagine Iran establishing a formal military outpost on Qatari soil as long as America maintains its military presence at al-Udeid.
As a geographically small state with a comparatively weak military force, Qatar has always relied on external actors for its domestic security and protection of the emirate’s national sovereignty. Unlike Bahrain, Qatar has spent the past two decades trying to escape the Saudi shadow and counter-balance its larger neighbor’s leverage over Doha’s foreign policy. As the GCC-Qatar rift widens and the 36-year old Council unravels, Doha is clearly attempting to accelerate those efforts.
At this juncture, the US has shown no indication that it will leave the al-Udeid base. Yet Doha has signaled its interest in decreasing its dependency on Washington’s defense umbrella. Trump’s pro-blockade tweets one day after the ATQ severed relations with Qatar contributed to Doha’s determination to further diversify its security alliances. Yet it remains unclear if another military power could or would ever replace the US as Qatar’s ultimate security guarantor.
Matthew Hedges (@MHedgesh) is an advisor at Gulf State Analytics. Photo: Emir Tamim of Qatar with Russian President Vladimir Putin.