Doha Can’t Have It All: Qatar Must Choose Between Russian Systems and U.S. Support
Qatar has expressed interest in purchasing an advanced Russian missile defense system, the S-400. The purchase is controversial and would antagonize the United States, which has found it increasingly difficult to hold the line against Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East.
The S-400, a surface to air missile system that rivals Raytheon’s Patriot, has cropped up across the region, as Russia works to restore its role as a powerbroker in the Middle East. Russia has deployed the S-400 to Syria and announced potential sales to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and now Qatar. Over a 400 km range, the system can engage six targets simultaneously and track 100, posing an unprecedented risk to American air operations. The system is road mobile and rapidly deployable, making it difficult to locate and disrupt. So far, the United States has done little to prevent the proliferation of these dangerous Russian weapons.
Qatar likely views the S-400 acquisition as a means of generating goodwill in Moscow. Many of Qatar’s procurement decisions are based on their potential for strengthening alliances, not operational efficacy. For example, Qatar is now in the process of buying multi-role fighters from France, Britain, and the United States, even though it would be far more efficient to buy only one type. In practice, purchasing all three will triple the training and maintenance burden for a marginal difference in capability. So while operating both the Patriot, which is slated for sale to Qatar and the S-400 does not make operational sense, it contributes to the tiny emirate’s alliances and prestige.
While pursuing a relationship with Russia, Qatar is also relying on the United States to repair its severely damaged relations with the other Arab Gulf states. Qatar has been at odds with its neighbors since at least 2011, when Doha and its media arm, Al Jazeera, lent their support to the Arab Spring uprisings that year, even when Islamists gained power. Recently, other Gulf states have accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and aligning with Iran. Relations worsened this summer, as Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and others launched a blockade on Qatar. Qatar’s economy has suffered, requiring a $34 billion injection from the government to keep it afloat. By Qatar’s own estimation, American engagement is the surest path towards undoing the damage. On a recent trip to Washington, Qatar’s Defense Minister said “The only one who can solve the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] issue is President Trump. He can solve it in a phone call.”
To this end, Qatar has been eager to improve its American relations. Since the blockade began, Qatar has spent over $5 million on public relations and hired seven U.S. lobbying firms. Doha has also made some notable concessions. For example, it has finally agreed to disclose the finances of its state-owned airline, leveling the field for American carriers. In an attempt to curry favor with the American military, Qatar is improving family facilities at al-Udeid, a sprawling air base that supports coalition airpower in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Qatar’s tolerance for terror financing, however, continues to weaken its relationship with the United States. Since the blockade began, Qatar has made cosmetic improvements; it has participated in at least three major bilateral talks on the subject, culminating in a counterterrorism dialogue in early November. But Doha needs to make verifiable changes to improve its troubling record.
To some extent, Qatar’s efforts seem to be working. At the end of January, Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis hosted the inaugural U.S.-Qatar strategic dialogue in Washington, a sign of improving relations.
But Doha is not out of the woods yet. The Saudi-led blockade continues, and Qatar remains too isolated to successfully engage both the United States and Russia. Although the United States has failed to counter growing Russia regional influence until now, Qatar is misreading its hand. Qatar, already on rocky footing in its relationship with the United States, risks isolating itself further with its embrace of Moscow.
The United States must push back on Russia’s malign regional role, and Qatar is a low-cost arena in which to do so. Qatar is eager to regain American favor and has already made notable concessions, to which Washington should add abandoning the S-400 sale.
Alexandra Gutowski is a senior military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.