The Qatari Military Is Terribly Outgunned
Wealthy country, small army—and a major crisis
It’s been less than a week since the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council—the closest thing to an Arab NATO—blockaded Qatar by sea, land and air, setting off a chaotic series of diplomatic maneuvers led by Kuwait.
Wars have begun over less.
If that wasn’t bad enough, were the standoff to escalate, it could draw in Qatar’s friends such as Turkey—which approved a bill to fast-track a troop deployment to the peninsular kingdom—and Iran, which has long-standing economic ties with Qatar. The GCC states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, plus Egypt, have accused Qatar of supporting terrorism, sparked in part by a bogus news story planted on state-run Qatari websites.
Mineral-rich Qatar is uniquely vulnerable. It’s one of the wealthiest countries in the world, practices a realpolitik foreign policy in a neighborhood dominated by larger powers and has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, which is despised by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates.
For perspective, there are more than 2.5 million people living in the country but only around 300,000 Qatari citizens—roughly equivalent in size to the population of St. Louis, Missouri—which is testimony to the wealthy kingdom’s reliance on foreign labor. Most of its food is imported, almost half through Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, Qatar has fought alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen versus Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. In Libya, Qatar and the UAE have backed opposing sides in Libya’s internal conflict, with Qatar supplying the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar also supports Hamas, and Qatari funding has flowed to Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, a Salafist jihadist organization fighting in Syria.
But Qatar cannot maintain its independence without friends. Al Udeid Air Base, just outside of Doha, hosts thousands of American service members and dozens of warplanes, and is one of the U.S. military’s main logistics and command hubs in the Middle East.
One giant problem—American diplomacy is disarray with the State Department and Pentagon stressing cooperation as Pres. Donald Trump stated: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar—look!”
A smaller military facility, As Sayliyah Army Base, hosts an important U.S. Army warehouse to support the rapid deployment of ground troops in the region. There are around 150 Turkish troops in the country, although Turkey has long planned to deploy up to 3,000.
The Qatari military is poorly prepared to fend off an attack—but that’s because it’s small. As of 2016, the Gulf kingdom possessed a mere 18 combat-capable planes including 12 Mirage 2000 fighter jets, supplied by France. Six Alpha Jets, a trainer capable of conducting ground-attack missions, rounds out the extent of Qatar’s fixed-wing fighting force.
The Qatari navy is built around seven fast-attack boats—four Vita-class vessels supplied by the United Kingdom and another three Combattante III boats supplied by France. It’s not much but the vessels can be deadly, with each ship from both classes equipped with eight Exocet anti-ship missiles. A Qatari coastal defense battery is also armed with 12 Exocet missiles in three quad-launchers.
Qatar’s largest military branch, the army, has only 8,500 troops out of the 11,800 military service members in the country. The kingdom’s one armored brigade has 30 French-made AMX-30 tanks, a design dating to the 1960s.
In late 2016, Qatar began receiving modern Leopard 2A7 tanks from Germany—16 of which the army recently pulled out of storage, according to CNN Arabic. Qatar’s defense downplayed this report.
Much more numerous are Qatar’s mechanized infantry and combat support units, which possess more than 300 armored scout vehicles, troop transports and armored cars—French as well—along with at least 91 artillery pieces of various calibers. Qatar is also taking delivery of two dozen German 155-millimeter PzH 2000 howitzers.
That’s most of what Qatar has to physically resist Saudi Arabia, which has one of the largest and best-equipped military forces in the Middle East. The Saudi army alone is an order of magnitude bigger than Qatar’s, and this is all worth noting because Saudi Arabia has launched interventions into and invaded its neighbors in the past.
Saudi Arabia is currently bogged down in Yemen, having invaded in March 2015, and Saudi troops in armored vehicles were part of the multi-national Peninsula Shield Force which rolled into Bahrain in 2011 to help put down Arab Spring demonstrations.
In 1995, Saudi Arabia and the UAE organized an near invasion of Qatar—calling it off at the last second—following a palace coup which saw Crown Prince Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani depose his father. Hamad’s son, 37-year-old Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, has been Emir since 2013.
With that history, we can hope Saudi Arabia keeps its powder dry. History also shows that’s not a sure bet.