France hopes to sell Qatar the Dassault Rafale to replace 12 Mirage 2000-5 jets (shown). Qatari Mirages flew alongside French fighters in the Libya air campaign. (AFP)
ABU DHABI — To Western and Asian arms suppliers, Qatar is a major sales target looking to purchase fighter jets, armored vehicles and warships, according to consulting and defense industry sources.
And yet, Qatar also holds an ambiguous role in world politics: a pro-Western actor to some that also reportedly funds extremist Salafist Islamist groups in Libya and Syria.
Despite that perceived ambiguity, foreign capitals and companies are courting Qatar, a large energy supplier with huge surpluses to finance weapons purchases to the tune of 20 billion euros ($26 billion). Doha is also an ally against the perceived Iranian threat.
“Everyone is going to Qatar. Every day there’s a presentation,” a French executive said, adding that Qatari authorities have offers from America, China, France, Germany, South Korea and Turkey to equip an army brigade.
Besides the brigade project, Qatari officials have compiled an equipment list worth “at least 20 billion euros,” a French defense expert said.
That relatively large figure follows a fallow procurement period of some 15 years and raises questions over whether the authorities will set priorities in a programmatic approach rather than buy the list in one fell swoop.
The French Army’s export support office and the international development department of the Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office made presentations last year to Qatari officials on the equipment, technical operations and logistical support for a combat brigade based on the French Army model, the executive said.
The “French Brigade” consists of a tank regiment and two infantry regiments — one for artillery and one for reconnaissance — totaling some 5,000 combat troops.
The Qatari brigade would be armed with the same equipment as the French Army’s, fueling hopes that French land-systems maker Nexter can sell its Véhicule Blindé Combat d’Infanterie fighting vehicle, Caesar artillery and Petit Véhicule Protegé armored car. The French Army would sell secondhand Leclerc heavy tanks.
The French offer includes integrated logistical support, ammunition, and command, communications, control and intelligence systems.
Qatar, along with the United Arab Emirates, is the last Arabian Gulf country to renew its armored vehicle fleet, defense sources said.
Doha is also seen as a sales target for an anti-ballistic missile system against a perceived Iranian threat, the executive said. Qatar has been studying the Aster weapon from European missile-maker MBDA for at least seven years, but the recent “rise in strength” of Iran’s missile program has spurred greater interest. Several missile batteries would be needed to protect Doha and key industrial installations.
That pitches MBDA against Lockheed Martin’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense system and Russia’s new S400 weapon, the executive said.
Over the past three or so years, some 10 Qatari specialist working groups have quartered the globe, attending trade shows and briefings. The modernization dossier “is very complete,” the defense expert said.
At one time, Qatari officials said they wanted one country to supply their equipment needs, but there has also been talk of mixed sourcing.
“Everybody’s submitted bids for a variety of equipment in which they specialize,” said Theodore Karasik, director with consultancy Inegma, based in Dubai. “The U.S., U.K., France and Germany are the heavy contenders,” he said.
The modernization may end up with a mixed force but the need for interoperability will limit the extent of a mixed force, Karasik said.
Germany is keen to displace France as the historic arms supplier and has offered the Leopard 2 tank, which has undergone desert tests, defense sources said. Berlin has a strong naval offer, as the list includes new corvettes and frigates.
On the fighter aircraft front, France hopes to sell the Dassault Rafale to replace 12 Mirage 2000-5 jets. Qatari Mirages flew alongside French fighters in the Libya air campaign.
The aircraft needs include Army and Navy transport helicopters, fueling hopes of selling the NH90 by the multinational NHIndustries. There is a requirement for an attack helicopter, but France sees the NH90’s chances of sale better than the Tiger’s.
Money is no object as Qatar has the highest gross domestic product per head with an estimated 2012 figure of $102,800, the CIA World Factbook shows. Oil and gas are the sources of Qatar’s wealth.
Absorbing the purchases, however, might pose a problem, as the Army, the largest of the armed forces, totals some 8,500 soldiers.
Qatar, with a population of some 2.5 million, is keen to project itself as a power in the region and on the world.
The government supports the Al-Jazeera television news channel, but also reportedly funds al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Ansar al-Sharia, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, said the specialist website International Policy Digest.
Western governments, however, view Qatar as a valued ally, particularly as tensions run high against Iran. The country is host to the U.S. Central Command’s Forward Headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Center. The coalition’s 2003 Iraq invasion was overseen from there.
Many nations have cleared companies to sell arms to Qatar, partly to offset cuts in domestic spending in the West.
Nexter Chief Executive Philippe Burtin said he sees no ambiguity over Qatar. On Feb. 28, Burtin highlighted the ties between France and Qatar by pointing to the joint Gulf Falcon exercise already underway, and which French Chief of the Defense Staff Adm. Edouard Guillaud is scheduled to attend.
It is up to governments to decide which countries are friendly, and to allow arms sales, a company executive said.
On industry offsets, which are an increasing factor in arms deals, Qatar has no formal offset policy but such local industry deals are important, according to the January edition of the Offset Guidelines Quarterly Bulletin.
“It does, however, see offset benefits as a key discriminator in the procurement process and the country is asking for benefits for both civil and defense acquisitions, including oil and gas concessions,” the bulletin said.
Sources said Qatar’s “very full dossier” on equipment modernization is on the desk of the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who decides on policy matters.
But if France wants to sell its kit to Qatar, Paris must improve relations with Doha, the defense expert said.
President François Hollande has visited Saudi Arabia and UAE, seen as two key arms markets, but so far has not gone to Qatar.
Qatar bought an EADS border surveillance contract, dubbed National Security Shield, but has not bought French military gear for many years.