The US will continue to operate and maintain troops at Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base through at least 2024, following the signing of a 10-year Defense Cooperation Agreement by key officials yesterday.
The pact, which also involves training Qatari forces, was inked on the last day of US defense secretary Chuck Hagel’s Gulf tour, which analysts have said was aimed at reassuring regional allies of US support, amid policy disagreements over Syria and Iran.
In Doha yesterday, Hagel met the Emir and signed the agreement with Qatar’s Minister of State for Defense Affairs, Maj. Gen. Hamad bin Ali Al-Attiya, who said he is proud to host the base, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Peek into operations
During Hagel’s visit, American reporters were finally given access to Al Udeid’s previously top-secret Combined Air Operations Center, a windowless bunker that, according to Military Times, had “three huge video screens lit up with maps of the Gulf, the western Mediterranean Sea and Syria, and tracking of bomber flights into Afghanistan.”
The report continued:
“Around the room, troops sat at computer stations, tracking the numbers and dots on the maps representing fighter and bomber flights into the warzone, and commercial and military air traffic through the Gulf.
According to Air Force Col. Mike Schnabel, director of combat operations, troops in the operations center are tracking about 50 close air support flights a day to Afghanistan, although only a small fraction of those represent troops in contact with the enemy. There’s also a big flow of surveillance coming in from around the region.”
The airbase also keeps an eye on what’s going on Iran, WSJ reports:
“We run the command and control structure for the defense of the Arabian Gulf,” said Schnabel, using the military’s preferred term for the Persian Gulf. “There is no active fight going on in the Arabian Gulf but we are prepared…if there was some type of flare-up.”
Pushing for a union
Meanwhile, maintaining stability appears to be a key focus for GCC countries going forward.
At a Gulf summit yesterday, Saudi Arabia stressed the need for European Union-type cooperation, with a GCC-wide unified military command. The idea was supported by Kuwait, but Oman has said it would not take part.
Getting all six GCC nations on board such an agreement would be difficult, said F. Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Speaking to the National, Gause said:
“I just don’t see them joining in as junior partners to a big union in which Saudi Arabia will be the leader. I think they like the GCC the way it is.”