After Riyadh, Doha is the second largest buyer of US military equipment.
The US Defence Department is reportedly encouraging the sale of over $500 million worth of drones to Qatar despite a delay from the State Department’s end, Washington officials told NBC News on Wednesday.
The comments by three American officials and a congressional aide familiar with discussions come just days after Doha reportedly expressed its frustration over the delay in a purchase request for four MQ-9b Predator drones from the US made more than a year ago, according to a Wall Street Journal [WSJ] article published on Sunday.
While the Pentagon favours the sale, the US State Department has yet to approve the request despite green lighting similar applications from other allies, including the United Arab Emirates.
“The frustration from our perspective is that there is no clear indication as to why there is a delay on our request,” a Qatari official told the WSJ, pointing to Doha’s recent evacuation operations in Afghanistan as proof of its reliability as an ally, especially in matters concerning security and stability.
However, a US official told NBC that the Pentagon has no objection to the sale and does see Qatar as a reliable partner that is vital in playing a role in countering terrorism on a global scale.
On the other hand, officials at the State Department say it is wary about the sale due to its fear of angering key Gulf allies, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Earlier, a State Department spokesperson said that it “does not publicly comment on or confirm proposed defence sales or transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress”.
Officials from the Gulf state have expressed that they would use US-supplied drones to keep their eye on giant natural-gas facilities and to monitor terrorist threats in the region, as well as prevent terrorist activities in other regions.
Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup next year was also attributed in the nation’s request for drones, with officials believing that the mega-event will need protection against potential attacks.
Speaking to Doha News Dr. Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London and researcher of Middle East and North African Studies, said that Qatar’s effort in the US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan seems to be paying off.
“The US institutions, especially the Pentagon, are acknowledging that Doha has become the most reliable partner in this part of the world,” said Dr. Krieg.
Yet despite its position as a strategic US ally and key mediator in a wide range of issues concerning the Middle East and beyond, the delay in the drone sale could be a “reputational” issue.
“Selling arms to Qatar at this point becomes less of a reputational issue than selling arms to Saudi Arabia or even the UAE where there are concerns of Abu Dhabi getting too close to China and Russia,” noted Dr. Krieg.
He added that the prioritisation of Qatar will likely create tensions in Washington as it will upset the UAE.
“The only obstacle to arms sales to Qatar now is its neighbours who will look with envy at Qatar’s rise to becoming America’s key partner in the region. Selling sophisticated technology to Qatar while withholding technology such as the F-35 from Abu Dhabi is going to create tensions in Washington as the Emiratis will not accept that.
“It is therefore not surprising that State Department officials have raised concerns over creating anger in other Gulf capitals if Qatar gets preferential treatment,” Krieg added.
According to the WSJ, the issue of delayed operations is expected to be at the top of Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s agenda during his visit to Washington in November.
The latest developments come as the US aims to maintain its power and influence in the Gulf while withdrawing from the region amid growing concerns of Chinese competition and power.
After Saudi Arabia, Doha is also the second largest buyer of US military equipment, with more than $26 billion in proposed purchases via Washington’s foreign military sales programme.