The two-month old crisis pitting Qatar against an alliance led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is proving to be a double-edged sword.
One crucial dimension in which the conflict lays out is that it threatens to escalate a Middle Eastern arms race. So far, that arms race has tiptoed around developing nuclear capabilities.
At a time of global focus on the shenanigans of North Korea, the Gulf crisis has also laid bare military ties between North Korea and a key Qatar detractor, the UAE. Ironically, the social change aspect permeates even the military dimension of the crisis.
The crisis and the wave of nationalism and support it has sparked for Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has convinced the Gulf state that its past strategy of emphasizing soft as opposed to hard power is insufficient to guarantee security.
As a result, Qatar has radically increased its arms purchases with a recent $12 billion deal to buy US F-15 fighter jets and a $7 billion naval vessel acquisition from Italy.
Britain’s Department for International Trade reported that Qatar since 2015 had moved from the world’s sixth largest to the third-largest buyer of military equipment. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said Qatari arms purchases had increased a whopping 282% since 2012.
Qatar signaled changes in its defense and security policy in 2014, the year the UAE and Saudi Arabia first unsuccessfully tried to subject Qatar to their will by withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha, with $24 billion worth of arms purchases.
The flurry of deals contrasts starkly with Qatar’s earlier reputation as a state that eyed major defense acquisitions, but to the frustration of the U.S. defense industry, often did not follow through.
They put a spotlight on an arms race that potentially could have far-reaching consequences as well as the willingness of Gulf states to keep a door open to the development of missile and nuclear options.
A leaked U.S. State Department memo attached to an email from the hacked email account of the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, expressed concern about a $100 million Emirati purchase of North Korean small and light arms in 2015, facilitated by an Emirati company allegedly owned by a close associate of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
The memo warned that North Korea “relies on overseas arms sales like this to sustain and advance its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.”
Given that the UAE would have had no problem acquiring the weapons elsewhere, the purchase appears to have been a bid to ensure access to missile and nuclear technology and persuade North Korea to restrict any dealings with Iran as well as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Moreover, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) warned earlier this year that:
There is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of (Iran’s) major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the (nuclear) deal or sooner if the deal fails… The current situation suggests that Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term.
Signaling changing attitudes and policies in the Gulf, Qatar, one of the first Gulf states to introduce compulsory military service, is focusing its national service program on strengthening its security forces in a bid to not only to enhance homeland defense but also national cohesion.
The program is partnering with Qatar Foundation’s Education City to include research that would support the military effort.