Qatar has formally requested to acquire America’s most advanced fighter aircraft, the F-35 stealth combat jet, according to Reuters. This raises the serious question of why Qatar should ever possess such a capable weapons system in the first place.
The country hosts al-Udeid airbase, where the US Air Force has a significant operational presence. However, the United States has much more reliable partners in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, both of which have agreed to normalize ties with Israel, America’s most stable and capable ally in the region.
Indeed, though the United States and Qatar have close defense relations, the country certainly is not a suitable candidate for this aircraft. Qatar has been accused of supporting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal architect of the September 11 attacks. The nation has also funded the Taliban, Hamas, ISIS, Al-Nusra Front, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha spent billions on Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and then gave Brotherhood members temporary safe harbor when the government fell in 2013.
In recent years, Qatar has injected cash into Gaza after bouts of fighting with Israel. These payments have been part of temporary ceasefire agreements but have also rewarded Hamas’s brutal governance and incentivized further violence. In 2017, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Qatar because of its financial support for these groups and its links to Iran.
Qatar is also the closest partner and bank-roller of an increasingly aggressive Turkey, with Ankara backing Doha during the 2017 crisis with its Gulf neighbors. Qatar hosts a large Turkish military base, and both countries publicly support the Muslim Brotherhood and use it to project influence abroad. Turkey’s embrace of Islamist nationalists, particularly in Libya, has fueled destabilizing conflicts throughout the Middle East. Its reckless and illegal pursuit of offshore energy in the Eastern Mediterranean could bring it into armed conflict with fellow NATO member Greece and others.
Reports this week indicate that Turkey even activated the defense system against Greek F-16 aircraft. Like Qatar, Turkey also plays both sides of key geopolitical disputes, most notably by choosing to purchase Russian S-400 air defenses, and coordinating with Moscow on Syria, Libya and other regional security issues.
Furthermore, Qatar’s airpower is already set to make significant advances, even without the F-35, as it will receive four dozen of the most advanced versions of the F-15 over the next few years. Acquiring the F-35 on top of this would embolden an Arab state whose support for and cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, Iran and other radical elements in the Middle East endangers regional stability. It also would jeopardize Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME), or its ability to prevail over any of its neighbors – friend or foe – at acceptable cost to itself.
The possible sale of F-35s to the UAE already should initiate overdue discussions of how the United States will uphold its legal obligation to maintain Israel’s QME, given that in the Middle East today’s friend of the Jewish state could well become an F-35-wielding enemy tomorrow. Now the prospect of Qatar acquiring F-35s would not only reward and empower Qatar’s destabilizing behaviors, it also would pose an immediate and direct threat to Israel’s QME, which increasingly is crucial for maintaining regional stability amid US retrenchment.
Washington has several options to support Israel’s QME, including shifting forward, or frontloading, remaining defense assistance funds spelled out for Israel in their bilateral 2016 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). With frontloading, Israel could accelerate procurement of much-needed weaponry like F-35s, F-15s and KC-46 aerial refueling tankers.
Beginning talks now on the next MoU would also give Israel a useful jumpstart on purchasing next-generation weaponry. Other options include updating America’s prepositioned stockpile in Israel with precision-guided munitions, upgrading Israel’s intelligence-sharing status to be on par with members of the Five Eyes agreement on signals intelligence sharing, and developing integrated bilateral R&D programs for cutting-edge defense technologies.
Pursuing these remedies concertedly could help maintain Israel’s QME if the United States proceeds to sell F-35s to the UAE. But Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey and Iran already make it more a problem than a partner for the United States and our regional allies – including Israel – and should disqualify Doha from buying the world’s most advanced combat aircraft.
Indeed, Washington should also send a clear message that it will no longer tolerate ostensible allies playing both sides of regional conflicts. Denying the sale of F-35s to Qatar would be an important step in this regard and in supporting Israel’s QME. It could even form part of a larger campaign that leverages America’s presence at al-Udeid to compel Doha to cut ties with extremists and begin acting like the ally it says it is.
Jonathan Ruhe is director of foreign policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy. Ari Cicurel is a senior policy analyst at JINSA.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post