The Obama administration is paralyzed over whether to sell dozens of advanced U.S. fighter jets to the tiny kingdom of Qatar, a Persian Gulf ally that houses a strategic American air base but has alarmed Washington by maintaining ties to an array of Islamist militant groups.
The potential deal for up to 73 F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets, worth billions of dollars, has been on the table for more than two years. The White House has come under fire for the unusual delay from some U.S. lawmakers, who accuse the administration of dithering and breaking its promise to speed up arms sales to Gulf allies anxious about the threat posed by their regional rival Iran — especially as Tehran emerges from economic sanctions and inks arms deals with countries like Russia.
Israel has privately expressed reservations about the deal because of Qatar’s relationships with Islamist groups like the Taliban and Hamas and because of concerns that Israel’s military superiority in the region could be undercut by the sale, congressional aides and former U.S. officials said. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf nations have voiced similar concerns about Qatar’s ties to terrorist groups and its increasingly warm relationship with Tehran.
Qatar, for its part, says that it wants the jets to assert itself as a military power in a region plagued by conflict and instability. Its current air force is tiny, with just a dozen aging French Mirage jets, so the proposed deal would represent a six-fold increase in its military strength. The Qatari government hopes to leverage the help it has provided Washington — from hosting the air base the United States uses to stage strikes against the Islamic State to negotiating the release of captive American soldier Bowe Bergdahl — to secure the aircraft deal.
Faced with a politically fraught dilemma that could either antagonize Qatar or Israel and other Persian Gulf allies, the White House has been unable to make a decision. Senate aides and industry experts said both the Defense and State departments have no objections to the sales, and lawmakers from both parties have pressed the White House to approve the sale. The administration, however, has given no indication if, or when, it plans to do so.
Several U.S. lawmakers, including those with staunch pro-Israel views, have been puzzled by the delay on the Qatar sale — as well as a pending deal with Kuwait — and urged the administration to move forward on both deals.
“These sales have been stuck in the political decision-making process at the White House for a long time now,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy in an email. “Many of us would like to see the White House make a decision soon to move this process along.”
But other lawmakers have said they have reservations about the United States selling weapons to Qatar, given its track record of openly supporting Hamas and turning a blind eye to deep-pocket donors delivering funds to extremists in Syria. In 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department took the unusual step of publicly rebuking Qatar for failing to take decisive action against nationals who are providing funds to militant groups, including the al Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Front in Syria. Last year, meanwhile, the departmentimposed sanctions on two Qatar-based financiers for allegedly raising money for al Qaeda operatives in Syria, Pakistan, and Sudan.
“The Qataris have shown a tolerance for extremism among the groups they have supported within Syria that has caused some real friction with our other regional allies and with the United States,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told FP. He added that Qatar needed to show concrete evidence of a change in behavior before the deal should be approved.
Qatar has said it has not funded terrorists but has defended its relations with Hamas (which the United States lists as a terrorist organization) and other Islamist movements as groups that have popular political support. The Qatari Embassy in Washington did not respond to queries from FP.
Qatar’s monarchy has displayed a canny ability to play both sides of the Middle East’s divide, welcoming leaders of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood along with U.S. Air Force generals and American college professors. And its channels to various Islamist groups — while causing alarm — often have turned the kingdom into a crucial U.S. partner for back-channel diplomacy and securing the release of hostages.
When the United States signaled it was ready to swap Taliban commanders held at the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan and held hostage by insurgents, it turned to Qatar as a go-between to broker a deal with the Taliban insurgents. Qatar has also played a key role in securing the release of a number of Western hostages held by al-Nusra Front or other Syrian rebels, including American journalist Peter Theo Curtis two years ago. And when Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to negotiate an end to fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in 2014, he sought out Qatar to help broker a cease-fire.
The Defense Department’s ties to Qatar run even deeper. In 2013, the Pentagon renewed a defense cooperation agreement that extended the U.S. lease on the al-Udeid Air Base for another 10 years. The deal allows the United States to continue to run its combat air operations center out of the desert base west of Doha, where officers from 30 countries oversee the U.S.-led air war in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. In 2014, the United States announced an arms sale with Qatar worth $11 billion for Patriot missile batteries, Apache attack helicopters and other weapons.
Qatar’s aircraft have provided logistical support and flown surveillance missions for the campaign against the Islamic State, and its planes took part in the NATO-led air campaign in Libya in 2011 that toppled dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.
The long delay of the Qatar deal has opened the White House to criticism that it is backtracking on its 2015 promise to increase security assistance to Persian Gulf nations battling the Islamic State and looking to deter Iran. In May 2015, at a meeting of leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David, Washington pledged to take steps like “fast-tracking arms transfers.”
The meeting was supposed to reassure traditional Gulf Arab allies, who fear Washington is withdrawing from the region and who distrust the nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran.
But with no green light for the fighter jet sales to Qatar and Kuwait, U.S. credibility in the region has been damaged, according to Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“In the Gulf, the president is failing to live up to the promises made at the Camp David Summit in May 2015,” McCain said at a hearing this month.
A spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, David McKeeby, told FP it is typical and appropriate for major arms deals to undergo extensive “consideration and consultation.”
He added: “The United States remains committed to the security and stability of the Gulf region.”
As it has weighed the arms sales to the Gulf, the Obama administration also has been negotiating an elaborate memorandum of understanding with Israel that will outline a 10-year U.S. military assistance package for the Jewish state. The memorandum has taken on added importance in light of Israeli opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement, which has enabled the lifting of economic sanctions on Tehran. Israel fears that Iran will be able to invest in new weapons — including ballistic missiles — that could target its cities and military bases.
The memorandum reportedly could offer up to $50 billion worth of U.S. military aid to Israel over a decade, but the sale of dozens of fighter jets to Qatar could give the Israelis a rationale to press for bolstering the assistance further, experts and congressional aides said.
U.S. President Barack Obama is due to travel to Riyadh next month to attend a gathering of the GCC, and the meeting could provide an opportunity for the administration to announce a decision on the Qatar sale.
Although U.S. lawmakers are invoking geopolitics in backing the arms sales, many have their eye on domestic politics, as thousands of American jobs could be on the line if the deal is rejected or continues to linger.
The aerospace giant Boeing manufactures the aircraft that would be sold to Qatar or Kuwait under the pending deals. Boeing executives and Pentagon officials argue that the production lines in Missouri for both the F-15 and the F/A-18, older planes slated to be phased out in favor of more advanced jets, might have to close within a few years if the arms sales do not go through. And that would mean layoffs for the thousands of workers who build those planes.
The defense industry, by spreading weapons manufacturing jobs at plants across numerous states, exerts a major influence on Congress. Donors and political action committees from the industry contributed more than $27 million to political candidates in the 2012 election campaign cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Over the past year, Boeing ranked third among defense political contributors, donating $1.61 million to various candidates and groups.
Winning approval for the Qatar deal, however, has already been a tough sell for the kingdom and its allies on Capitol Hill because Qatar’s ruling family has come under consistent criticism from U.S. government officials who say it has tolerated fundraising by its citizens for violent extremists.
After publicly slamming Qatar in 2014, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the time, David Cohen, who is now the CIA’s deputy director, described Qatar as “a permissive terrorist financing environment.”
In September 2014, Treasury officials said an Islamic State commander, known as the “emir of suicide bombers,” received $2 million in cash from a Qatari businessman. Treasury sanctioned the two Qatari financiers less than a year later.
Despite the U.S. sanctions introduced against some Qatari nationals and the criticism, Western firms and banks have not shied away from doing business in the country. Investments by U.S. and other oil firms enabled the kingdom to exploit its vast natural gas reserves for lucrative exports, with GDP growing from $35 billion to $185 billion between 2000 and 2012.
In June 2013, Qatar’s emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, abdicated in favor of his son Tamim bin Hamad. The new leader has raised hopes among Western officials that the country will strike a more moderate course when it comes to its relationships with Islamist groups. But the Treasury Department has issued no public statements suggesting Qatar has changed its stripes.
Matthew Spence, formerly the top Pentagon official for the Middle East in the Obama administration, said U.S. weapons sales offer a way of exerting some constructive influence over a country like Qatar.
“Qatar really is an evolving country, and we should look for ways to shape which way they’re evolving,” he told FP. “If the United States doesn’t help shape their direction, Qatar will turn somewhere else.”
The kingdom has already begun to do so. Qatar had previously bought French warplanes for its small air force fleet. Amid uncertainty over the U.S. deal, Qatar announced last year it would buy 24 Rafale fighters from France for $7 billion.
Photo credit: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images