Qatar recently announced another major weapons purchase. For $5.4 billion Qatar is getting four 3,000 ton corvettes, one 10,000 ton LPD amphibious ship and two 700 ton OPVs (offshore patrol vessels). This basically replaces the smaller Cold War era navy of ten larger warships (nine patrol boats and one LST). Since the 1990s Qatar has acquired over twenty new patrol boats but the most recent purchase gives Qatar the largest warships it has ever owned. The suppliers are European with most (77 percent) of it from Italy and is the largest single naval export sale ever for Italy. The other 23 percent of the sale is to European firm MBDA for anti-aircraft missile systems for the new ships. The ship contract includes fifteen years of logistical and technical support. All the ships will be in service by the mid-2020s.
After 2010 Qatar began a major upgrade and expansion of the weapons and equipment used by its small (about 12,000 personnel) armed forces. In early 2014 Qatar announced orders for $23 billion of new weapons and military equipment. Qatar spread it around, thus U.S. firms got about 47 percent of these orders but many other Western nations got the rest. Because of the shortage of local technical staff, the price also includes lot of expensive Westerners to maintain it all. Among the items purchased were 24 AH-64 helicopter gunships, 22 NH90 transport helicopters, two aerial tankers and lots of air defense gear, including U.S. missiles that can intercept Iranian ballistic missiles. Even without nuclear warheads these Iranian missiles can hit expensive and difficult to replace oil facilities, causing billions in damage.
Qatar is small (11,437 square kilometers/4,416 square miles) state with a population of 1.8 million. It has large oil revenues, giving it a per-capita GDP that is the highest in the world. The emir (ruler) has made sure that the money is shared, making the population tolerant of being ruled by a monarchy. The emir has recognized that most of the oil and gas will be gone by mid-century and is trying to build a "knowledge economy" that will keep Qatar prosperous after the oil boom is over.
Qatar is one of the many emirates that occupy the western shore of the Persian Gulf. In the 19th century the coastal emirates (city states that depended on trade, pearls, and fishing) allied themselves with Britain for protection against the Turks (who controlled what is now Iraq), Iran (always a threat to the Arabs), and the interior tribes of Arabia. Britain was interested in suppressing pirates (which often operated out of the emirates) and halting Turkish expansion.
In 1971 seven of the emirates formed a federation: the UAE (United Arab Emirates). There were immediate disputes with Saudi Arabia about where the land and water borders of the UAE should be. Some of those disputes are still unresolved. The Saudis consider themselves the leader of Arabia but most of the people of Arabia (in Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE) frequently disagree. As a result there is a lot of friction. Nevertheless, in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council was formed by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. In 2002 Qatar signed defense agreements with the United States. Qatar has hosted American warplanes and warships since the 1990s.
It’s not just Qatar that’s buying weapons. All the Arab Gulf states have been buying heavily. Arms sales like this are not unusual for the Middle East. The oil-rich Gulf Arab states have long spent heavily on weapons to protect their wealth and independence. Since 2010 annual arms exports to this region have averaged over $60 billion a year and most of it has gone to the six oil-rich members of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait are the big buyers and the main reason for that is fear of Iran.
On the face of it all those purchases appear to be overkill because Iran had to, until this year smuggle in its arms imports, as legitimate purchases were banned by international embargoes that began piling up in the 1980s. Iranian military procurement is less than a tenth of what their Arab neighbors are spending. But the Iranians have a long tradition of doing much with little when it comes to military equipment. In addition the Arabs have a much less impressive combat record, especially in the last century. So the oil-rich Arabs are trying to equip their troops with a lot of the best stuff available and hope for the best.