April 17, 2018:
In 2016 Qatar announced major weapons purchase involving nearly $6 billion worth of ships. Details of the ships were lacking then but now that has all been worked out and construction begins this year and will take six years to complete. Qatar ordered an LPD amphibious ship, four 3,000 ton corvettes and two 700 ton OPVs (offshore patrol vessels). This basically replaces the smaller Cold War era Qatar navy of nine patrol boats and one LST.
The LPD will be based on an existing Italian design (San Giusto-class) and an export model that was delivered to Algeria in 2014. The Algerian LPD had been ordered in 2011 and has a floodable dock for landing craft and a flight deck for helicopters. There are also hospital facilities. The crew had been training in Italy since 2013. Most Algerians live along the coast and this ship would be useful for disaster relief as well as military uses. Qatar has a similar situation. The Algerian LPD is armed with a 76mm cannon, sixteen Aster vertical launch anti-aircraft missile (with a range up to 15 kilometers) cells and two remotely controlled 25mm autocannon. The Qatari LPD has four 30mm autocannons instead.
The Qatari LPD will operate NH90 helicopters which can be armed with anti-ship missiles. Five helicopters can fit on the deck and another five in the hanger deck (which can also accommodate vehicles for the amphibious troops). The dock in the rear has nine small landing craft. The vehicle/hanger deck (below the flight deck) can hold 15 armored vehicles and there are accommodations for 440 troops. The ship is operated by a crew of 150. The ship also has a small hospital with an operating room. Troop accommodations can be used to handle some patients as well as civilians in general. Fuel and other supplies allow the ship to stay at sea for 20 days at a time.
The San Giorgio class amphibious transport ship is one of the smaller LPD class ships. Italy has three of them, which entered service in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The San Giorgio class ships are 133 meters (435 feet) long and displace only 8,000 tons, while most other LPDs are 20,000 tons or larger. The San Giorgio sacrifices many things (vehicle, helicopter and landing ship capacity) but they can still carry a small (400 men) battalion of troops, 36 vehicles, six landing craft (in a well in the rear of the ship) and up to six helicopters. Armament consists of two 25mm autocannons. The Algerians received an upgraded San Giorgio. The export versions for Algeria and Qatar are a little heavier (at 8,800 tons) and have the more modern equipment.
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 are 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 ten years of logistical and technical support for the corvettes and five for the LPD. All the ships will be in service by the mid-2020s. Qatar is also expanding and upgrading its ground and air forces
Qatar is small (11,437 square kilometers/4,416 square miles) state with a population of 2.6 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 already has refineries, steel plants and other heavy industry and a very low unemployment rate for Qatari citizens.
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. The population of Qatar was less than 100,000 in the early 20th century and didn’t really start to grow until the 1970s. For most Qatari citizens, their grandparents lived very different lives.
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. At the same time, Qatar cultivated close relations with Iran and allowed its citizens to support some Islamic terror groups. That led to disputes with its fellow Arabians that are currently unsettled.
Meanwhile, 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 2015, 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. Qatar goes one step further and tries to work with Iran without becoming an Iranian protectorate. That is at the heart of the current dispute with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In addition, there is the fact that Arabia is ruled a few powerful clans (the Saudi family is the most prominent) and the Thani clan of Qatar have actually been in power (since 1825) longer than the Saudis (who founded their kingdom a century later.)