Qatar F-35 request fraught with controversy and challenges - analysis

A US Marine Corps F-35B fighter jet drops a laser-guided bomb at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (photo credit: US NAVY VIA REUTERS)
A US Marine Corps F-35B fighter jet drops a laser-guided bomb at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
(photo credit: US NAVY VIA REUTERS)
Qatar may be seeking to purchase the 5th generation F-35 from the US, in a request that has raised eyebrows because it comes in the wake of a UAE-Israel deal and after rumors suggested Abu Dhabi might acquire the plane as well. The Lockheed Martin F-35 is America’s premier warplane with advanced capabilities; only a handful of countries in the world, all key US allies, possess the warplane.
Israel is one of those countries and American and Israeli pilots have been increasingly drilling together, with several exercises this year. Israel seeks to maintain its qualitative military edge in the region, which means any sales of the plane raise eyebrows, especially because Qatar has been accused of being too close to Iran and also to an increasingly belligerent Turkey.
The Qatari request was reported by Reuters but there was no official confirmation – and it remains unclear how many aircraft Qatar might want or how the approval might proceed.  
The F-35 is an expensive aircraft, almost $100 million, and has its origins in the 1990s. It is described as a joint strike fighter and has stealth capabilities. It has been procured by the US Air Force since 2006 and then by the Marine Corps and Navy. By 2019 almost 200 F-35s had been delivered to the US Air Force but deliveries have slowed at home and abroad due to the Covid-19 crisis this year.
Less than the 141 jets slated for construction will be completed this year, Defense News reported. Part of the issue is that the program relies on some 1,900 suppliers. Controversy has happened in the past after the US was going to sell F-35s to Turkey but appeared to put the Turkish sales program on ice when Ankara acquired Russia’s S-400 air defense system in 2017. Israeli defense companies such as IAI and Elbit Systems play a role in making the wing skins and helmets for the fighter.  
CURRENT SALES of the aircraft have included countries that played a role in the program, such as Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark, as well as other countries such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Israel is the only Middle Eastern country to receive the aircraft, with two squadrons already opened and fifty planes ordered, and an option for another 25. The aircraft has proven its worthiness to Israel and is a key part of the strategy that links Jerusalem and Washington and their vision in the region.
The United Arab Emirates wants F-35s as well, and September reports indicated that Abu Dhabi had submitted a request. Like the news of the Qatar request, the full details are not available. Reports also indicate that Saudi Arabia would want the aircraft.  
There are many considerations that go into selling advanced US aircraft to countries in the Middle East. In the past there have been considerations of the balance of power. That was the case in the 1970s when the US considered selling F-15s to Saudi Arabia. Another issue is time. It takes years for countries to pursue purchases of US military equipment. This is true whether they already possess the equipment or not. Approvals are slow, and so are requests and studies of needs. And it also takes time to build aircraft.
Considering the history of the F-35, it is clear that even if it were sold to Gulf states, the numbers would be small. Singapore, for instance, acquired only four of the aircraft, with an option for eight more. In some ways, F-35 sales are therefore more symbolic than they are necessarily a game-changer for a Gulf state. However, symbols are important and Qatar and the UAE vie for influence in Washington.
Since 2017 there has been a Gulf crisis in which Saudi Arabia led the other Gulf states to break relations with Qatar. Qatar is closer to Iran than its neighbors and also works closely with Turkey. It has also hosted and supported religious extremists in the region, often linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. This is seen as a double-edged sword because Qatar’s backing for religious extremists means it can sell itself to the US as the only country that influences groups like Hamas or the Taliban.
In fact, Qatar has become a key conduit for financial support of Gaza, which Israel facilitates, and it hosts peace talks with the Taliban. This is how Doha gains influence. Instead of opposing extremism, it hosts it and then says that only it can get the extremists to play nice. Instead of this leading to opprobrium in the US, Qatar has carved out near hegemonic influence in media and government circles. It hosts politicians and influencers from the Left and Right, even inviting pro-Israel activists on visits to meet the Emir.
Qatar has pursued a “strategic” relationship with the US, to formalize its alliance. It hosts the US Udeid airbase and has held three rounds of strategic talks with Washington. It is clear that those talks in September came as the US administration was finalizing the Abraham Accord with the UAE and Bahrain. In short, those two countries agreed to normalize relations with Israel, and Qatar appears to get all the strategic dialogue and support.
THERE ARE other considerations as well. Not only does the US want to balance the powers in the region and balance Gulf rivalries, but it also doesn’t want countries like Qatar turning to competitors. Turkey has already turned to Russia and many countries are buying drones from China, for instance. The US prefers to have these countries dependent on American weapon systems and sales. However, there is another problem.
Back in 2015, the Gulf states all sought more warplanes during the Iran-deal era. They believed that if the US was going to back the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, then an empowered Iran would acquire more weapons and threaten them. They asked for planes at the time, including the F-35, according to reports. They didn’t get the F-35 that year; it has been five years.
In that five years Qatar has chosen to be more amicable with Tehran, so as not to be threatened and to hedge its bets while working with the US. The other states, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have chosen a different path. Opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah, they have sought out a closer relationship with the Trump administration and also Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus.
However, Qatar has sought to undermine the traditional support Riyadh received in Washington, working with key media and influencers to paint Saudi Arabia as a renegade and unstable or authoritarian state. The latter is an ironic accusation, since Doha is also a monarchy. However, the Middle East is divided between the authoritarian regimes of Qatar and Turkey, which are allies, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia – and Iran and its friends. Tehran increasingly works with Moscow and Ankara, while the southern Gulf states are concerned about Turkey's growing influence.
THE US decision on F-35s will thus have major ramifications for the region. If it says no to requests by either Abu Dhabi or Doha, it will potentially humiliate them. If it sells them a token number of aircraft, which will take years to deliver, it will show it supports them.
However, there will be lingering questions about why Qatar is rewarded in the same way as the UAE, despite the UAE normalizing relations with Israel. In essence, the question is: What did Qatar do to deserve the aircraft? But if the US only sells the aircraft to one and not the other, it will show favoritism. In addition, Israel has expressed concern about preserving its qualitative military edge, and that will factor into the decision.
In the end, the Trump administration faces an election, so it likely will not make the decision quickly, and there could be other hurdles in Congress. That could put the ball in the next administration’s court.  
F-35s are a key part of US military industrial complex diplomacy, a way that the US shows who its real friends are and knits together a global alliance system. Toward that end, it likely wants more sales in the Middle East because 5th generation fighter jets work well together and then the US could do joint drills with the UAE, Israel and its F-35s.
But that is a long way in the future. If history tells us anything, it won’t be before 2025 that these countries could conceive of getting a squadron of the planes. And a lot can change in five years.