Qatar will spend $1.8 billion upgrading the major air base used by the United States for its ongoing military and counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf kingdom said Monday.
Expansion of the base, which houses about 10,000 U.S. military personnel, will include new family housing facilities for more than 200 officers and other infrastructure enlargements, along with “operational” improvements, Defense Minister Khaled Mohammed al-Attiyah said in an interview.
The improvements, to be formally announced at a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday, were previewed this year in meetings between Attiyah and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. They come as Qatar and its gulf rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are in the midst of a deep regional dispute and competing for closer relations with the United States.
Last summer, fresh from a triumphant visit to Saudi Arabia, President Trump sided with the Saudis and Emiratis when they broke relations with Qatar and accused it of ties to terrorism.By fall, however, Trump backed off after Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that it was unwise to take sides in what was a long-standing rivalry, and reminded him of U.S. military interests in Qatar.
Since then, he has repeatedly called on them to mend their differences and offered to mediate. Last April, when Trump hosted a visit by Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar was described as a “valued partner and longtime friend” that provided “critical support” for operations against the Islamic State.
Qatar is also viewed as a major donor to administration plans to provide development assistance to Gaza and the West Bank as part of a still-unrevealed U.S. plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Qatar is a major customer for the U.S. defense industry, including last year’s purchase of $12 billion worth of F-15s. “We have bought a lot of military equipment from the U.S. so we can fly hand in hand with our partners,” Attiya said.
He dismissed any notion of regional rivalry, saying that Qatar is “not very much interested in rivalry” but rather was interested in “the stability of the region.”
According to a background statement from the Qatar government, the contract for 36 F-15 fighter jets “supports 50,000 total jobs and more than 550 suppliers in 42 states.” Other recent purchases include $20 million worth of Javelin guided missiles, $700 million in logistics support services and equipment, and an estimated $200 million in weapons systems “which support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States.”
But the centerpiece of U.S.-Qatar ties is Al Udeid Air Base, home to scores of aircraft, including fighters, bombers, tankers and reconnaissance planes.
The base is key to U.S. military efforts in the Middle East and has played a central role in the Pentagon’s air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In addition to the large U.S. troop presence, it is also the headquarters of Air Forces Central Command, headed by a three-star U.S. general, and a combined air operations center from which the Pentagon tracks the maneuvers of aircraft throughout the region.
The U.S. military relationship with Qatar expanded rapidly in the 1990s and early part of the 21st century, as the Qataris built Al Udeid and encouraged the United States to use it. The Pentagon moved its air operations center there from Saudi Arabia in 2003, after Riyadh denied the United States permission to use its Prince Sultan Air Base to attack Iraq.
Qatar’s willingness to let the United States fly bombers from Al Udeid is seen as particularly significant. Other nations in the region do not allowed bombers, but the Pentagon has had a steady rotation of bomber squadrons through the base. A unit of B-1B bombers arrived this spring, replacing B-52s that carried out airstrikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria over the previous two years.
The U.S. military has spent about $450 million in construction at Al Udeid since 2003, expanding the facility from an expeditionary airfield in which many U.S. troops lived in tents to the more permanent structures there today. Qatar calculates it has spent $8 billion there to support U.S. operations.
The U.S. presence at Tuesday’s ceremony is expected to be relatively low-level, as defense officials try to distance themselves from the ongoing inter-gulf dispute.
Attiya said that Qatar hoped eventually to see Al Udeid declared a permanent American facility.
“Of course we would like to see our colleagues and allies permanently staying here with us,” Attiya said. But the main purpose of the expansion, he said, “is that we have men and women away from home and we are trying always to modify and expand, just to make their stay comfortable.”
Over the next five years, Qatar is also building two major new “top-of-the-line” naval bases, Attiyah said, both of which would be “able to host our partner the United States if they feel that it is convenient to send their navy as well.”