Why is Qatar buying 180 main battle tanks?

Arabs, united.

Citing German reporting, Reuters related on Sunday that the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar plans to buy a total of 180 Leopard 2 main battle tanks from Germany.  An original buy of 62 Leopard 2s was announced in April 2013; the recent disclosure indicates Qatar will buy 118 more.

The total purchase would enlarge Qatar’s tank inventory by a factor of six.  The inventory currently consists of 30 French-built AMX-30s.  The Leopard 2 (Qatar is buying the 2A7+) is a modernized 61-ton tank suitable for heavy armor warfare (comparable to the U.S. M-1 series); the older AMX-30 is a lighter, 40-ton tank, less capable in the field and with some features optimized for urban warfare.  The 14 July report references the World Cup in 2022 – which Qatar will host – and seems to imply that the tank purchase is related to World Cup preparations.  But replacing 30 AMX-30s with 180 Leopard 2 MBTs is not what you would do to prepare for internal security for the World Cup.

The expansion of Qatar’s tank force will create an offensive armor capability for the emirate.  The AMX-30s are organized today in a single armor brigade (compared to the U.S. Army, which would organize that approximate number of tanks as a battalion).  The purchase of 180 new MBTs indicates the Qatari forces will be significantly expanding their armor organization:  doubling or tripling the number of brigades, and presumably transforming their national military strategy and their doctrine.

Krauss-Maffei Wegman Leopard 2A7+ MBT (at IDEX 2011) Image courtesy armyrecognition.com
Krauss-Maffei Wegman Leopard 2A7+ MBT (at IDEX 2011) Image courtesy armyrecognition.com

Where Doha has had one small brigade, its armor force could in the future be organized into three brigades that are twice as large, each with a separate task in the national strategy.  Alternatively, if Qatar has mass armor warfare in view, the new tanks could be organized into two brigades, each of which would somewhat approximate the tank inventory of a U.S. armor brigade.  Each brigade would have substantially more combat power than Qatar needs for any foreseeable self-defense.

This would be a major change in Qatar’s posture.  The potential threat in her neighborhood doesn’t justify this purchase; there is no prospect of her Arab neighbors invading her, nor does Iran have the capability to do so, or show any evidence of the intention to.  Qatar’s geography is peculiar as well; it would be impossible today to mount a surprise armor attack on Qatar, and in a country about half the size of Israel, there is in any case little room for great armor battles.  The way to subjugate Qatar is to attack her from sea and air, and occupy her with a small force of mechanized infantry when her defenses have been reduced.

Compare Qatar’s prospective MBT inventory with that of France, for example – about 400 AMX-56 Leclerc tanks – or Germany’s (400 active Leopards, some 1200-1600 in reserve), Denmark’s (about 60), Singapore’s (about 100), Brazil’s (about 430), Venezuela’s (about 180), or Canada’s (about 210). 

But then compare it to the inventories of UAE (388 French Leclercs, 45 AMX-30s), Saudi Arabia (290 AMX-30s, 460 U.S. M60A3s, 388 U.S. M1A2s, and 150 Russian T-90s on order), Oman (73 M60A3s, 38 UK Challenger 2s), Bahrain (180 M60A3s), Kuwait (218 M1A2s, 150 former-Yugoslav M-84D)), Yemen (240 M60A1s, 250 Russian T-62s, 70 Russian T-72s), and Jordan (250 M60A3s, 274 UK-made Khaleds, 392 Challenger 1s).  (All numbers are adapted from Wikipedia.  I do not include the very old former-Soviet T-55s in some Arab nations’ inventories.)

Keep in mind that there is no basis for believing any of these nations will invade each other.  Iraq has been neutralized as a potential threat, and in any case could never have mounted an attack requiring the level of defense represented by these vast armor inventories.  While Iran is a significant regional threat, the character of the threat is not ground invasion, and never has been.  Nor do geography and politics create any basis for the Arab nations to plan a ground-based counter-attack against Iran.

Ipersiangn the meantime, there is of course no prospect whatsoever of Israel invading these nations.  Israel’s ground forces have their hands full keeping their own borders secure.

So why is Qatar buying 180 new main battle tanks?  In the last couple of weeks, the new emir of Qatar has made a tacit political retreat from his father’s long-time pattern of radical support to the Muslim Brotherhood.  But he is not merely going ahead with the Leopard 2 tank buy negotiated under his father in April; he is expanding it dramatically.  In whose service will this armor inventory, far too large for mere self-defense, plan to operate?

The answer lies in the “Race to Jerusalem.”  Major military purchases in the Middle East should all be inspected through the lens of that Islamist “race” today.  In 2010, I wrote, incident to a major U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia, about the prospect of an incipient Arab military coalition as a regional counterweight to Iran and Turkey, with the race to Jerusalem – the race to be the one to plant the flag of Islamism on it – as the central driving factor.

Riyadh may be arming as a regional rival to Iran – not for the defense of its own territory but as the leader of an Arab coalition, formed to gain ascendancy over Iran as the power broker in the Levant. … Iran’s moves against Israel constitute a plan to effectively occupy territory that the Arab nations consider theirs to fight for. The concerns on both sides are more than ethnic and historical: they involve competing eschatological ideas.

The resurgence of Turkey, erstwhile Ottoman ruler, only accelerates the sense of powerful regional rivals polishing up their designs on the Levant. The Saudis’ military shopping list doesn’t match their defensive requirements against Iran, but if the strategic driver is a race to Jerusalem, it contains exactly what they need.

What I noted at the time was that the Saudi shopping list was heavy on air assault weaponry, but that other nations in an Arab coalition would have to provide the balance of the ground forces.  Qatar’s plan to acquire an offensive armor capability fits within that construct.  The implications of this, about the relative leadership positions of Saudi Arabia and Qatar now, will have to develop over time.

The Arab Spring in 2011 vaulted Egypt past Turkey and Iran as the catalyst for Arab strategic reorganization.  Egypt has 82 million people, far and away the biggest population of any Arab nation, and has by far the largest Arab army as well.  A post-Mubarak Egypt could be a sleeping giant awakening, if steered properly.  Mohammed Morsi intended to steer Egypt for the Muslim Brotherhood, but his departure is not a signal that Egypt will go back to being, if you will, un-steered.  The apparent leadership switch between Riyadh and Doha is just one of the signs that the Saudis see opportunity in the current turmoil – and that they continue to feel urgency, from the trajectories of Iran and Turkey, to organize faster than their rivals, and exert influence more proactively in the region.

It would be simplistic to interpret signs of an arming Arab coalition as indicators that the tanks are about to start rolling toward Israel.  They’re not.  But if the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs can be part of the “solution,” in Lebanon, in Egypt, in Syria – perhaps even in Iraq – there will be territory and political leadership to leverage close to Israel, along with the coalition’s ability to mount an all-out military campaign.  Saudi Arabia by herself is thinly populated and distant, her Islamic authority on the ropes today. Approaching Egypt to seek a strategic alliance will go better if there is a Saudi-led coalition, armed to the teeth.  In that case, the Saudis are not supplicants but peers.

The Gulf emirates want as much to subdue the Muslim Brotherhood as to advance a coalition against Israel.  Unless they have the stomach for a set of high-risk maneuvers, they really need to subdue the Muslim Brotherhood first.  Besides pressing its own agenda, the Brotherhood will continue to be an entry point for leverage by Iran, and, to some extent – perhaps a growing one – by Turkey.  Whatever Brotherhood groups cannot be won over or neutralized (and we will see shifting loyalties and rotating patrons in the coming years) will have to be defeated.

So the Gulf nations and Jordan will use the resources they have as nation-states to create a coherent Arab power structure, one that can stand up to – even harness – Egypt; one that can outmaneuver the Muslim Brotherhood; and one that can beat Iran and Turkey to Jerusalem, fighting as necessary, and plant the flag of Islamism there.  That, at least, is the basic outline of the prospective effort.

It is likely to go in fits and starts, rather than accelerating smoothly toward its objective.  From where I sit, its major catalysts will be emerging threats, rather than a centralized strategic vision.  There is no one at the reins of Arab national power who has that vision right now; there is more a sense of needing to organize in order to avoid being outflanked.  It remains to be seen how well the Saudis can captain this effort, which is different from the role they have played in the last 70 years.  But the post-Arab Spring shift – the “tectonic shift,” as Dmitry Medvedev called it – is underway.  The nation-states are in play, separately from, if overlapping with, the thrust of Islamism.  And one thing is clear: the Arab-coalition effort will require a lot of main battle tanks.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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23 thoughts on “Why is Qatar buying 180 main battle tanks?”

    1. Naahh. So they can bolster the coalition. Nobody, not even a nut like Qadhafi, buys military weaponry just because he can.

      1. I’m imagining the logistics organization necessary to support those tanks, and the needed air defense and infantry, as far away as Jordan or Egypt. . . Feels to me more likely that it is either a vanity purchase, or a purchase against the always possible collapse of the Saudi regime. . . or the UAE regime.

        1. Unfortunately, sully, your feeling about this is based on a reality that no longer exists. The Gulf kingdoms are no longer dotty little places churning oil wealth under the supervision of the Pax Americana.

          There are no vanity purchases of big-ticket weaponry today (nor were there ever, really. Americans had the luxury of thinking that, 20-30 years ago, but it was never actually the case. There’s always a policy purpose for those purchases. It’s just that since the end of WWII, US power has managed to avert many of the purposes from playing out).

          I’m not picking on you, but it’s important to make this point. The Middle East is realigning and heating up. None of the old assumptions about it apply today. The Gulf Arabs are not going to fall on each other with gnashing teeth, and the Saudis are actually the least likely of any of them to fall. You can’t generate Tahrir-Square crowds in Saudi Arabia. The people just aren’t there. To take down the Saudi government, you’d have to mount an actual conquest. A popular uprising, the kind of chaos the MB can make hay of, simply can’t gather the momentum in Saudi Arabia to overwhelm the forces of order — not even during the Ramadan pilgrimage window. There’s a reason why the MB may hate the house of Saud, but knows better than to try to bring it down via insurrection or uprising.

          The Saudis and Qataris have been extremely active politically in trying to broker the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but even before that, they were active in trying to keep a lid on Lebanon and pushing one thing or another in the Oslo “peace process.” Qatar forged out ahead of the Saudis in trying to settle Libya, even dispatching fighter jets to participate in the coalition non-hostile kinetic military action (NHKMA) there, while supporting MB factions on the ground. The Saudis have mostly had the political lead in mounting a Third Way push in Syria, but Qatar had been funneling a lot of cash and arms to the insurgents there up until the old emir was kicked out on 25 June.

          The bottom lines are two: one, the Saudis and Qataris aren’t just playing around; they intend to have an actual effect with their strategic efforts. They are NOT inward-focused, contemplating their own navels at this point. And two, they are breaking with US policy, more and more with each passing day. They are acting independently and dismissing whatever our effort du jour may be. The Saudis, for example, rushed into Egypt after Morsi was ejected from power, unabashedly supporting the military and the interim government — with billions in cash — regardless of what the US did.

          There is no safe higher order being maintained by the US now, in which the Gulf Arabs just do a little karate chopping for show. Everything is up for grabs, and they’ve all started maneuvering. There is no center to hold anymore. Everything everyone does matters.

  1. I do believe you are overestimating the house of Saud and their GCC cousins dear Optcon.

    If it becomes necessary, a few well placed (or threat of) strikes at any uppity GCC member’s water desalinization plants will be enough to cool their jets (or tanks) in crunch time. Don’t have to even touch the hydrocarbons.

    The biggest obstacle to following through with the above won’t be any Arab military force, but our own business interests in the region.

  2. Can you explain what you mean by saying I’m overestimating the Saudis, jgets?

    I’d like to get a discussion going on this. The Saudis have been doing everything I’ve outlined, as have the Qataris. US power is receding fast. The regional power of Iran, Russia, or Turkey is an order of magnitude less overwhelming than US power was, pre-Obama. There’s no “enforcer” on the horizon. I haven’t said the Gulf Arabs are going to marshal a tank army and motor toward Jerusalem next week; I’ve said they are going to ramp up their “diplomacy” and arms support for the groups in territories around Israel that will reinforce Gulf Arab policies by gaining power. Having a well-armed coalition will change that dynamic in their favor.

    Whether they will succeed is another question, which I also already said. The other players will all be pushing back (and forming and breaking alliances of convenience with the Gulf Arabs). But a change in the dynamics will still produce a change in the situation and outcome.

    US business interests will pull out if they are threatened, because the US under Obama won’t protect them (or will only protect them selectively; e.g., protection for businesses that are important to Obama-friendly unions, or businesses that keep Obama afloat with political donations). But my bet is on the regional nations protecting at least some US business on their own, to the extent that doing so supports their national priorities. What US businesses have to worry about is the US government.

  3. Well for starters I don’t think their internal situation is quite as secure as you describe. If it wasn’t for Western support I think the dissension in the kingdom from both non-royal related Sunnis and Eastern Province Shia would be much more difficult to suppress. The Eastern provinces population could be easily ignited, if we chose to do so. Can you see Saudi Arabia having the capability to project power economically, diplomatically, or militarily without possession of her Eastern Provinces?

    1. I would certainly disagree as to how effectively the Saudis can maintain order inside their borders. The thing about the Eastern province Shia is that they’re like anyone else in Saudi Arabia: there just aren’t that many of them.

      If Saudi authorities put down restive Shias ruthlessly to keep order, what exactly will happen to the Saudi authorities? Who’s going to — what, rebuke them in a meaningful way? Boycott them? What consequences will the Saudis face for tightening the screws on their internal dissident population(s)? Catherine Ashton might say “Shame on you”? — while the French and Chinese keep heaving money and arms at Riyadh?

      No one is answerable to any global power outside his borders now. Might will make right. Push is going to come to shove, and we will find that the enforced compunction that has held many dictatorial governments in check since the USSR disintegrated was a US-dependent phenomenon. We’re an inert quantity now.

      The Saudis won’t sit around failing to react, nor will the other emirati authorities.

      Nor will Erdogan in Turkey, for that matter. People who think Erdogan is going to lose the smackdown with Turkish dissidents are fooling themselves. He has no compunction, and he already sees that there are new perils AND new opportunities in the post-American world. So do the Saudis. They’re not going to sit on their hands waiting for a thousand flowers of decentralization to bloom. Nothing is holding the old order together; they’re at work planning for readiness to keep internal order as we speak.

      1. Yes,we essentially disagree on the ability of the house of Saud to keep order if a certain set of factors arise..Three million Shia is enough to stir up trouble and serve as a pretext for outside intervention in the kingdom in my view Optcon

        Granted that the KSA will ruthlessly attempt to keep order. Will it succeed? Depends on what external assistance is supplied to the Shia population, along with whatever other situations the Saudi forces might have to deal with..There are Yemeni and Bahraini based factors to consider as well. Will a preoccupation with a long drawn out insurgency constrain Saudi designs to project power regionally? Probably yes. Is this in our interest? That’s the big question. It all comes back to what we want to happen. And how we are going to go about doing it.

        As for the Turks, they can do nothing significant militarily outside their own borders unless we want them to do it. As I’ve pointed out before and as you well know, the bulk of their forces do not face east or south, but west. Internally, I agree that that Erdogan still maintains the upper hand at this time. But Turkey is a schizophrenic country. It won’t take much for it to split up into at least two different pieces, if they start at each other in earnest.. The Gezi Parkers have no inclination to invade Syria. The Kurds are biding their time. The economy is not all it’s cracked up to be. The Armed Forces are purged of their most capable. They’ve got problems behind the image portrayed in recent years. And I don’t know if the AKP can pull off another outright election victory. We will see.

        Again, you are right about opportunity. Heretics usually have the advantage at spotting opportunity. Too bad we don’t have any running the show. We could clean up right now, if we played our cards right.

        I do hope this helps to get the discussion going

        1. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, jgets. One point, though. You say:

          “Is this in our interest? That’s the big question. It all comes back to what we want to happen. And how we are going to go about doing it.”

          But that isn’t the big question. It doesn’t all come back to what we want to happen. Five years ago it was reasonable to say that it did. But that has changed.

          That opens everything up. The Obama administration ***DOES NOT*** use US power and diplomacy in any traditional way, and there is now no such thing as the US setting limits or creating incentives by what “we want to happen.” Since the Libya operation in 2011, there is no example of the US bringing anything about, or preventing anything, in this manner.

          Our minds have to change about what the basic conditions are. “US interests” are no longer a defining or limiting factor for the rest of the world.

          1. Chin up Opcon.

            US interests transcend the current administration’s foreign policy ineptitude.Although for the Nation’s sake, I had hoped that the current team would succeed, regardless of my differences with their ideology.

            We will get there.

  4. Regimes seem likely to be indefinitely stable until they, usually suddenly, are perceived as being not so stable. I haven’t been following events over there as you do Opticon, but it seems to me that the Saudis have been breeding royals and commoners faster than they have been increasing oil revenues for a long time. And, along with the Gulf Arab states, far from developing value added industries, they have been bribing the native populace for peace and thus training their citizens to rely on guest workers. When a trend can’t continue it eventually won’t continue.

  5. Incidentally, Wiki says 80%. . . 80%!!! of the Saudi labor force is non-national. That actually surprised me. If it’s true the country is the modern equivalent of an old time slave economy.

  6. sully — it’s not that I disagree that the Saudis have internal challenges. I do disagree that those challenges will inevitably set narrow, decisive limits on what the Saudis can do.

    This is in part because everything changes with the release of the US-backed security system. While the Saudis lived in a cocoon of external security, they didn’t have to adapt internally. But ironically, the recession of US power may very well cause the Saudis to treat foreign workers better.

    The more the Gulf emirates have to take on the responsibilities of nation-states, the more most of them will adapt.

    The end of the Pax Americana won’t be all bad. There are actually a lot of nations around the world that haven’t had to face the need for innovation and adaptation, because the US has been there to guarantee, more or less, the principles of the UN charter. Inward-looking sclerosis isn’t good for anyone, whether you’re Saudi Arabia, Japan, or France.

    The “race to Jerusalem” dynamic will have the positive character, moreover, of pitting regional rivals against each other. It’s going to reset a lot of things, but no one is in a position to emerge quickly as a Middle East hegemon. It’s good for Turkey, the MB, Iran, and Egypt to have to reckon with each other and with a Gulf + Jordan coalition, which offers an alternative model of the Islamic state. The competition keeps that hegemon from emerging. Russia, China, and the EU will foster that competition because they don’t want the Middle East to fall under the sway of a single dominant power — and they’ll want to have an “in” with their favored local nations.

    There is likely to be an unpleasant level of violence with this pattern, along with the burgeoning arms trade, and between now and January 2016, there will be no one pushing responsibly for US interests.

    jgets — Our interests are meaningless without responsible power behind them. Unfortunately, there WILL be favorable conditions we can’t get back when the end of Obama’s term finally arrives

    As we’ve mentioned before, there is opportunity in the turmoil, as well as peril. Team Obama doesn’t have the right stuff to take advantage of it in a way that would be good for the US. But the situation will remain fluid for a number of years, I think, and the challenge for the US will be to address our own internal sclerosis, and adapt. Welfarism unto death, and victim politics, aren’t working for us. We need to fix those problems if we expect to get back to being an international security leader.

    The world won’t get more stable in the interim. But we should be looking for positive developments that we may not have expected, as well as the predictable problems that our shipmate GB often lays out.

    1. I don’t speak Farsi and I am not good at reading between the lines, but I think the General was criticizing Iran’s tendency needlessly to stir the pot with belligerent rhetoric, when the West was looking for an excuse to ease sanctions and let them do whatever they want. The ultimate goals are probably unchanged, but Achmadinajad is an idiot.

      1. Yes he is. And of one thing I’m certain. No Iranian goverment, short of a puppet regime, no matter how Western oriented or democratic, will allow its foreign/defense policy to be dictated to them from abroad. Persians have a long history/memory, are generally not stupid, and have post-war Western meddling in their internal affairs deeply ingrained in their collective psyche.

        They will ultimately agree to not actively producing nuclear weapons, given the right deal. But will reject being denied the capability to produce them in a certain time frame, if, their national interests deem they must do so.

        No self respecting country could do otherwise in lieu of a region wide comprehensive ban on the production of nuclear weapons.

  7. Think of the Middle East as the largest Section 8 project in the world.
    The only reason to mention the place is because of oil. No new information here.
    This is a region where the 1% marry western women, educate their children in the west and spend their waking hours taking in petro-dollars and presiding over the backward, illiterate, fractured, islamic totalitarian morons that inhabit that part of the world.
    The false boundaries for countries like Syria,Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc, etc, merely compresses tribes of people that despise each other for varied reasons.
    The only feel good moments occur when the 1% trots out a “continuing idiot” to spout ” kill the Jews”. It momentarily pacifies, but does not really mollify the great un-washed. It has to be a continuing effort.
    I am glad to see the weapons business is good for the west. Good paying jobs and all that.
    The opinions in the west on the Middle East continue to matter less and less. The place continues on it’s cycle of destruction and waste as it has for 12 centuries. Some strongmen and the military in Egypt have enough economic interest to keep the show kinda in the middle of the road. The leadership bull pen looks to be about the same as the starters (or worse).
    A very weak and incompetent American President is not a bad thing at this time in the Middle East.
    On a another note concerning the tribes in the US. What exactly is a White Hispanic?
    The pathetic excuse for leadership for the black community ( what black on black crime?)looks like the American Cancer Society if there was a comprehensive cure for cancer. What do we do now in order to stay relevant? Scare everyone of course.

  8. Trouble in the desert or disinformation?

    Saudi prince breaks ranks with royal family implies affiliation with Saad al-Faqih


  9. Heretical opportunity continues to knock on the door. Grand bargain in the alleys of the Grand Bazaar (Teheran), in the offing?

    Mohammad Javad Zafir appointed Iranian Foreign Minister.

    American, Iranian, and lets not forget the Israeli, war parties must be furiously preparing to throw their spanners into the works of a rapprochement.

    Now, If only I could fix that darn Supreme Leader business…. 🙂

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