Qatar’s proposed purchase of Russian missile system threatens regional game change
The French newspaper Le Monde has reported that Saudi Arabia sought the intervention of France in preventing Qatar’s purchase of the Russia-made S-400, a highly advanced air defence system that, if deployed, could have far-reaching implications for the Gulf.
While there was no official comment from Paris on the concerns Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud communicated to French President Emmanuel Macron, the report suggested Saudi Arabia views the development as a national security threat so severe it could be compelled to take military action. The Saudis hope that France, which has close ties with Qatar, can moderate Doha’s growing defiance to Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Qatar disclosed in January that it was in “advanced” stages of negotiations to purchase the S-400 system but few believed Doha was serious about moving ahead. The deployment of the S-400 by Doha, probably to be operated by Russians in its early phases, would likely introduce immediate tensions into US-Qatar ties and could hasten the US military’s exit from what is arguably the most important overseas US military airbase at Al Udeid.
Doha has been searching for new partners since it was faced with the crippling isolation from the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. The boycott of Qatar, which began June 5, 2017, was intended to end its alleged support for radical and militant actors that the boycotting countries identify as strategic threats.
Whatever the specifics of Qatar’s proposed S-400 purchase, such a development would posit highly significant ramifications. After all, Russia designed the S-400 primarily keeping in mind its NATO adversaries. With an engagement range of 250km-400km with upgraded surface-to-air missiles and radars with detection ranges much greater, the S-400 is a highly capable air defence system.
Qatar could react to developments deep within Saudi and Emirati airspace and cover Bahrain entirely with the S-400. The system is designed to target Western-made military aircraft and, in this case, Qatar could hypothetically engage US- and European-made aircraft operated by air forces in the region from some distance.
Arab Gulf air forces do not have stealth aircraft offering low-risk or high-probability solutions for defeating a system as sophisticated as the S-400.
However, officials from the Saudi-led bloc regularly reiterate that they are yet to see a change in Doha’s policies and Qatar appears to be showing a lack of urgency in resolving the issue, ostensibly because the country’s circumstances keep it vulnerable and sooner or later it will be forced to rebuild bridges.
As such, the boycotting countries have been content to wait for Doha to recognise there is no politically and economically sustainable alternative to ignore their demands and expectations. International mediation efforts came to little because of the Saudi-led bloc’s uncompromising stance on their list of demands.
In that context, Doha has been drifting towards new partners, countries recognised as regional rivals and even enemies — Turkey, Iran and Russia. Doha has a sense that the combined importance of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to the United States is huge and their position regarding Qatar can neither be easily outweighed or reversed.
In the unlikely, but plausible, event that the United States heads for a Qatari exit or in the low-probability scenario of some Arab military intervention, which the Saudi-led bloc has repeatedly ruled out, Doha is hedging its bets. The Turkish military base in Qatar and growing Turkish-Qatari alignment is one example of this, while closer ties with Iran is another.
Following the visit of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to Doha last October, the purchase of the S-400 system represents the latest element to Qatar’s new strategy, which is arguably becoming more contrarian to the Saudi-led bloc.
Assessing the potential effects of an S-400 purchase by Qatar is difficult because few details have been disclosed. Key considerations include what the system would entail in terms of scale, how it would be integrated with other military assets and who would operate the system after it is deployed.
The effects of Doha deploying the S-400 can be managed but, when the stakes are raised this high, the probability of miscalculation and unintended consequences grow.
Consider that Iran operates the S-400 and Turkey has announced its intention to purchase the same system. Iraq is a prospective customer for the S-400, along with Sudan and possibly Egypt. With a commonality of key systems, users of the S-400 could hypothetically integrate their assets into a multinational network.
Combining these factors, the sense of security from a military and geopolitical perspective the S-400 brings could embolden Doha to continue its policies and perhaps go even further. In doing so, it may make the possibility of military confrontation with the Saudi-led bloc less, not more, unlikely.