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US and Qatar sign $12 bn deal for F-15 jets amid diplomatic crisis

The US and Qatar have signed a $12-billion deal for F-15 combat jets against the backdrop of a diplomatic crisis involving the Gulf nation and its Arab neighbours.

world Updated: Jun 15, 2017 22:53 IST
Agencies
File photo of a US Air Force F-15 jet doing a low-level flyby over Forward Operating Base Bostick in eastern Afghanistan on January 1, 2009.
File photo of a US Air Force F-15 jet doing a low-level flyby over Forward Operating Base Bostick in eastern Afghanistan on January 1, 2009. (Reuters)

A $12-billion deal between the US and Qatar for F-15 combat jets and a visit to Doha by two American warships showed the vital military links Washington maintains with a country now in a dispute with several other Arab nations.

The deal for the F-15 jets was completed despite the Gulf country being criticised by US President Donald Trump for supporting terrorism.

Qatari minister of state for defence Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah and US defence secretary Jim Mattis met in Washington on Wednesday and signed the deal for the jets believed to be worth $12 billion. Bloomberg News reported the deal was for 36 jets.

“Qatar and the US have solidified their military cooperation by having fought together side by side for many years now in an effort to eradicate terrorism and promote a future of dignity and prosperity,” al-Attiyah said in a statement.

The sale will increase security cooperation and interoperability between the US and Qatar, the Pentagon said.

Mattis and al-Attiyah also discussed the current state of operations against the Islamic State and the importance of de-escalating tensions so all partners in the Gulf can focus on next steps in meeting common goals, the Pentagon added.

Qatar remains key US military ally

Qatar remains home to some 10,000 American troops at a major US military base in the Mideast. So far, the dispute between Doha and nations led by Saudi Arabia has yet to shake that partnership, though cracks are showing in responses from Trump and his administration.

In November, the US approved the possible sale of up to 72 F-15QA jets to Qatar worth $21.1-billion in the waning days of the Obama administration. Boeing Co is the prime contractor on the fighter jet sale to the Middle East nation and it wasn’t immediately clear if the two deals were one and the same.

The signing comes as Mattis has offered his support to Qatar in the past. Mattis formerly oversaw the US military’s Central Command, whose forward operating base is at the vast al-Udeid air base in Qatar. That base serves an important role in managing the fight against the IS in Iraq and Syria, as well as the war in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the USS Chinook, a coastal patrol ship, and US Coast Guard Cutter Baranof were in Doha on Thursday, said Cmdr Bill Urban of the US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet. He called the trip a “routine port visit”, though Qatar’s state-run news agency described the presence as being part of a “joint exercise” with the Qatari Navy.

“US 5th Fleet ships conduct similar port visits throughout the region as part of our normal operations,” Urban told the AP.

Trump remarks hinder US efforts to ease tensions

Trump on Friday accused Qatar of being a “high-level” sponsor of terrorism, potentially hindering the US department of state’s efforts to ease heightening tensions and a blockade of the Gulf nation by Arab states and others. Trump’s remarks were in line with one of the main allegations levelled by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain when they initially cut diplomatic ties on June 5.

Meanwhile, the United Nations agency overseeing global air travel has acknowledged receiving complaints from Qatar about other nations cutting off flying routes for its long-haul state carrier, Qatar Airways. Those cuts have seen global air travel disrupted and threatened the airline’s revenues.

The crisis between Qatar and its Arab neighbors, all US allies, has put America in a delicate situation. Mattis has described Qatar as “moving in the right direction”, while US secretary of state Rex Tillerson called for Arab Gulf nations to remain united.

Qatar long has been trying to secure its relations with the US, whether through hosting the American military base or an office for the Taliban, said David B Roberts, an assistant professor at King’s College London who recently wrote the book Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State.

The recent mixed message from the Trump administration, however, has it working even harder, he said.

“Qatar long has wanted to make itself a particularly important ally for America where it can,” Roberts said. “It has been a bit of a pain at times in other things...but the American angle has often been very important.”

The crisis has seen Saudi Arabia cut off its land border with Qatar, the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

After an initial run on grocery stores by nervous residents, Qatar has organised dairy shipments from Turkey while Shia power Iran has begun shipping in food. Qatar’s ties with Iran, with whom it shares a major offshore natural gas field, is another criticism of the Arab countries.

Doha also has begun running cargo shipments from ports in Oman after seeing its sea routes to the UAE’s major ports cut off. But its cutoff air travel routes remain problematic.

Typically, Qatar Airways flights to the West flew over Saudi Arabia. But with that airspace closed, the airline is flying longer routes over Iran and Turkey. Its regional feeder flights in Saudi Arabia and the UAE also have been cut off.

Qatar has filed complaints to the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency, calling the Arab nations’ refusal to let it fly through their airspace illegal. In a statement, the organisation said it would host ministers and senior officials from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain on Thursday.

“For now, we are working to bring these states together towards a solution which satisfies both their current regional concerns and the global needs and expectations of passengers and shippers,” the statement said.

However, it remains unclear how the organisation that doesn’t issue binding rules could force the Arab nations to reopen their airspace to Qatar.

“If I was betting now, I would suggest this is going to go on for a very long time,” Roberts said of the crisis.