by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
On 5-6 June 2017, a crisis emerged in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with its neighbour Qatar. Soon after, the governments of Bahrain, Comoros, Egypt, the Maldives, Mauritania, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen followed suit in cutting ties with Qatar. The governments of Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Jordan, Niger, and Senegal have also downgraded the status of their diplomatic relations with the estranged Emirate. In the midst of these announcements, United States President Donald Trump claimed credit for isolating Qatar, insinuating that the country has been supporting militant Islamist organizations, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Despite these comments by President Trump, Qatar signed a $12 billion US deal a little over a week later, on 14 June 2017, to purchase F-15QA fighter jets from the US (see Paul Iddon, “The Gulf crisis and future of Qatar’s military“, offiziere.ch, 19.06.2017).
Without addressing the merit of Trump’s claims that he pushed for this isolation during the Riyadh Summit in April 2017, the US President’s comments present a substantial risk to American interests in the Gulf region and the broader Middle East. Much of the media commentary to date has speculated on whether recent developments will “push” Qatar into closer security ties with Iran. A more pressing concern, however, is the impact this crisis will have on the American presence at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
Al-Udeid is an important link in the logistical chain for ongoing American military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, serving as a forward headquarters for US Central Command (CENTCOM), US Air Forces Central Command, and the 379th Expeditionary Air Wing of the US Air Force (USAF). It is also worth noting that Al-Udeid continues to host a British presence and was an important base for Royal Australian Air Force operations in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2003 to 2008. The sale of F-15QA fighter jets, as well as the start of a joint US-Qatar naval exercise on June 15, seems to suggest that defence relations between the two countries will endure, but further declarations of support for Saudi Arabia’s actions against Qatar could lead to the expulsion of some, or all, of the approximately 11,000 American military personnel at Al-Udeid Air Base. Such a development would severely undermine the effectiveness of coalition operations against ISIS at a crucial time, as ISIS’ traditional “capital” of Raqqa, Syria is under siege.
This would not be unprecedented. In the initial years of the American-led intervention in Afghanistan, Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in southeastern Uzbekistan played a crucial role. The USAF’s 416th Air Expeditionary Operations Group was hosted there, along with ample contingents from the US Army and US Marine Corps. However, in response to an alleged insurrection by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in May 2005, Uzbek forces massacred civilians, possibly in the hundreds, in the country’s eastern city of Andijan. Criticism of the human rights situation by US authorities prompted Uzbekistan’s then-President Islam Karimov to expel American forces from Karshi-Khanabad in July 2005. US officials were subsequently left reeling, exploring the potential of using bases in Latvia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe as staging points for future operations in Afghanistan.
American power projection in Central Asia and the Middle East was once again undermined in 2014, when Kyrgyzstan caved to pressure from the Russian Federation and ordered US forces to vacate Manas Air Base, which had emerged as a new logistical hub for operations in Afghanistan following Karshi-Khanabad. As the experiences in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan demonstrate, the loss of major overseas airbases is costly as large contingents of troops and supplies must be transported great distances in a very short period of time, while American officials must also struggle to find new bases suitable to long-term operational requirements. Failing to do so can have a devastating impact on the effectiveness of ongoing operations, much as the loss of Al-Udeid would give ISIS some breathing room in Raqqa.
It may well be that careful negotiations behind-the-scenes between American and Qatari officials have forestalled such a scenario. But it is evident that, if Trump is to deliver on his promise of dismantling ISIS, a more sophisticated approach to relations in the Gulf region is needed – one which ensures that the logistics of American power projection is protected from whatever disputes Qatar might have with its neighbours.