Balancing act: Asked about China’s Middle East arms sales, Qatari PM lauds US ‘defense alliance’


Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani delivers a speech at the IISS Raffles Lecture in Singapore on August 25, 2023. (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

BEIRUT — Qatar may be pursuing ever-closer economic ties with China, but today the Gulf nation’s prime minister suggested that when it comes to weapons purchases, Qatar would continue to look to the West.

Speaking in Singapore, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani was asked how Qatar views the increase of Chinese defense sales in the region, and whether his country feels like it’s being forced to make a choice between Beijing and Washington.

“I have mentioned it very clearly that we have a strong defense alliance with the United States, and we believe that our armed forces and the way we built — it’s been built on based on systems from the West, mainly from US and France,” al-Thani told the audience at an event put on by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “We welcome any cooperation with all the countries. But as I mentioned also, none of our relation with any specific country will be at the account [expense] of the other.”

The comment echoed lines from his speech prior to the Q&A, in which al-Thani said he’s been asked often how Qatar balances its relationships with China and the US.

“Qatar believes in the interdependence of the international community. This conviction makes it possible for us to have a strong commercial partnership with China while maintaining our strategic alliance with the United States,” he said. “In the same year, we were designated designated as a non-NATO ally to the US, we also signed three new energy deals with China. Our ability to navigate our relations with China and the US is grounded in our adoptability diplomatic engagement and pursue of mutually beneficial interests.”

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Al-Thani suggested that if the time ever came for Qatar to be made to choose between the world’s two largest powers, it would already be too late.

“If they force us to choose, we will not be in a position where we will be deciding to choose either/or, because it’s either we have the relation with both or that tension will get out of control and then a lot of countries will be actually in trouble,” he said. “And I believe both countries understand the security position of our country.”

That said, al-Thani indicated that he views concern about potential conflict and escalation between US and China in South China Sea or Taiwan as an exaggeration. “We believe that both countries don’t want to enter into a conflict and are showing restraint, and we hope it just continues,” he said.

In March a top US military official said there’s been an 80 percent increase in Chinese military sales to the Middle East over the past 10 years.

“This is a race to integrate before China can penetrate,” Central Command’s Gen. Michael Kurilla told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Our security partners have real security needs, and we are losing our ability to provide our equipment.”

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While some of Qatar’s neighbors, like the United Arab Emirates, have been open about their military relationship with Beijing, Doha has maintained a low profile, though the country reportedly revealed Chinese-made missiles at a parade in 2017, and the Stockholm International Peace Institute database shows what appear to be a handful of deals over the last few years — a tiny fraction of deals struck between the US and Qatar. (France is Qatar’s second-largest supplier, according to SPRI figures.)

Middle East analyst Andreas Krieg told Breaking Defense al-Thani’s position is a logical one.

“There is no value in diversifying Qatar’s security partnerships because what the United States does provide and can provide to Qatar is something that no other country in the world could provide as a security umbrella,” said Krieg, a senior lecturer at King’s College London. “China can’t provide the sort of security umbrella that Qatar needs, and Chinese companies do not provide any sort of high-tech defense equipment and hardware that Qatar could use.”

However, Krieg noted that Qatar has never entered any military adventures to test that US relationship, hinting at Saudi and UAE’s involvement in the Yemen conflict, which was the reason for some arms transfer embargos to the two countries exerted by the West.

Breaking Defense’s Lee Ferran contributed to this report.

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