Qatar's defence ministry set to buy 24 jets from BAE Systems
The British government and defence giant BAE Systems have agreed a major new deal to supply Qatar with Eurofighter Typhoon jets, despite fears of regional instability.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon signed a letter of intent with Qatar on Sunday that will see BAE Systems provide 24 Typhoon jets and support capabilities worth billions of dollars.
The move has shocked observers as it comes only three months after UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called on Qatar to do more to clamp down on the funding of militant groups.
The wealthy Gulf state is at the heart of a regional dispute over the funding of terrorism, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt have since June imposed sanctions on Qatar, accusing it of financing extremist groups and allying with Iran, arch-foe of the Gulf Arab states - allegations Doha denies.
Speaking in Qatar on Sunday, where he met with the Qatari defence minister, Khalid Bin Mohammed Al Attiyad, Fallon said he hoped the deal would "enhance security within the region".
"This will be the first major defence contract with Qatar, one of the UK's strategic partners," said Fallon. "This is an important moment in our defence relationship and the basis for even closer defence co-operation between our two countries. We also hope that this will help enhance security within the region across all Gulf allies."
Human rights groups are likely to be dismayed by the move, which comes as the UK's $16bn defence industry is facing intense scrutiny over exports to Saudi Arabia and other states accused of major human rights violations.
The UK has exported more than $6bn in arms to authoritarian states since the summer's general election, with a huge increase in arms exports to Saudi Arabia and exports worth $160m to Qatar, where political opposition is banned and where the hereditary emir – currently Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani - holds all executive and legislative power.
The strategic letter of intent signed by Fallon agrees to lay the "groundwork for Qatar's intention towards procuring 24 advanced Eurofighter Typhoon's and supporting capabilities," according to a statement released by the Qatar Armed Forces.
— Justin Bronk (@Justin_Br0nk) September 17, 2017
It said that Qatar would use the aircraft to "advance its ongoing efforts in combating terrorism and violent extremism in the region".
The deal comes after Middle East Eye revealed the UK has been accused of fanning the flames of the Gulf crisis by arming both sides of the dispute. The accusations were made after it emerged that Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies were on a list of countries identified by officials as “priority markets” for the UK's defence industry.
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Qatar now joins Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia as operators of the advanced Typhoon jet in the Middle East. The jet has been deployed by the British Royal Air Force over Iraq and Syria in recent years and was also deployed during the 2011 intervention in Libya. Saudi Arabia operates at least 72 of the jets, which have been used over Yemen amid allegations they have contributed to mass civilian casualties.
Oliver Sprague, Amnesty’s UK arms control programme director, told MEE: "Until recently Qatar was part of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that has caused such devastation for civilians in Yemen. The UK government should not authorise this deal unless it can demonstrate that there is no substantial risk that these arms will be used to commit or facilitate serious human rights violations."
BAE Systems likely overcame a rival bid from French firm Rafale, which has already supplied jets to Egypt and Qatar in a deal set to be worth billions of dollars. Last year Kuwait signed a deal worth more than $9bn when it purchased 28 Typhoon jets. A defence source said the Qatar purchase would be "at a similar level, perhaps a little less".
Andrew Smith, a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade, told MEE that the decision and its timing three months after Johnson's intervention was "staggering".
He said: "Despite the ongoing Gulf crisis, this is a clear sign of political and military support for a brutal regime that even its neighbouring states accuse of willingly ignoring violent groups."
The UK has called for a de-escalation of tensions in the region since the Gulf crisis erupted in June, but that can't be done at the "same time as pushing weapons to both sides of the political conflict," he added.
The deal is a major victory for BAE Systems, which produces the jets. It took less than 14 years for the firm and its European partners to deliver the first 500 Typhoon jets, but orders have dwindled in recent years and the production rate at the firm's factory in Preston, England has reportedly slowed.
The order will also be seen as a major win for a minister who has been keen to push arms exports as a plank of Britain's post-Brexit economic strategy.
The Typhoon fighter programme has supported an estimated 8,600 jobs in the UK, with an estimated further 1,500 jobs dependent on export opportunities, according to BAE Systems.
However, it is unclear exacly what role the jets will play in Qatar's expanding air arsenal, said defence analyst Justin Bronk.
Qatar has already ordered 24 Rafale jets as well as 72 F-15 fighter-bombers from the US despite having relatively few combat pilots and limited infrastructure.
It currently operates just 10 frontline jet fighters, Bronk added.