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Qatar Builds a Blue-Water Force to Safeguard National Security and Energy Interests

With about 35,000 square kilometers of territorial water dotted with hundreds of oil and gas rigs and a naval force comprising a few dozen patrol boats, the Qatari Emiri Navy (QEN) has long struggled to ensure the security of its littorals, let alone projecting power in bodies of water beyond the Strait of Hormuz. After being neglected for decades, the development of blue-water naval capabilities has exponentially received greater attention by the country’s leadership since the mid-2010s. As of today, albeit still limited in size, the QEN’s fleet includes some of the Gulf region’s most technologically advanced vessels. It manifests a growing resolve to punch above its weight in the maritime domain.

As long as Qatar’s economic prosperity and political stability rely on the country’s capacity to extract and export LNG safely, the security of both Doha’s vast offshore gas reserves and the maritime critical infrastructures enabling its energy industry’s growth will top the country’s agenda. While the QEN has made a quantum leap forward in building a naval force capable of protecting Qatar’s strategic interests at sea, the maritime threat landscape evolves hastily.

The September 2022 sabotage attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea and the October 2022 Ukrainian unmanned surface vessels attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol are paradigmatic examples of the inherent vulnerability of critical maritime infrastructures. With hybrid warfare and cyber threats becoming the most concerning menace in the maritime domain, Doha should provide unfaltering support to the QEN in developing countermeasures against a fast-expanding array of asymmetric threats.

Why Invest in Naval Power?

The primary driving factors underpinning Qatar’s choice to embark on a major modernization project of its fleet can be divided into two main categories, specifically, geopolitical and energy determinants, respectively.

Geopolitical Determinants

With a small-scale military force and geographically sandwiched between the Gulf region’s major military heavyweights (Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq), Qatar has historically sought to ensure the country’s security by cultivating solid diplomatic ties with influential international players and by outsourcing critical tasks of deterring external military threats to foreign powers. Today, Qatar largely relies on the security umbrella provided by American, British, and Turkish military personnel and assets deployed to the country.

While external security guarantors are expected to maintain a prominent role in Qatar’s defense architecture, three key factors have compelled the country to bolster its military capabilities. Firstly, despite the U.S. massive military footprint at the Al Udeid Air Base, simmering doubts about Washington’s will to uphold the current regional security architecture and pressures to seek high-end protection guarantees outside the U.S. orbit have gradually spread among the Qatari leadership. Secondly, the nine-month diplomatic crisis in 2014 and the 2017-21 blockade significantly reshaped the Qatari leadership’s threat perception and strategic thinking. While Qatar and its Arab Gulf neighbors have taken meaningful steps to restore an optimal level of trust and cohesion among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, Doha learned the hard way that it cannot rely on its closet regional neighbors’ support to ward off menaces to its national security. Finally, coherently with a pattern also displayed by other Arab Gulf states over the past years, Qatar manifested a growing resolve to pursue its national interests and strategic ambitions with greater leeway and less dependency on the backing of external security guarantors.

Energy Determinants

In 2022, Qatar’s gas production and liquid natural gas (LNG) export generated revenues of $132 billion, positioning Doha as the world’s largest LNG exporter. With nine-year high windfall profits, the gas industry consolidates its prime role in bolstering the country’s financial wealth. While the current energy market volatility and energy transition push contributed significantly to Qatar’s economic growth, the country’s long-term prosperity depends on Doha’s capacity to ensure the security and resiliency of the coastal and offshore critical infrastructures at the core of its fast-expanding LNG industry.

Most of Qatar’s energy exports are from offshore oil and natural gas fields, such as the North Dome Field (NDF). Covering an area of 6,000 square kilometers in Qatar’s north-eastern territorial waters, the NDF is the world’s known largest gas field and Doha’s energy crown jewel. Besides, vital onshore facilities responsible for hydrocarbon processing, storage, and loading are located near the coastal areas. Indeed, Qatar’s leading LNG production and export sites are based at the Ras Laffan Industrial City. Finally, Doha extensively relies on maritime solutions—be the LNG carriers or subsea infrastructures—to export its fossil fuels to customers across the globe.  On the one hand, with a fleet of 70 chartered ships, Qatargas already operates the world’s largest LNG flotilla, and it has taken concrete steps over the past few years to expand the number of cargoes at its disposal. On the other hand, Qatar’s only energy export pipeline—the Dolphin Gas Project—runs subsea for 364 kilometers from Ras Laffan to Taweelah, UAE, where it connects to onshore redistribution infrastructures bringing Qatari gas to the UAE’s port city of Fujairah and Oman.

Although acts of sabotage have rarely targeted Qatar’s critical energy ashore and offshore infrastructures, they remain highly vulnerable to disruptive episodes by state and non-state actors. With the number and complexity of at-sea hazards growing in tandem with Doha’s heavy reliance on critical maritime infrastructures, the Qatari leadership has been compelled to rapidly take meaningful measures to shore up its naval forces’ capabilities, reactivity, and preparedness.

Confined to Littoral Waters

The QEN has been primarily a brown-water naval force for much of its history. With a fleet of vessels with a maximum operation range of a few nautical miles (nm), the QEN’s seakeeping capability was limited to the country’s territorial waters. Aside from several dozen fast interceptor and patrol boats tailored to operate in shallow littoral waters, the QEN has long relied on a handful of fast attack crafts (FACs) to ensure the security of its territorial waters.

In the early 1980s, the QEN procured three Damsah-class FACs from the French shipbuilder Constructions Mécaniques de Normandie. With a range of 2,000 nautical miles (nm) at 15 knots, the 56-meter ship is operated by a crew of 42 men and is equipped with MBDA’s MM40 Block 3 Exocet anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. In the late 1990s, the QEN received four Barzan-class FACs from the then-British shipbuilding company Vosper Thornycroft. The 56-meter craft has a range of 1,800 nm at 12 knots and is manned by 35 sailors. Armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles and Mistral surface-to-air missiles, the Barzan-class FAC represents a discrete sea and aerial defense platform.

Although still in service, the limited seagoing capabilities and modest electronic warfare and decoys equipment of the Damsah-class and Barzan-class ships prevent them from operating far from home ports for prolonged periods and offering all-around defensive capabilities.

The Path to a Blue-Water Navy is Demanding

After decades spent playing a Coast Guard-like role, the QEN embarked on a full-spectrum overhaul of its military thinking and procurement policy in the mid-2010s. Qatar’s naval renovation program has revolved around three key pillars: first, upgrading the fleet through the acquisition of high-end warships; second, developing strong naval capabilities; third, expanding ashore infrastructures to support a growing fleet.

Building Naval Muscle

To modernize its aging fleet, Qatar reached out to two countries with a decades-long track record in the shipbuilding industry and a consolidated experience in realizing top-notch warships: Italy and Turkey.

In August 2017, Doha and Rome signed a EUR 5 billion deal to provide seven surface vessels: four corvettes, two offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), and a landing platform dock (LDP) amphibious vessel. Fincantieri, Italy’s shipbuilding champion, was awarded the multi-billion order and completed the last ship’s delivery in May 2023. A closer look at these vessels’ armament packages and seakeeping capabilities is essential to grasp the naval acquisition program’s transformative impact.

The Al Zubarah-class corvette is a 107-meter multirole ship capable of conducting various tasks, such as surveillance, sea rescue, interdiction, and patrol operations. With a core crew of 98 sailors plus lodgings for additional 14 members, an endurance of 21 days, and a range of 3,500 nm at the cruising speed of 15 knots, the Al Zubarah-class corvette is a versatile and flexible naval platform for kinetic and non-kinetic missions in open seas. Although corvettes are the lightest class of warships, the Al Zubarah-class vessel displays an advanced and powerful combat system. Indeed, the ship’s armament package includes MBDA’s Aster 30 Block 1NT and Raytheon’s RAM missiles for anti-air warfare (AAW) scenarios and Exocet anti-ship missiles for anti-surface warfare (ASuW) operations. Besides, it also features state-of-the-art electronic and decoy sensors and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) systems to ensure the ship’s self-defense. Finally, the corvette fits some auxiliary vehicles, such as high-speed boats, and its flight deck and hangar can house one NH90 NFH maritime helicopter equipped with an ASW suite.

The Musherib-class OPV is a 64-meter ship designed to efficiently meet a broad range of threats and critical challenges arising from the maritime domain. Its limited range of 1,500 nm at a cruising speed of 15 knots, 7-day endurance, and 38-member crew make the OPV an effective naval platform for surveillance and combat roles between shallow littoral waters and the surrounding marginal seas. Despite its modest size, the Musherib-class OPV has a cutting-edge combat system to conduct AAW and ASuW missions.

The Al Fulk-class LDP is the QEN’s flagship naval platform. With a range of 7,000 nm at 15 knots, a 152-member crew, and an accommodation capacity of up to 400 passengers, the amphibious ship stands out as Qatar’s first fully-fledged blue-water warship. The LDP also features two vehicle ramps and an internal floodable dock, which can house a ready-to-go landing craft mechanized (LCM). The ship’s flight and garage decks are sized for accommodating NH90 NFH helicopters. Last but not least, the LDP displays robust AAW capabilities: on the one hand, Leonardo’s Kronos Power Shield L-Band radar fitted on the ship is capable of detecting incoming threats at a range of up to 1,500 km; on the other hand, armed with Aster 30 Block 1 surface-to-air missiles, the vessel’s missile system can intercept tactical ballistic missiles.

By and large, Qatar’s procurement policy has sought two pursue two leading ends: first, upgrading the country’s aging fleet of patrol and coastal combatants thanks to the Musherib-class OPVs; second, building a naval force capable of both undertaking expeditionary missions in blue-waters scenarios and providing high-end deterrence guarantees through the integrated deployment of Al Zubarah-class corvettes and the Al Fulk-class LDP.

Although developing a fleet of ocean-going ships has been a critical priority for Qatar, it has also focused on bolstering its Coast Guard forces. Since 2014, world-class arms shows hosted by the country—such as the Doha International Maritime Defense Exhibition and Conference (DIMDEX) and MILIPOL Qatar—have been Doha’s preferential venues to renovate its flotilla of coastal and patrol boats. Over the past six years, Doha has purchased 31 surface vessels from the Turkish shipbuilder ARES Shipyard and signed several purchase contracts for crafts with Tuzla-based shipbuilding company Yonca Onuk.

Developing Human Capabilities

Although necessary, assembling a fleet of sophisticated naval assets is insufficient to build a credible, efficient, and reactive maritime force. Indeed, investing in human development is as equally critical as pursuing expensive procurement plans. Currently, the QEN has personnel of 2,500 units, but it aims to reach 6,000 members by 2025. Consequently, Doha has heavily invested in training and educational platforms to form new generations of cadets and officers.

In February 2019, the Mohammed Bin Ghanem Al Ghanem Maritime Academy inaugurated its first academic year. Designed to deliver all-around military and academic courses to cadets, the Academy runs a 4-year program specializing in marine science, marine engineering, and marine supply and management. The Academy’s first batch of cadets graduated in February 2023.

On the sidelines of the DIMDEX 2018, Qatar awarded the Turkish company Modern Defense Solutions (MDS) a contract for constructing the Buroq Special Marine Operations Training Center. Located at the Bay of Zekreet on Qatar’s west coast, the training facility is meant to offer maritime counter-terrorism training to up to 200 cadets at a time and host bilateral training programs with special operation forces of Qatar’s security partners. According to a Janes report, the Buroq site is now in use.

Finally, Qatar ordered two cadet training ships (CTS)—the Al Doha and the Al Shamal—from Turkish shipbuilder Anadolu Shipyard at the margins of DIMDEX 2018. Based on an OPV design, the 90-meter CTS features a combat management system for training and a flight deck capable of accommodating NH90 NFH helicopters. With construction and outfitting phases completed in record time, the two vessels were delivered to the QEN in August 2021 and February 2022, respectively. In addition to a 66-member crew, the CTS hosts accommodations for 76 cadets and eight trainers. Aside from its training core, the CTS could also be deployed to perform patrol duties.

Expanding Support Infrastructure

Burdened by a paucity of naval bases, Qatar has aimed at building new ashore installations capable of supporting its growing fleet and expanding maritime interests.

In July 2019, the General Directorate of Coasts and Borders Security inaugurated a new naval base in Al Daayen. Located on Qatar’s east coast, just about 30 km from the capital city, the facility is strategically positioned to enforce maritime security on Qatar’s eastern territorial waters rapidly. Covering an area of nearly 640,000 square meters, the new facility is serviced by a seaport for Coast Guard’s naval assets, maintenance workshops, training facilities, and personnel accommodation buildings.

In 2020, Qatar also opened the Umm Al Houl naval base. Positioned in proximity to the Mesaieed Industrial City and the Hamad Container Terminal Port, the naval facility would project naval power over the domestic waters overlooking some of Qatar’s critical industrial and trade hubs. Besides, the bulk of the QEN fleet—traditionally moored at the Ras Abu Aboud naval base outside Doha—is expected to be relocated to the Umm Al Houl facility. In February 2023, the QEN inaugurated its coastal missile defense system at the Umm Al Houl naval installation.  Equipped with MBDA’s Marte ER and Exocet anti-ship missiles as munitions, the base offers high-end ASuW capabilities.

Finally, at DIMDEX 2022, the Italian defense and security company Leonardo and Qatar signed a deal to establish a Naval Operation Centre (NOC) to better serve QEN’s expanding naval ambitions and responsibilities. Endowed with state-of-the-art monitoring systems and technologies, the NOC’s primary goal is to provide Qatar’s security officials with a complete picture of maritime situational awareness of its territorial and adjacent water bodies.

Human Capital and Modern Upkeep Efforts

While Qatar’s efforts to build a technologically-advanced naval force have yielded meaningful results over the past few years, its push for maritime relevance is not trouble-free. Two main constraints pose a significant obstacle to Doha’s quest: first, the paucity of sailors and officers; second, the multifaceted difficulties of upkeeping a modern fleet.

With a domestic population estimated at around 300,000 citizens, Qatar has historically struggled to fill the ranks of its armed forces. Burdened by inescapable demographic limitations, Doha has crafted and implemented alternative solutions to circumvent the shortage of soldiers among the nationals. Traditionally, one of the most efficient strategies has been enlisting foreign contract soldiers in the country’s armed forces. Although a precise image of the national-foreigner ratio remains hard to grasp, it is estimated that—letting officers and conscripts aside—up to 85 percent of the Qatari security forces are staffed with noncitizen soldiers. Another measure to attempt to lift the manpower shortage curse has been the introduction of the mandatory military draft. An absolute first among its neighbors in the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar introduced male compulsory military service in 2013 and female voluntary national service in 2018. Yet, these options are not a one-size-fits-all solution to the complex dilemma of staffing shortages. They offer only temporary alternatives to a matter requiring profound structural adjustments and far-sighted planning. Despite Qatar’s financial largess, increasing the dependency on third-country nationals is not economically sustainable and strategically advisable in the long run. Besides, compulsory military service seems to have been chiefly a patriotic stunt, driven by sociocultural considerations and serving primarily a political agenda with only residual influence in propping up the number of Qataris ultimately choosing a military career. Therefore, Doha’s lofty ambition to reach a 6,000-unit navy by 2025 would be hard to meet, and the QEN will likely continue experiencing shortages of sailors in the short term.

Without proper maintenance procedures, well-supplied stockpiles of spare parts, and regular training on how to use military equipment optimally, even the most lethal and efficient asset risks ended up being nothing more than a blunt tool. As combat platforms that combine high-end technological components and sophisticated engineering solutions, modern warships require a great deal of work ethic to guarantee high performance and reliability. While Doha has sought to ensure the upkeep of its brand-new fleet by signing a contract for support services with Fincantieri for ten years after the delivery of the vessels, this is not enough to safeguard the naval assets’ reliability in the long run. As outlined by extensive studies by Zoltan Barany, Professor at Texas University, and Kenneth M. Pollack, Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, the Arab armies have often prioritized the procurement of top-of-the-line military equipment and massive hoarding of expensive weapon systems over cultivating a maintenance and repair culture. Therefore, the question remains as to whether the QEN can effectively absorb the discipline needed to implement upkeep protocols strictly.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security
Country: Qatar

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Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco is a researcher who focuses on the security affairs of the Gulf region. He is also an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (GSA), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He tweets at: @mazz_Leonardo.


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