Following the successful conclusion of Operation Desert Storm and the signing of a 1991 Defense Cooperation Agreement, the United States in 1996 placed a base enjoying unrestricted operations on a peninsula at a strategic location on the Persian Gulf.
Planned expansion and improvement of the Al-Udeid Air Base will cost an estimated $1.8 billion, to be funded by the host state of Qatar, a Gulf monarchy that remains a reliable U.S. strategic partner. Al-Udeid houses more than 11,000 U.S. forces. Among other duties, it functions as the U.S. military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) and Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) Forward Headquarters, the Air Force’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), and provides airlift for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Systems (ISR) assets, as well as tanker assets that complete about 80 percent of air-to-air refueling in the region. Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and Qatar Air Force also have assets at the base.
In 2019, during the second U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: White House says Trump doesn’t want to use Insurrection Act | Military Times poll finds Biden leads Trump by 6 points among troops | House Dems threatens subpoenas over Afghanistan testimony House Democrats threaten to subpoena Pentagon, State Dept. for Afghanistan testimony Pompeo says Trump looking at whether to restrict Chinese students from the US MORE witnessed the signing by U.S. defense officials of an agreement to expand the U.S. presence and to confirm Qatar’s commitment to fund base improvements and modernization.
At any moment, the U.S. is likely to have 300 warplanes, including F-22s and B-52s, deployed at the base, and air operations remain as complex as ever. Selective missions continue from Al-Udeid over Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, primarily targeting terrorists. Al-Udeid was a critical component in the victory against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
CAOC manages command-and-control airpower through a 20-nation zone covering Northeast Africa, the Middle East and as far as Central and South Asia. It integrates and synchronizes strategic decisions, as well as tactical execution.
CENTCOM recently tried switching air operations from Al-Udeid to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. This is primarily to prepare a fallback strategy in the event of war with Iran, when a strike on Al-Udeid might become likely and assets would be at heightened risk. The base is a less attractive target to Iran, given its host and geographic proximity to Doha, but the Air Force wants to avoid the unnecessary risk of a single-point failure of COAC operations.
There are political risks to any overseas base, of course. CENTCOM moved to Al-Udeid in 2003 following a backlash over the U.S. presence at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. transferred control of that base back to Saudi Arabia only four months after then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was obligated to announce the withdrawal from the kingdom. From that experience, the U.S. learned it is best to minimize the risk of rebasing, given the operational disruption that ensued; the army is experiencing a similar unresolved circumstance in Iraq at the moment.
Qatar has only one land border, and that is with Saudi Arabia; it has been closed since a 2017 blockade. A senior adviser to the Saudi crown prince confirmed reports in 2018 of a plan to dig a canal that would render Qatar an island — evidently against U.S. wishes; the Saudi king reportedly never was a proponent of the blockade. Today, Saudi development of a facility to extract uranium “yellowcake” with Chinese expertise should raise further concerns in American minds.
Qatar has a population of 2.8 million, yet only 12 percent are Qatari. Its vast energy resources make it the world’s richest country, per capita. The RAND Corporation reformed the Qatari education system, which now hosts campuses of Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth universities. Qatar has one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world, and this will increase further as recent educational improvements feed through over time. A small indigenous population with no material wants, enabled by high levels of educational attainment, is unlikely to find its search for meaning in Islamic extremism — unlike the 9/11 hijackers.
Yet, as might be expected of an independent emirate, Qatar occasionally has flipped foreign policy on a dime; it appears to have found that survival is optimized by acting as a conduit to dialogue between opposing regional powers. This balanced foreign policy makes the base well-suited for intelligence gathering as it is a crossroads for the entire spectrum of Middle Eastern politics, thereby granting U.S. access to Qatar’s relations with Afghanistan, Hamas and Iraq.
For its part, the United States has learned that after every confrontation comes dialogue, and where better to be hosted than in a neutral state that can facilitate the resolution of the most enduring U.S. war? It is perhaps this more recent Qatari self-discovery as a neutral party to complex interests that so irks the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), although Qatar’s proposed involvement in training Libya’s Government of National Accord forces does put this neutrality in question.
The U.S. embraces the renewed friendship of the GCC, yet understands its interests: that the U.S. maintain military superiority and keep the energy shipping lanes open, and that the GCC is allowed to keep democracy at bay. GCC interests inevitably may diverge over time, as we discovered in 2003.
President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump compares police who use force to golfers who ‘choke’ Pence told to be on standby to assume powers during Trump’s abrupt Walter Reed visit: book Top Senate Democrat requests German ambassador nomination pulled over past inflammatory comments MORE has managed relations elegantly with all members of the Gulf, which has precipitated the recent base agreement with Qatar along with its $12 billion purchase of 36 F-15QA fighters, as well as continued extraordinary levels of military hardware acquisition by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Wealthy emirate interests are less prone to change, however. Survival depends on neighborly government relations, whatever the ideology. But the absence of a poor underclass largely eliminates the risk of political instability that could lead to sudden political transitions in GCC states.
For now, Al-Udeid appears well set to remain CENTCOM and SOCCENT Forward HQs for years to come, as the U.S. continues to seek stability and continuity for the complex Middle East and South Asia regions.
James Arnold is a British financier, geopolitical strategist and an investor in deep-learning technologies who writes on U.S. politics and foreign affairs.