Qatar signs $17b deal for US jets amid Gulf crisis

WASHINGTON • Qatar will sign a deal to buy as many as 36 F-15 jets from the United States as the two countries navigate tensions over President Donald Trump's backing of a Saudi-led coalition's move to isolate the country for supporting terrorism.

Qatari Defence Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah and his US counterpart James Mattis completed the US$12 billion (S$16.5 billion) agreement on Wednesday in Washington, according to the Pentagon.

Congress last year approved the sale of as many as 72 F-15s in an agreement valued at as much as US$21 billion, providing authorisation for the deal that was completed on Wednesday.

But that was before Qatar's neighbours, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, severed diplomatic, trade and transport links last week in a move that they said was aimed at isolating the country for its support of terrorist groups and Iran.

The F-15 sale highlights the complex position that the Trump administration finds itself in, forced to balance its focus on fighting terrorism against regional rivalries between key allies.

Qatar hosts the regional headquarters for the US Central Command, which includes a state-of-the-art airbase that the US depends on to target the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"It is confusing, and the worst thing you want to do in a heated, delicate situation like this is to give mixed messages," Dr Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, said of the Pentagon announcement.

Qatar's Ministry of Defence said that the deal would create 60,000 jobs in 42 US states while reducing the burden on American forces.

The F-15 agreement would lead to "closer strategic collaboration in our fight to counter violent extremism and promote peace and stability in our region and beyond", according to the defence ministry.

After the Gulf countries moved against Qatar, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson initially declined to take sides in the crisis, but his cautious stance was overshadowed almost immediately by Mr Trump, who sent a series of tweets that appeared to take credit for and to praise the decision.

The US position was further muddied last Friday, when Mr Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia to ease the blockade, only to have Mr Trump saying hours later that the move had been the right one.

In another development, two US Navy vessels arrived in the Gulf on Wednesday for a joint exercise with Qatar's fleet, according to Doha state media. It is not clear when the exercise was arranged.

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held talks with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, in Doha on Wednesday as the search for a diplomatic solution to the Gulf crisis intensified.

Ankara is one of Qatar's strongest allies and, earlier this week, committed to deploying troops at its base in the emirate.

WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2017, with the headline 'Qatar signs $17b deal for US jets amid Gulf crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe