On Wednesday, Qatar announced a $12 billion purchase of 36 F-15 fighter jets from the United States. Qatar claims the planes will replace its aging fleet of French-made fighter jets. This deal forms part of a $21 billion deal negotiated with the Obama administration late last year. That contract was for up to 72 F-15 fighters and associated training.
As a small nation with a small cadre of pilots, 72 F-15s should be more than enough to fulfill Qatar's defense needs.
Indeed, according to 2015 Flight Global Insight figures (accounting for 2016, 2017 jet deliveries), the Qatari Air Force has at most 33 fighter aircraft. The doubling of combat aircraft that this U.S.-Qatar deal thus represents is significant.
Yet we can't simply view this deal through the prism of Qatar's military needs. We must also consider the political prism. If we do, it's much clearer what's going on.
The timing of this announcement, confirmed amidst growing U.S.-Qatar tensions, is targeted at Trump's affections.
Qatar is currently caught in a messy crisis with its Sunni-Arab neighbors. Led by Saudi Arabia, those neighbors lament Qatar's close relationship with Iran and its financial support for Islamist extremists. More importantly, Trump has expressed support for the Saudi perspective. Qatar, Trump stated last week, is a "funder of terrorism."
Those words alarmed the Qatari government.
Having long relied on the U.S. as its guarantor against external pressure, the prospect of an angry U.S. president is not a good one. Without the U.S., Qatar is in a precarious position: surrounded by a mix of discontented actors and turbulent regional politics.
Clearly, the Qataris felt they needed to get back in Trump's good graces. And what better way, based on Trump's oft-stated love of "great deals," than Wednesday's announcement?
It's a simple but clever ploy. Qatar offers Trump the opportunity to say that his "deal making" leadership has protected thousands of well-paid manufacturing jobs. In return, Qatar wants Trump to pick up the phone and tell the Saudis — who, the Qataris know, love Trump — to reduce their pressure on Qatar.
In that sense, for Qatar, the F-15 isn't actually a tool of military power. In this situation, it's a way to make Trump happy.
Note: An earlier version of this article clarified Wednesday's purchase as separate to the 2016 arms deal. In fact, Wednesday's deal is part of the original agreement.