Along a stretch of highway leading to Qatar’s Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, the site of multiple World Cup matches, runs a long, sand-coloured wall dotted with turrets. This is Barzan Camp, home to the Amiri Guard, an elite military unit tasked with protecting the country’s ruling Al Thani family.
The Al Thanis have been in power since the mid-1800s, as Qatar transitioned from an Ottoman and then British territory to, in 1971, an independent state – and, with the discovery of oil and natural gas reserves, an increasingly wealthy one and an ally of Western countries, including Canada.
Qatar’s rulers have lavished a good chunk of that wealth on the country’s citizens, investing in infrastructure and development and making Qataris among the richest people on the planet, with free health care, electricity and education. This has ensured relatively strong support for the royal family and staved off the type of popular unrest seen in other parts of the Middle East.
The World Cup, with its US$220-billion price tag, has been a major part of this effort, bringing great prestige to Qatar as the first Muslim country to ever host the tournament. But the competition has also brought intense scrutiny of the country’s record on human rights, particularly its treatment of migrant workers and criminalization of homosexuality.
Many of these criticisms were made when the emirate won the rights to host the World Cup in 2010, but they returned to the fore 100 days out in August, as multiple human-rights groups launched renewed campaigns.
Also in August, Canada added Qatar to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL), which regulates the weapons and military equipment that can be sold to a given country. That move did not have to be approved by Parliament and was announced in the Canada Gazette, the government’s official newspaper, which publishes new regulations and notices. It attracted little media or political scrutiny, even as criticism of the tournament’s host country continued to build this fall.
Qatar has invested heavily in its military in recent years, with arms imports up 227 per cent in the period spanning 2017 through 2021, compared with the previous four years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), propelling Qatar from the world’s 22nd-largest arms importer to the sixth.
In 2021 alone, the emirate spent about US$11.2-billion on its military – about 20 per cent of government spending, or 4.8 per cent of the emirate’s GDP – SIPRI data shows. Per capita, Qatar spent about $3,955 on weapons, more than double the expenditure of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, though Riyadh’s total military budget dwarfs that of Qatar.
Samuel Perlo-Freeman, the research co-ordinator at the U.K.-based Campaign Against Arms Trade, said the SIPRI figures are likely an underestimation, given Qatar’s lack of transparency on the matter. And what few contracts have been made public can be somewhat strange, Dr. Perlo-Freeman said, such as Qatar’s purchase of similar fighter planes from France, the United States and Britain.
“To have three types of aircraft from different countries, with similar capabilities but different maintenance requirements, does not make any military sense,” he said. “The most obvious reason for them to embark on such huge arms deals is to curry diplomatic favour with major Western powers.”
Western support, particularly from the U.S. and Britain, was vital in enabling Qatar to resist a Saudi-led blockade that began in 2017 and was lifted only last year. The war in Yemen, which Qatar initially participated in, has also ramped up regional tensions.
But while big-ticket arms deals are likely aimed at holding off potential aggressors, Dr. Perlo-Freeman said there is another major incentive for Doha to build up its military. Autocratic regimes “do sometimes have arms for the purpose of external defence,” but “one of the main reasons is to guard against any internal opposition, to maintain their power.”
David Wearing, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex and an expert on the Gulf region, said the modern Qatari state, as with other Arab autocracies, was “midwifed” by the British, whose political and military support helped preclude any push toward democracy seen in other parts of the former empire.
“The British ensured that these states developed as they did, i.e. as monarchies with well-equipped and well-trained security forces specifically designed to keep the population down,” he said. “The worry being that, if these regimes were ever overthrown, you can’t predict what would happen next. Would the successor government be as friendly to the West?”
To this day, Britain remains a major weapons supplier to Qatar, along with the U.S., France and Italy. Canada has so far been a relatively small player in this regard, but that appears to be changing.
In 2018, Canada issued six export permits for “military goods and technology” to Qatar, a fraction of the number approved for Saudi Arabia. The following year, that jumped to 26, all for “ground vehicles and components therefor, specially designed or modified for military use.” Since then, Canada has also sold Qatar equipment for target acquisition or bombing control, aircraft and UAVs, according to government data.
Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher at Project Ploughshares and a leading expert on Canadian arms sales, said the spike in 2019 “appeared to be tied to the export of armoured vehicles” from Ontario-based Terradyne. The vehicles have been documented on the ground in Qatar and are usually used “by special forces and anti-riot police,” Mr. Gallagher said.
Terradyne did not respond to a request for comment.
While exports in recent years have not matched those of 2019, multiple experts who spoke to The Globe and Mail said Qatar’s addition to the AFCCL is likely indicative of a major deal in the works, such as the one that led to the creation of the list in the first place: the sale of Canadian-made light armoured vehicles (LAVs) equipped with large-calibre automatic weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The sale of LAVs to Saudi Arabia became hugely controversial after vehicles made by Canadian manufacturer Terradyne were seen being used during unrest in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.
After the Saudi controversy, in April, 2020, Ottawa announced “the creation of an arm’s-length advisory panel of experts” to review weapons sales. There is no evidence any such panel has ever met, and Global Affairs Canada did not respond to specific questions about it.
“All export permit applications for controlled items continue to be reviewed under Canada’s robust risk assessment framework,” Jason Kung, a spokesman for Global Affairs, told The Globe.
“The fact that a country is listed on the AFCCL does not guarantee that a permit will be issued to export prohibited items to that country,” Mr. Kung added. “Permit applications to export prohibited items to AFCCL destinations are all assessed on a case-by-case basis against criteria laid out in both policy and legislation.”
He said standard consultations had been carried out in Qatar’s case, including between Canada’s ministers of foreign affairs and national defence.
According to the report published in the Canada Gazette, the government also “consulted Canadians” via an online platform on the proposal to add Qatar in March, 2022, the same month Canada qualified for the World Cup. “Five comments were received from various participants, including four industry representatives and a civil society organization,” the report said, adding that these were “supportive, indicated no concerns, or were neutral” on the issue.
NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson told The Globe her party was “very concerned” about Qatar’s addition to the AFCCL, given the “extremely serious human-rights violations” in that country.
“The Liberal government has been hypocritical of arms sales and human rights for years,” she said. “While successive ministers of foreign affairs under the Liberal government have said they will deny permit applications where there is a substantial risk of human-rights violations, they have ignored ample evidence of these violations.”
Mr. Gallagher said that when there is public scrutiny of arms deals, it usually focuses on whether a state might use the weaponry to wage war. But under the Arms Trade Treaty, to which Canada is a signatory, parties “also have to consider the risk that their arms exports violate international human rights law,” he said.
“By arming these despotic regimes to the teeth, we’re absolutely upholding autocracy around the world,” he said. “Without the ability to procure huge amounts of weapons systems, these regimes wouldn’t have the same ability to crack down on dissent.”
Dr. Wearing added that it was also a mistake to assume – as many Western countries have – that arms sent to states such as Qatar would only be used for defence.
“As we’ve seen in the past 10 years especially, if you give countries massive weapons systems, they’re not going to necessarily keep them in a warehouse,” he said. “Sending more weapons into the region is contributing to these countries pursuing more aggressive and interventionist policies and projecting their military power around the region.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited a 2017 report about Saudi Arabia cracking down against protesters. The vehicles in question were produced by Terradyne, not General Dynamics.