WASHINGTON (AP) — Qatar said Wednesday it will expand the major military base used by U.S. forces to make it more comfortable for Americans, as the tiny gas-rich nation seeks to hedge against closer U.S. ties to its regional rivals.
Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, during a visit to the United States, said the expansion of al-Udeid Air Base will include family compounds, entertainment centers and other facilities intended to make it more hospitable for family members of U.S. troops. He said dormitory capacity for Americans on the base will also be increased.
"We have a plan to make the stay of our colleagues more comfortable," he said at Qatar's military attache office in Washington, which opened in October.
The expansion of al-Udeid — like the establishment of the new military office — comes as Qatar works to cement even closer security ties to the United States in hopes of dissuading the Trump administration from siding with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf countries in a feud that began last year. Those countries have been pushing the U.S. to join them in isolating Qatar — possibly by removing its air base, which the UAE has described as a Qatari "insurance policy against any additional pressure" from Washington.
Early in the Gulf crisis, in which four of Qatar's neighbors accused it of fomenting regional unrest and cut ties, President Donald Trump sided with Saudi Arabia and the others and echoed their claim that Qatar funds terrorism. As the stalemate has lingered on, the Trump administration has softened that rhetoric while praising Qatar for modest steps taken to address U.S. concerns.
Al-Udeid, near the capital of Doha, is home to some 10,000 U.S. troops and acts as U.S. Central Command's forward operating base. Its key role as a staging point for U.S. air campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria has given Qatar a strategic diplomatic advantage.
Speaking to reporters at the new office in the tony Georgetown neighborhood, Attiyah was coy when asked whether Qatar was still looking to purchase the S-400, Russia's most advanced air defense missile system. New U.S. sanctions that kicked in this week require the United States to punish foreign governments that buy from Russia's defense or intelligence sectors. But so far Trump's administration has declined to punish anyone, claiming without proof that the threat of sanctions has already deterred billions of dollars in purchases from Moscow.
"We are a sovereign country and we have the right to look everywhere to get the best to our country, but that does not mean at all that this will change our deep strategic relation with the United States," Attiyah said. "Qatar will not do anything to jeopardize the relationship with the international community."
He said Qatar was in fact shifting most of its military acquisitions to American systems, including the F-15 fighter aircraft and C-17s. Qatar will soon be receiving a battery of U.S.-made Apache helicopters, Attiyah added.
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP