Qatar may become the first Arab Gulf state to operate submarines. A new memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Italian defence giant Fincantieri covers the “supply of cutting-edge naval vessels and submarines.” Italy is known to be supplying warships to the Emiri Navy but the inclusion of subs is fresh information. It is significant because it could change the naval balance in the region.
The Qatari submarines may be part of a much larger 5 billion euro deal with Italy which was agreed in 2017. That deal included a large helicopter carrier, called a Landing Platform Dock (LPD), four warships and two patrol boats. It also involves shore support and help with a new offshore naval base.
Submarines are expensive, but the oil rich country can afford to invest in growing its navy. It is sitting on the world’s third-largest natural gas and oil reserves and has the highest per-capita income in the world.
Currently Iran is the only submarine operator in the Arabian Gulf, also known as the Persian Gulf, save for the occasional U.S. Navy or European submarine. Two of Qatar’s neighbours, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both have stated needs to acquire submarines. Qatar has difficult relations with these countries so the submarine acquisition could be seen, at least in part, as a response to these moves.
They are not the first Arab Gulf states to seek submarines, however. Infamously, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attempted to purchase midget submarines after the 1991 Gulf War. His supplier would have been a secretive Italian submarine builder called Cos.Mo.S. The illicit deal, part of the Oil-for-Food Program scandal, was the downfall of the Italian firm. The submarines were never delivered.
Fincantieri has a proven track record for building cutting edge warships including air defence destroyers and aircraft carriers. Their current submarine program is the Type-212 Todaro class, a joint venture with Germany. They also offer export designs including the S1000, which is a joint venture with a Russian ship designer. That project may have been suspended however. The Qatari subs are likely to be relatively small ‘light submarines.’
In the Gulf small might be the way to go. The shallow waters do not favour larger submarines. Fincantieri could offer their own small submarine designs, or partner with a specialist builder. Less well known than Fincantieri, Italy is home to several smaller companies that specialise in special forces submarines. This corner of the defence sector can be more secretive about their offering, especially the Italian firms. Firstly there is Drass, who offer a range of shallow water attack submarines. Then there is GSE Trieste, who recently built a midget submarine for the U.S. Navy SEALs. And most secretive of all, CABI Cattaneo, who supply Italy’s own special forces. They are now courting the export market.