Wednesday 14 April 2021

Russian AK-12 Assault Rifles In Service With Qatar

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Most of the Gulf countries are generally reticent when it comes to showing off their defence capabilities and recent acquisitions of military hardware. Although a high degree of secrecy surrounding the acquisition of ballistic missile systems from North Korea and China by the UAE and Saudi Arabia is to be expected, in the Gulf region this secrecy often also applies to conventional weaponry such as artillery and even small arms. For Qatar, the situation is slightly different: while it does showcase most of its weaponry during its annual National Day parades, surprisingly little equipment gets shown during military exercises and other events. 
In similar vein, Qatar's acquisition of the Russian AK-12 assault rifle remains largely unreported, and imagery indicating their presence outside military parades so far appears to be nonexistent. Its relative elusiveness set aside, the delivery of the AK-12 is a testament to the increasing flow of Russian-made weaponry reaching countries in the Gulf region, which almost exclusively relied on arms sourced from Western countries in the past. Qatar is the first confirmed export customer of the new assault rifle, which only entered serial production in 2017.
Qatar's interest in Russian-made weaponry first came to light in 2016 and 2017, when it signed a series of agreements with Russia on military-technical cooperation during bilateral visits to Doha and Moscow. [1] [2] [3] Although what exactly these agreements entailed was at the time still unknown, the first sighting of Russian weaponry in Qatar already came a year later in December 2018, when hundreds of AK-12 rifles were seen in the hands of Qatari soldiers marching through Doha Corniche during that year's National Day parade.
Months before, in July 2018, the Russian envoy to Qatar confirmed reports that Qatar and Russia had signed an arms deal for small arms and anti-tank missiles. [4] Included in the deal were large numbers of AK-12s, 9M133 Kornet anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and even 9K338 Igla-S (NATO designation: SA-24) MANPADS. Another type of Russian weapon system Doha showed interest in was the S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, although an actual acquisition of the S-400 by Qatar is highly unlikely due to the threat of sanctions by the U.S. [4]
Forging new friendships
Traditionally a customer of arms and equipment from France and later the US, the Qatar diplomatic crisis that lasted from 2017 to 2021 saw Qatar diversifying its procurement efforts to now also include Russia as a supplier of weaponry. This was a notable change in relations from the early 2010s, when fundamental differences over the course of the Syrian Civil War significantly strained Doha's relations with Moscow. Qatar's warming ties with Russia can in this respect be seen to be underlined by the acquisition of weaponry. Today Qatar and Russia are working together in a joint attempt to achieve a political solution to the conflict in Syria, showing just how swiftly relations can shift in this diplomatically competitive corner of the globe.
Familiar shapes
The 5.45×39mm AK-12 is the latest in the series of highly popular assault rifles designed and produced by the Kalashnikov Concern (formerly known as Izhmash). Entering production some 70 years after the inception of the original AK-47, the shape and design philosophy of the first AK can still be readily appreciated in the new design. Some might still know the AK-12 for its prototype design, which suffered from a number of defects and was later abandoned in favour of the more basic AK-400 design, which ultimately became the finalised model of the AK-12. As it was the prototype design that almost exclusively featured in video games, to many a casual observer the AK-12 designation will still belong to this progenitor. In addition to Qatar, Armenia has also been speculated to be a possible customer of the AK-12, potentially even setting up a production line for the type. [5] At the same time, since it is currently in the process of reequipping its military with license-produced AK-103s any large scale acquisition of AK-12s as well as the latter theory appears unlikely.
While the actual number of rifles bought by Qatar remains unknown, it is almost certain that the AK-12 isn't destined to become the new service rifle of its armed forces. This has as much to do with the fact that Qatar doesn't have a main service rifle, with units making use of the FN FNC, M4 and M16, as with a 2018 agreement with Italy for the local production of ARX160 and ARX200 assault rifles. [6] The ARX160 has enjoyed significant success in the Gulf region, with neighbouring Bahrain even adopting it as its main service rifle. In addition to the ARX-160 and AK-12, several more types of modern assault rifles are fielded by Qatar's Armed Forces, mostly with its special forces units.
Based on the parade footage alone, it appears that most of the AK-12s were distributed to the Qatar Special Operations Command (Q-SOC) and possibly the Qatar Amiri Guard as well. It is possible that the AK-12 will see limited usage by special forces units only, by which its robustness and reliability in water, sand and dusty environments should be especially treasured.

Though the acquisition of AK-12s from Russia is notable, it doesn't necessarily signify the start of a wholesale shift in its allegiance as an arms customer. Instead, Qatar is likely to continue to diversify its procurement efforts in the future, which could entail more arms purchases from other sources, with NATO weapons operating alongside an arrangement of weapons sourced from Russia and China as a result. As Qatar looks to expand its indigenous defence industry most notably through Barzan Holdings  – at least a portion of such weaponry will likely be produced or assembled in Qatar as well, as is the case with the ARX160 and ARX200. To Qatar, such projects will be attractive as a means to increase its independence as much as to increase its military prowess – to which end the AK-12 will certainly not be the last means.

[2] Qatar looking for defence cooperation with Russia
[3] Qatar, Russia sign agreements on air defense, supplies
[4] Russia and Qatar discuss S-400 missile systems deal TASS
[5] Armenia will be the first country to purchase AK-12 assault rifles
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