Qatar Finalizing Plans for Spy Plane Project in South Carolina
‘It’s more than just an economic decision,’ one analyst says. It’s a part of a broad campaign to sway opinion in the United States. Look out below.
The Qatari military is finalizing plans to invest in South Carolina as part of its efforts to develop and produce surveillance aircraft, according to company documents and two sources with knowledge of the project’s timeline.
The project, led by Qatari-owned firm Barzan Aeronautical, has been in the planning stages for the last several years. Qatari officials have visited South Carolina, where the firm is registered, to meet with state and local officials to promote the idea of investment and to garner support for the project.
Barzan’s aircraft initiative corresponds to a new push by the Qatari government to invest massive amounts of cash into the U.S. in various different sectors, including real estate, technology and now, apparently, military aircraft and systems. The leader of the country’s sovereign wealth fund said earlier this year that the Qatar Investment Authority planned to increase its investments in the U.S. to $45 billion over the next two years.
Qatari officials visited South Carolina in 2018 to meet Boeing, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Gov. Henry McMaster to discuss Doha’s interest in investing in the state. Graham and McMaster’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Executives with Barzan Aeronautical did not comment on the record for this story.
Qatar’s increasing financial footprint in the U.S. comes as the country attempts to find a sturdier political foothold in Washington following its two-year long blockade by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The blockade, both political and economic, caused massive rifts in the Gulf Cooperation Council and was initially supported by President Trump. Since then, the U.S. has brokered a strong alliance with Riyadh and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and sustained it even after the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
The project would follow two massive military agreements between the U.S. and Qatar. In 2017, the U.S. and Qatar signed a $12 billion deal for Doha to purchase 72 Boeing F-15 fighter jets. And in 2018, the State Department approved $197 million deal to have Raytheon upgrade Qatar’s Air Force Operation Center with equipment and support.
The Barzan initiative, once completed, could amount to one of the country’s largest investments in the U.S. and could offer Washington what the Trump administration has sought since the 2016 election—new American jobs. According to a white paper on Qatar’s plans for its South Carolina, the country estimates that it will create more than 50,000 jobs in the U.S., including those not only linked to the Barzan initiative, but also for the projects it signed onto with various military contractors, including Raytheon.
“I see the Qatari investment in South Carolina as more than just an economic decision. It’s a piece of their increased lobbying efforts in the U.S. since the start of the conflict with Saudi Arabia,” said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. “The investment brings them closer ties to Boeing, a powerful political force that has one of its former executives serving as acting secretary of defense. It allows Qatari leaders to argue that they are helping to create at least some jobs in the United States, a longstanding preoccupation of the president’s.”
The Barzan Aeronautical filings were first reported by the Conservative Review.
Barzan Aeronautical formed as an LLC in South Carolina in March 2018, according to filings submitted to the Department of Justice. It is a subsidiary of Barzan Holdings, which is owned by the Qatari armed forces. Barzan Aeronautical formed one month after the country’s officials, including Abdullah bin Mohammed al Thani, the CEO of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, visited South Carolina to meet with various officials and stakeholders about investment opportunities.
The Qatar officials visited Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner campus—a final assembly and delivery facility—in South Carolina during their 2018 visit
Barzan Aeronautical has hired the law firm Ott, Bielitzki & O'Neill PLLC, paying it $75,000 a month, to provide legal and government relations representation “regarding the development and/or procurement of technology and defense related systems by [Barzan Aeronautical] for both U.S. and government approved foreign customers,” according to the firm’s Foreign Agents Registration Act FARA filings with the Justice Department, paperwork required of lobbyists working for foreign governments.
“Our work may include government relations work that involves briefings/meetings with U.S. officials including Congressional offices and U.S. Department of Defense officials to discuss export control matters related to the Company's business,” the document said.
Lobbying registration filings show Barzan Aeronautical’s initial CEO was Vincent Renz. Renz previously served as CEO of 3Dcision, Inc, a South Carolina-based company which specialized in “data processing and analysis of remote sensing digital data sets of airborne (aircraft/UAV) and satellite data,” according to Renz’s LinkedIn profile. Now, Richard Craven, a U.K. citizen with previous experience in large-scale financial projects, is listed as a CEO, according to the company’s government filings.
Foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia, very often modify existing U.S. aircraft for their own military purposes. That could be what’s going on with Barzan in South Carolina. Details about the firm’s initiative remain scarce.
But documents and filings reviewed by The Daily Beast appear to show the firm has been working on a optionally piloted surveillance plane which can be flown either as a drone or a manned aircraft. It’s unclear if this particular aircraft is being built as part of the South Carolina initiative.
U.S. Patent & Trade Office documents show Barzan Holdings filed a design patent in 2018 for a propeller aircraft with a T-tail, tractor configuration, and a radar dome on its underbelly. The patent filing lists the inventors as Alfred Schmiderer and Reiner Stemme of Berlin, Germany. Schmiderer previously worked as managing director at AQUILA Aviation GmbH, which makes light aircraft. Stemme has served as the CEO of Reiner Stemme aero GmbH and founded Reiner Stemme Utility Air Systems.
Minutes of a March 2018 members meeting in South Carolina for Barzan Aeronautical, filed with its FARA paperwork in February, show that executives discussed the “Q01 Project status” at the get together. The Q01 project appears to be a reference to the Reiner Stemme Utility Air-Systems Q01. That plane, described as the product of “an unique GERMAN-QATAR partnership” in promotional literature, can reportedly carry 1,000 pounds of surveillance gear, for medium altitude long endurance missions with “new perspectives for surveillance on land, costline [sic] and sea.”
A congressionally-mandated report on the proliferation of remotely piloted systems prepared by the Rand Corporation described the Q01 as an optionally-piloted aircraft, capable of being operated either by pilots behind the will of the aircraft or flown remotely as a drone from a ground control station.
Photos of the Q01 taken by an aviation photographer in Berlin show that the aircraft bears a strong resemblance to the T-tail plane pictured in the Barzan patent filed in 2018.
It’s unclear what kind of aircraft Barzan intends to produce or whether that would include the Q01. Since-deleted job advertisements in South Carolina claimed that “Barzan Aeronautical are establishing a new company to design and produce a new Utility Aircraft for an overseas country.”
If Qatar is developing the Q01 aircraft in South Carolina the project would most likely bump up against U.S. export controls, including International Traffic in Arms Regulations also known as ITAR. Those regulations were created to control the export of military technologies and defense systems in an effort to safeguard U.S. national security interests.
Still, the project, if it goes through, would mark another major deal on the books for Qatar and would significantly aid its effort to strengthen its ties to Washington in a post-Khashoggi era, experts say.
“The Qataris have been doing their very best to try to demonstrate that they are useful to the United States and Americans, and there is no doubt these investments are, at a minimum, a part of that project,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute. “It's gone very well, and while they have not succeeded in convincing Washington to intercede on their behalf to end the boycott, they also have avoided any move by Washington to intercede against them.”