As Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman concludes his controversial visit to the United Kingdom – one of Riyadh’s principal armourers which has agreed to provide it with 48 Eurofighter Typhoon multi-role fighters – the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has released a report detailing a startling increase in the global sales of advanced weapons systems. According to the report, arms sales to the Middle East have more than doubled over the past five years, and in this piece Lewis Sage-Passant examines the new arms race driving the region’s lavish spending.
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Last week’s SIPRI report announced that globally, sales of advanced weapons systems between 2013 and 2017 rose by 10% compared with the previous five-year period, marking a relatively unremarkable – albeit depressing – continuation of a two-decade long trend. In stark contrast to the global rate of growth, arms imports by countries in the Middle East region increased 103% during the same period when compared with the previous five years.
The Middle East – in particular the oil-rich Gulf states – has long been a major buyer of advanced weapons systems from around the world. These purchases are driven by a number of factors including domestic turbulence, terrorism threats and regional great-power-rivalries. In particular, for the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the looming threat of Iran has long been a major influence in arms purchasing programmes. Iran outclasses the GCC states in most categories when it comes to military capabilities, with the notable exception of the GCC states’ high levels of economic power. As such, many of these states turn to purchases of advanced Western military systems as potential force multipliers that they hope will counterbalance their core military deficiencies.
Saudi Arabia – the world’s second most prolific arms importer after India – which remains engrossed in a flailing military campaign along its southern flank in Yemen, led this upward trend with a massive 225% increase during the time-frame examined by SIPRI. During the young Crown Prince’s visit to London earlier this month, a “memorandum of intent” was signed, essentially outlining Riyadh’s desire to purchase 48 of BAE system’s advanced Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft. This visit was accompanied by a massive public relations campaign across the UK which sought to highlight bin Salman’s reformist reputation and, most probably, detract from the Kingdom’s poor human rights record, notably in the stalled Yemen campaign.
While typically Riyadh has purchased the majority of its equipment from NATO nations as part of its role as Washington’s key regional ally, last year it began exploring alternate materiel sources. This culminated in the purchase of Russia’s cutting edge S-400 air defence system in a move that was likely driven by both uncertainty around U.S.-Saudi relations and the ongoing missile threat from Yemen.
This massively increased the Qatari military’s fighter capabilities, augmenting a small fleet of Mirage-2000 fighters and bringing the national total to 96 modern fast jets.
Qatar has also been heavily involved in the regional arms buildup, pressed on by the continuing Gulf Cooperation Council relations-breakdown. In December of last year, the UK signed a deal to provide Doha with 24 Eurofighter Typhoons, following purchase agreements with the U.S. for 36 Boeing F-15QA-series aircraft and France for 12 additional Dassault Rafale fighters. This massively increased the Qatari military’s fighter capabilities, augmenting a small fleet of Mirage-2000 fighters and bringing the national total to 96 modern fast jets. Qatar’s Typhoons will likely be equipped with Marte ER anti-ship missiles, which is particularly telling given the ongoing – albeit ineffective – shipping blockade of Doha by the GCC navies.
While this buying spree appears relatively sensible given escalating tensions between the small peninsula nation and its neighbours (which began in earnest in mid-2017), Qatar has been increasing its weapons purchases for some time. The SIPRI report noted that Qatari arms imports rose by 245% between 2007 and 2011.
The procurement programme has led to concerns being raised around whether Qatar’s tiny military – a 27,500-strong force with just 2,500 personnel serving in the air force – will be able to support and operate a high number of advanced fighters. That said, should Qatar meet the equipment purchases with a concurrent manpower increase, Qatar will potentially be – in theory – one of the region’s most capable militaries in per capita terms. More than likely, however, Qatar will turn to foreign military contractors to maintain – and in some cases operate – these new systems.
Overall, alongside the practical defence benefits, signing major defence contracts with vendor-nations acts as a diplomatic hedge against those vendors supporting outright the Saudi campaign against Qatar.
A former Qatari minister has even accused the UAE in recent months of drawing up operational plans for an invasion of Qatar with an army of mercenaries.
The United Arab Emirates has also been on a procurement spree, continuing a national trend of purchasing high level Western military equipment along with support staff, training personnel and even mercenary forces. Several factors have driven the UAE’s purchases, ranging from its engagement in the war against the Islamic State in the Levant, its involvement and subsequent independent course in the Saudi-coalition campaign in Yemen, fears of a resurgent Iran and the Qatar dispute. A former Qatari minister has even accused the UAE in recent months of drawing up operational plans for an invasion of Qatar with an army of mercenaries.
The UAE’s weapons procurement programmes have been some of the region’s most interesting, with Abu Dhabi demonstrating a repeated willingness to step away from traditional Western arms vendors for procurement from unusual sources when it suits its strategic needs. This includes reports of missile defence system purchases from Israel, and even missile technology deals with North Korea. Some analysts have also linked the UAE’s nuclear power programme with a desire to generate eventual nuclear weapons capabilities.
Despite an extremely neutral and non-interventionist foreign policy track record, Oman is also a quiet purchaser of military materiel. Muscat has increased its military expenditure over the last decade, to a point where it is now among the top five countries globally in terms of military expenditure as a share of national income (10.3% of GDP). Oman’s purchases have included Eurofighter Typhoons from the UK, AIM-9X Sidewinder and Harpoon missiles from the U.S, and Heckler & Koch small arms systems from Germany.
Despite this, many analysts have pointed out that the vast majority of domestic designs are either crude propaganda stunts or poorly-made copies of foreign designs.
Iran, unsurprisingly, is also one of the region’s biggest players in the arms trade, however years of strategic isolation have led to the development of a robust domestic military manufacturing industry and downplayed its reliance on imports. In recent years, Iran has launched a variety of domestically-produced systems, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, naval vessels, aircraft (although it should be noted that their recently-claimed “stealth fighter” is likely a hoax) and drones. Reports have also emerged that Iran is developing surface-to-surface missile systems with Russian support.
Despite this, many analysts have pointed out that the vast majority of domestic designs are either crude propaganda stunts or poorly-made copies of foreign designs. As a result Iran still purchases advanced systems from its small retinue of international allies, with Tehran’s purchase of the highly advanced S-300 air defence system from Russia drawing significant attention. Although these purchases have significantly augmented Iranian military capabilities, Iran still only represents an estimated 1% of regional military imports.
Iran’s weapons development programme is likely designed to serve the dual purposes of allowing Iran to posture itself as a dominant power in the Persian Gulf while simultaneously allowing Tehran to change diplomatic course subtly. Iran’s combined military capabilities are an overwhelming threat to the nations south of the Gulf, yet despite this, Tehran has long suffered from international sanctions. By demonstrating its domestic production capability, Iran can portray itself as a major regional power while simultaneously downplaying the impact of these sanctions.
As one would expect in a regional cold war, arms procurement across the Middle East tends to be a relatively polarized affair. This has changed in recent months, as uncertainties surrounding the reliability of traditional allies (most notably the U.S.) has pushed nations such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey to consider alternate suppliers and partners in the military capability space.
Of the increased U.S. output, around half of it is destined for Middle Eastern buyers, which is once more reflective of the heightened regional tensions.
Despite these challenges to Washington’s dominance, the United States remains the world’s leading arms vendor, representing approximately 1/3 of all sales globally, followed by Russia, France, Germany, China and the United Kingdom. U.S. systems have also increased in popularity over rivals during the period examined by the SIPRI report, and have seen a 25% increase in sales. This is interesting given assertive breakouts into new markets by Russian and Chinese vendors, which have most notably seen the poaching of traditional clients of Washington. Of the increased U.S. output, around half of it is destined for Middle Eastern buyers, which is once more reflective of the heightened regional tensions.
Germany, which sits in fourth place on the major exporter league tables, has seen a 14% decline in global sales in the last two SIPRI reports (2008-2012 and 2013-2017). Despite this, sales of German-made systems to Middle Eastern states still increased by 109%. This trend is likely to abate in the near future however, following an announcement by the German government that it would stop approving arms exports to anyone participating in the controversial war in Yemen.
The United Kingdom is also a major vendor of armaments to the Middle East, which has drawn major criticism in recent years as controversy has grown over the use of British weapons in the Yemen conflict. The annual Defence and Security Equipment International show in London has long been one of the world’s largest arms fairs, and Middle Eastern buyers have purchased around half of all Britain’s global military exports over the last two years. Alongside Saudi Arabia, which procures 23% of its military imports from the UK, Qatar has also signed a procurement contract worth £120m for support aircraft.
Controversially, a significant number of systems destined for Lebanon are reported to have ended up in use by Saudi forces in Yemen.
British arms sales have drawn significant controversy beyond the Middle East in revent years, with questions raised around sales to “repressive regimes” including China, which despite an international arms embargo, the UK agreed to supply with military radar components in a £16m deal.
France has long seen its weapons industry as one of the more reliable sectors in its lagging domestic economy, and Middle Eastern buyers have long been a key market for French exports. In 2016, around 50% of the orders placed with the French weapons industry came from the region. In one of the region’s more significant tripartite deals, Saudi Arabia’s government worked with the French government to facilitate a multi-billion-euro plan to equip the Lebanese army with French weapons. The deal, completed in 2014, represented 20% of France’s arms exports and included armoured personnel carriers, helicopters, air-to-ground missiles and naval vessels. Controversially, a significant number of systems destined for Lebanon are reported to have ended up in use by Saudi forces in Yemen. France also supplied other players in the conflict, and high-ranking French officers have repeatedly bragged about the unprecedented results of French equipment in Yemen, such as Leclerc tanks in use by the UAE armed forces, and Mirage 2000s used by both the UAE and Qatar.
Saudi Arabia, as with most exporting nations, remains one of France’s biggest clients in the armament space even excluding the Lebanon deal, having purchased nearly nine billion euros worth of French weaponry between 2010 and 2016, representing some 15-20% of France’s annual weapons exports. France has also engaged in training contracts with Saudi officer cadets; a tradition with extensive history in both the UK, Germany and the United States.
This decline has been reversed in part due to the success of Russian systems in the Syrian conflict theatre, where they have gained a “battle tested” level of credibility, combined with an affordability edge over U.S. counterparts.
Beyond the advanced air defence systems previously highlighted, Russia is also one of the Middle East’s key vendors of armaments. Moscow has long been the world’s second largest exporter after Washington, however it has particularly increased arms sales in the Middle East as part of a broader strategy of increasing geopolitical influence in the region. The murky nature of the Russian arms industry means that the exact market share in the Middle East held by Moscow is unknown, but estimates range from 8.2% to 37.5% and are generally accepted to be increasing.
The Middle Eastern market is not a new one for Moscow, as the USSR historically exported weapons to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen. But the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a drop in Russian arms exports at a time when cutting edge U.S. systems were increasingly popular throughout the region. This decline has been reversed in part due to the success of Russian systems in the Syrian conflict theatre, where they have gained a “battle tested” level of credibility, combined with an affordability edge over U.S. counterparts. Bahrain was one of the region’s first nations to begin to shift away from NATO suppliers after a U.S. stoppage of arms sales over the small nation’s bout of political unrest and subsequent crackdown, ordering a small number of AK-103 Kalashnikov rifles in 2011, followed up in 2014 with a consignment of ‘Kornet’ anti-tank systems. Russia then signed a series of agreements worth $3.5 billion with Egypt in 2014 after similar attempts by the U.S. to punish domestic troubles with arms restrictions, in which Russia supplied Cairo with MIG-29M/M2 fighter jets, Mi-35M strike helicopters, S-300VM missiles and a coastal defense system. In 2015, Russia’s Irkut Corporation also agreed to sell Egypt 12 Su-30K fighter jets.
Overall the situation is extremely clear; while the international arms trade is continuing to experience growth globally, the volatile Middle East region is seeing more extreme levels of growth than any other market. This is not a surprising development given the region’s reputation for conflict, however the advanced nature of these systems is now leading to a regional arms race with genuinely frightening geopolitical implications. Whereas previously this was purely a product of the Iran-Saudi rivalry, the fragmentation of the GCC and increasing levels of extremist activity are pushing regional states to shore up their own arsenals and increase their military readiness.
Saturating a region known for frequent regime changes and state instability also creates potential future opportunities for terrorist groups. As was seen following the 2011 ouster of the Gadhafi regime in Libya, well-stocked state arsenals can easily fall into the wrong hands in the event of state collapse, and looted weapons can find themselves smuggled globally. While small arms smuggling is unlikely to present an unpalatable risk, the threat of jihadi groups acquiring advanced surface-to-air missile systems cannot be ignored.
The Saudi-led coalition has demonstrated very clearly in the Yemen conflict that despite an overwhelming technological edge over Houthi forces, the quality of the individual soldier on the ground often remains a more decisive factor.
Despite this “tooling up”, it has been repeatedly noted that advanced equipment is not the be-all of military capability, and that while purchases of cutting edge Western equipment can act as a force multiplier it all comes down to their employment and the forces that use them. The Saudi-led coalition has demonstrated very clearly in the Yemen conflict that despite an overwhelming technological edge over Houthi forces, the quality of the individual soldier on the ground often remains a more decisive factor. If the Gulf states truly wish to meet the growing threats facing them, they will need to reshape their military culture at the core. If their Western sponsors genuinely wish to see them meet these threats effectively, without the risk of saturating one of the world’s most unstable regions with weapons, they should be willing to help them evolve militarily even when it doesn’t involve the chequebook.
Suggested books for additional reading on this topic:
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- Saudi Arabia & Iran: Power and Rivalry in the Middle East (Simon Mabon)
- The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade (Andrew Feinstein)
- The Arms Trade, Military Services and the Security Market in the Gulf States (Dania Thafer & David B. Des Roches)
- The International Arms Trade (Rachel Stohl & Suzette Grillot)
- Dangerous Trade: Arms Exports, Human Rights, and International Reputation (Jennifer Erickson)
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Lewis Sage-Passant is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific in a variety of geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently focuses on travel security risks and geopolitical threat intelligence for the British travel security firm HowSafeIsMyTrip.
For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.
Photo credit: MC3 Raul Moreno Jr./U.S. Navy