Gulf Arabs bolster forces as US exits
By Ed Blanche
As the Middle East is convulsed by unparalleled upheaval, and faces a sectarian war between the Sunni and Shia Islam that could have cataclysmic consequences, it is no surprise that the major Arab states are driving hard to build up their military capabilities to counter what seems to be the inexorable rise of Iran as the paramount regional power.
As the United States seeks a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, a move that would mark a seismic shift in the region’s balance of power, while steadily disengaging its military from the Gulf, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the largest importer of military equipment in the international arms market whose volume hit a record high of sales worth $64bn in 2014, according to IHS Jane’s, the global security consultancy based in London.
It said in a 7 March report that Saudi imports soared 54% in 2014 to $6.4bn, dislodging nuclear power India, and are expected to increase by another 52% this year to $9.8 bn.
Between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which these days is able to punch well above its weight in military capabilities, they imported arms, including anti-ballistic missile defences and state-of-the-art combat jets, worth $8.6 bn in 2014. That’s more than all of Western Europe.
IHS Jane’s predicted that that one out of every seven dollars spent on defence imports in 2015 will be spent by the Saudi kingdom.
Most of the weapons systems acquired in 2014 came from the United States, which is pushing the sale of advanced equipment to the Gulf states that will be left to their own devices to a large extent as the US pivots its military might to Asia to meet the emerging Chinese threat in the Pacific.
The prestigious Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported on 16 March in its annual analysis of global arms sales that military purchases by the six member states of the Gulf Security Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain – increased by more than 70% over the last five years.
The Saudis have the largest and best-equipped, though largely untested, military forces in the GCC. These include more than 250 advanced US and British fighters. The UAE, among the top five arms importers in the world, boasts nearly 140 US and French combat jets.
That reflects the unease they feel as they watch the Americans, their protectors for 50 years but now unshackled by a domestic shale oil boom from their dependence on Gulf crude, engaging in negotiations with Shiite Iran, their primary rival for regional dominance, that could greatly enhance the power of their primary rival for regional dominance.
The Arabs see the Americans, badly mauled by the messy, unresolved wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in fearful of getting dragged into the war against the Islamic State, are in retreat. US protestations to the contrary have been unconvincing as Iran now openly talks of a “Persian empire” from Baghdad to Beirut to Sanaa.
Even so, Western arms manufacturers still see a vast market in the Middle East, if only because Gulf states have become so dependent on US, British and French weaponry and military doctrine. Changing that could take a generations and vast sums of money.
“When we look at the likely export addressable opportunities at a global level for the defence industry, five of the 10 leading countries are from the Middle East,” observed Ben Moores, a senior analyst for IHS Aerospace, Defence and Security and author of the Jane’s report.
“You’re seeing political fractures across the region and at the same time you’ve got oil, which allows countries to arm themselves, protect themselves and impose their will as to how they think the region should develop,” said Moores. “The Middle East is the biggest regional market and there are $110bn in opportunities in the coming decade.”
But it’s not clear how great an impact the collapse of oil prices, from $100 a barrel in June 2014 to under $40 now, will have on the Arab states’ arms-purchasing power. None of the defence industry thinks tanks seem to have approached that issue.
The effect is likely to be varied, with the non-oil producers, like Egypt and Jordan, suffering most
But Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE will be cushioned to differing degrees because they have salted away billions of dollars over the years. The Saudis alone are reported to be sitting on $750bn.
Meantime, the GCC states are at last showing signs of making a serious effort to establish a joint military command based in Saudi Arabia to counter the threats from the jihadists of the Islamic State and Iran.
This new command is something the Americans have been pressing the Gulf allies on for years, to little effect. Dynastic rivalries among the kings and princes of GCC, plus reluctance of the smaller states to be dominated by Saudi Arabia, have prevented any meaningful move towards military self-reliance within the bloc.
It has taken the swing towards the Pacific by the United States, and the twin threats of the IS and an Iran greatly empowered by the US-British overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime in neighbouring Shiite-majority Iraq in 2003, to finally push the Gulf states into a regional defence alliance.
In the face of Iran’s growing strength in ballistic missile, with the Gulf monarchies all within east range, there has been a major drive by GCC members to build up their defences against this threat. The UAE recently bought US Terminal High Altitude Air Defence systems and the Saudis are looking it too. Most of the GCC states have upgraded their US Patriot anti-missile systems.
The Americans have also sought to improve interoperability between the GCC militaries and reduce what the Americans call “procurement redundancy.”
But the heaviest investment by GCC defence planners has been to develop their air power. On paper at least, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular should be able to hammer the Iranians’ largely obsolete air force, the result of international arms embargoes that have left Tehran with patched-up 1970s-era jets like the US-built F-4 Phantom and F-14 Tomcat delivered during the shah’s reign, and MiG-29s from Russia a decade ago.
“After investing hundreds of billions of dollars in their air forces over the past two decades, GCC states now operate some of the most sophisticated aircraft exported by the United States and Europe,” the US global security consultancy Stratfor observed recently.
These include the F-15S Eagle and the Eurofighter Typhoon in the Saudi air Force and the UAE’s F-16E/F Fighting Falcons, which are even more capable than US-operated F-16s.
“Indeed,” Stratfor noted, “most of the GCC members’ combat aircraft are generations ahead of the aircraft operated by regional rivals such as Iran and Syria.”
This is one of the reasons why the Americans are encouraging Arab allies to take a bigger role in the current air campaign against IS in Iraq, and possibly in Syria as well at some point, and against other threats in the future, lessening their dependence on US military might that Washington wants to concentrate on Asia and the Pacific to counter China’s growing power.
Saudi, UAE and Qatari warplanes are flying missions against IS in Iraq as part of the US-led air campaign that began in August to support Iraqi forces against the jihadist juggernaut. In 2011, UAE and Qatari jets also flew operations to support Libyan rebels against the regime of Col. Moammar Gaddafi. The UAE and Egypt have more recently mounted air strikes against Libya’s jihadists.
As Stratfor notes, “as GCC confidence in its air capabilities rises, it will become increasingly willing to use its offensive firepower in missions like those seen recently in Yemen, Libya and Syria.”
That seems to be the minimum the Americans expect. But it may be beyond the capabilities of the Gulf monarchies to provide such military prowess, even if, after decades of paying through the nose for US protection, they now find they have to do it themselves.
Western military planners remain sceptical about the Gulf states’ willingness to set aside their differences.
“The widely varying interests of the individual states will make it difficult if not impossible for any potential defensive bloc to take collective action even if it is eventually formed,” Stratfor noted in a 6 November assessment.
But the wars in Iraq and Syria have become sectarian bloodbaths, and they’re spreading to Yemen and Lebanon. That, in the end, could convince the Sunni states that they have no alternative but to unite against Iran.