New data released by the Stockhold International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an authoritative research body covering the global arms trade, shows how UAE and Saudi Arabia are currently the 4th and 5th largest importers of arms in the world, with further increases in arms importing by their fellow Gulf Co-operation Council member Kuwait.
According to SIPRI, who released new figures this week, global arms sales for 2009–13 were 14 per cent higher than in 2004-2008. SIPRI analysis shows the biggest importers globally were India, China, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, with the largest exporters being USA, Russia, China, Germany and France.
Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as a regional security player and increased arms sales are a signifier of this, according to Gulf analysts.
Though plans to reach a Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) security agreement have faltered, the Kingdom still sees itself as the main military counter-balance to Iran and other regional threats.
“Iran is a serious threat, says Dr Joseph A Kechichian, Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, “Iran and Saudi Arabia are not mortal enemies, they are neighbours and they have to come to terms with each other.”
“But Iran’s ambitions are clear – it wants to become the hegemon of the region. Iran will not see Saudi Arabia as its neighbour. It wants to spread the Shia population across Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the rest.”
Ayatollah Khomeini, Kerchician points out, famously said during the Iranian revolution: “I loathe monarchy. It is against Islam.”
“Well obviously if you hate the regime next door, this causes problems,” adds Kechichian, referring to Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy. “The threat from Iran is not a joke.”
Not only Iran – but also threats from Syria and Yemen, argues Kechichian. He points to the vast size of Saudi Arabia to justify purchases of Eurofighter Typhoons from the UK and other jets from the US, despite the fact that Saudi regime also faces internal threats to stability.
Saudi Arabian imports are even set to increase with additional deliveries of the Typhoon, and deliveries of 154 American F-15 jets, scheduled for 2015.
In 2013, according to SIPRI, Saudi Arabia also bought armoured vehicles from Canada worth $10 billion. Further orders may soon be placed for armoured personal carriers from Serbia and tanks from Germany.
Between 2009 and 2013, Saudi Arabia and the UAE each received thousands of guided bombs from the USA. Saudi Arabia also received hundreds of air-launched Storm Shadow cruise missiles (with a range of approximately 300 kilometres) from the UK. Mounted on combat aircraft, and combined with refuelling airplanes acquired from Spain, the range of these cruise missiles could cover most of Iran.
In 2013 the USA was, for the first time, willing to negotiate the sale of hundreds of AGM-84H missiles to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Bahrain and the UAE also received surface-to-surface missiles from the US.
Meanwhile Iran has partly compensated for not being able to import long-range combat aircraft by producing its own ballistic missiles.
Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme, has also observed the poor provision within Saudi Arabia for arms manufacturing, especially when compared with other regional military powers such as Egypt.
“Saudi Arabia have imported thousands of European technicians both to maintain weapons that have been supplied and install new ones,” Wezeman observed.
“It’s an arms industry that relies on external technology being shipped in,” he adds. “Although the Saudis have licensed some German gun designs from Heckler & Koch, and built a factory within the Kingdom to fulfil those orders.”
The UAE has taken similar steps to enhance their domestic defence sector, building facilities for assembling armoured vehicles and a large dry-dock. It’s defence industry is understood to be more developed than Saudi Arabia’s. Having a domestic arms industry generally makes countries less likely to be hit by sanctions or regional unrest, while increasing overall security.
While UAE and Saudi Arabia are spending their defence budgets as fast as they can, the Qataris have also joined in the GCC arms race.
“Qatar had had a very small airforce in the past,” explains Wezeman, analyst at SIPRI “But now they are very much in the game”.
“It’s a secretive country, he added, “so you never really know what’s going on behind the scenes, but there are rumours of an order for sixty new combat aircraft.”
Wezeman also points to the rising eminence of Qatar and UAE as foreign policy players, to some extent driving their new military spending plans.
UAE has deployed troops to both Kosovo (the country’s first overseas military operation) and Afghanistan, and both countries took part in aerial operations in Libya.
Since 2011, Qatar has been backing not only the war in Syria but also the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, with further allegations that Qatari agents have fomented unrest in UAE and to some extent Bahrain.
Most of the GCC states are now unhappy with Qatar over their support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and while political Islam is not the threat it was back in 2011, Islamists are still considered a danger to the monarchies of the other Gulf states. Qatar’s recent refusal to stop backing of the Muslim Brotherhood was met with diplomatic disgust, with ambassadors for Bahrain, UAE and Saudi Arabia withdrawn, and further sanctions threatened against Doha if the new Emir refuses to join the GCC “party line” in fighting Islamism in the Gulf.
Analysts say the investment in aerial weapons is the right approach to both balance regional concerns as well as internal unrest.
“I’m not convinced they should invest as much as they do,” says Wezeman. “The last time the Saudi air force was engaged was when they were fighting against the Houthi rebels in Yemen – they didn’t succeed so I can see how they would want to spend more.”
However much of the fight against Islamism has been fought not in the air, nor in tanks, but online and by intelligence officers employed by Gulf governments. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, for example, are believed to have purchased is software known as “Finfisher,” self-described as “Governmental IT Intrusion and Remote Monitoring Solutions,” and manufactured by UK-based company Gamma International.
Gamma International insists their software is pirated and is not being used legally in Bahrain, UAE and indeed Egypt (where it was found in Mubarak’s state security headquarters).
William Hague has described the issue of UK exports on invasive surveillance software as a “grey area” for legislation, while a senior source within Parliament admitted to Middle East Monitor that the government had “no idea” how to deal with export control on software used by repressive regimes. Campaign groups such as Privacy International and Amnesty International are currently outspoken in their criticism of lax export controls on IT intrusion software, having expressed their concerns to Parliament repeatedly.
In addition to software intrusion, Gulf states have also been fighting domestic threats with imports and deployment of non-lethal weapons, including teargas. Bahrain recently had a large shipment of teargas canisters from South Korea blocked after campaign groups pressured Seoul to withdraw the export license.
Teargas canisters have been frequently misused by the Bahraini police force – either by firing canisters into houses while residents are asleep, shooting protesters at close range, or using excessive amounts of teargas on small groups. Several protesters have died as a result of this misuse.
Responding to the new SIPRI figures, human rights groups have reacted negatively. Rori Donaghy, Director of the Emirates Centre for human rights, told Middle East Monitor.” In terms of arms per capita the UAE is now the most armed nation on the planet, which should be of concern to everyone given their terrible human rights record. Donaghy cited enforced disappearances, torture and unfair trials as evidence.
Andrew Smith from Campaign Against The Arms Trade told Middle East Monitor “The Arab Spring should have been viewed as a turning point and a chance for the West to review how it does business with the Gulf states, but unfortunately sales to authoritarian and oppressive governments in the region have increased.”
“It is yet another example of arms sales and political calculation taking precedent over human rights,” he added.