Since the world financial crisis in 2008, the US has taken every possible opportunity to pressure its allies, whether in NATO or in Asia, in order to increase their defence spending to 2 per cent of their GNP. With the exception of France, Britain and South Korea, even America's closes allies have yet to respond. The vast majority of these countries' governments still prefer to spend public funds on human development (health and education), infrastructure development and creating job opportunities. Despite this, one can speak of the existence of an effective and collective Western security system that deters Russia, China and other ambitious powers.
In the Arab Gulf region, although we are witnessing what seems to be an arms race and we are hearing a lot about the existence of a unified security system there, we have not seen anything other than a negative impact on the development process. This is reinforced by the decline of petrol prices, and there is no sense of any genuine joint security system in place; this is especially so given the split uncovered by the ongoing anti-Qatar crisis.
While an arms race is usually to keep a state one step ahead of actual or potential opponents in terms of qualitative superiority of lethal weapons, or to maintain a balance of power, it can also serve other purposes. Perhaps the most important is to exhaust the financial resources of adversaries in order to blunt their economic development and prosperity. Without this, countries cannot develop effective military capabilities. This is what US President Ronald Reagan's administration did when it launched the Strategic Defence Initiative or "Star Wars". It was revealed later that the main objective was to engage the Soviet Union in an exhausting arms race that ultimately ended in its collapse.
The reality is that the Gulf States' spending on arms is excessive and yet they have not developed any kind of joint defence system that can deter or contain Iranian influence in the region, let alone counter it. Of course, we should keep in mind that experts consider Iran to be the world's largest arms museum due to its out-dated military equipment, some of which dates back to World War II.
Furthermore, it seems as if the arms race is occurring between the Gulf countries, not between the Gulf and Iran, and so it exhausts their own resources rather than Iran's. I am assuming, for the sake of argument, that we apply the Reagan strategy to the situation so that Iran suffers the same fate of the Soviet Union. The Gulf vs Gulf rather than Gulf vs Iran scenario is even more obvious if we take note of the fact that each of the GCC countries is building and developing its own capabilities in isolation of the other members. They lack a comprehensive plan amongst GCC member states that could link their militaries into a joint and mutually compatible unit.
According to the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research, Iran spent about $16 billion on its defence and security needs in 2016; around 4 per cent of its gross national product. This is almost the same amount that it has been spending since 2012. In contrast, the GCC countries combined spent $91 billion in 2016, down from $117 billion in 2013, when oil prices were at their peak. That's more than China's spending for that year, while China's population is 40 times the population of the Gulf and seven times the combined economy.
With the exception of Qatar, the Gulf Arab states spend more than the US spends on defence in terms of their national product, at 3.9 per cent. In 2015, Saudi Arabia spent about $87 billion, or 13.7 per cent of its GDP, which equated to 5.2 per cent of the world's total expenditure on arms. Although the Saudi economy ranks 19th in the world in terms of size, it ranks third in military spending after the United States and China, surpassing Germany, Japan, Britain, France and Russia. This spending comes at the expense of development and community service programmes, without necessarily achieving the strategic and military objectives of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf States in terms of the deterrence, containment or depletion of Iran's capabilities.
Where is the flaw in all of this? It is an obvious question, but answering it is optional.
This article first appeared in Arabic on Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 19 May 2017.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.