Military spending rises across the Gulf in 2012

With the exception of Iran, defence spending increased significantly across the Gulf region in 2012. In Oman, spending rose by more than 50%, while Iraq spent more than 11% of GDP on its military budget. Published in Gulf States News, 25 April 2013

Gulf governments spent well over $100bn on defence in 2012 as they grappled with the consequences of the Arab Spring and rising tensions with Iran. According to figures released by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in March, spending in most Gulf states rose significantly year on year, with the biggest increases in countries with the smallest budgets, such as Oman and Yemen.

Muscat – which signed a Typhoon deal with BAE in December worth an estimated $4.1bn – spent $6.7bn in 2012, 58% more than the year before, while Sanaa increased its spending by 21% to $1.7bn. Oman spent 8.4% of its GDP on defence, higher than any other Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) country. It also spent the most on a per capita basis: $2,178 per person, compared to $1,979 in Saudi Arabia and $1,744 in Kuwait.

There are no figures for defence spending by Qatar or the UAE for 2012, making a full comparison with the previous year difficult, but the trend of rising spending is clear nonetheless. The IISS said spending rose across the other seven countries in the region by 8% between 2011 and 2012, from $97.6bn to $105.2bn. If Doha and Abu Dhabi maintained spending at the same level as 2011, it would take the total outlay for the Gulf region for the year to $118bn.

Across the Middle East and North Africa region as a whole there was an 8% rise in military spending in 2012, bringing the wider regional total to $166.4bn, meaning countries located round the Gulf accounted for around 70% of the regional total.

Budget cuts in Iran

The one country where spending appears to have dropped is Iran, where a combination of high inflation, international sanctions and domestic economic mismanagement mean that the government has less room for manoeuvre. In February 2012, Tehran announced that its military budget would increase by 127%, but, according to the IISS, this is likely to have been a case of reclassifying existing expenditure, such as construction activity by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), under the umbrella of the defence budget.

Despite the fall in spending, however, Iran continues to have the largest number of people under arms, with a total active force of 523,000. That figure includes 350,000 in the army and 125,000 in the IRGC. On top of that, it also has a reserve force of 350,000. Iraq maintains the second largest force in the Gulf, with 271,400 people. Of the GCC states, Saudi Arabia dominates in terms of size. With a total of 233,500 people across its army, navy and air force, it accounts for more than two thirds of the total GCC armed forces.

Limited military capabilities

Despite the high level of spending around the region, the capabilities of Gulf armed forces remain in most cases rather limited. Iran may have the most numerous forces, but sanctions mean it suffers from a lack of access to modern equipment. It has a larger domestic defence industry than any other country in the neighbourhood and is able to manufacture equipment such as light arms, anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, light tanks and small naval vessels.

It has also been developing its cyber warfare capabilities to defend against hacking attacks on its nuclear programme and other facilities. However, its capabilities do not extend to advanced weaponry such as fighter jets or heavy armour. Iraqi forces, meanwhile, suffer from poor management, logistics and strategic planning. An additional challenge is the interplay between the country’s politicians and its armed forces. According to John Chipman, director general of the IISS, “heavy investment in the reconstitution of Iraq’s security forces since 2004 has left the country again subservient to a military machine”.

The Yemeni armed forces also benefit from relatively high spending, but outdated equipment and poor training remain problematic, and there are question marks over the loyalty and morale of the army.

In contrast, GCC governments have stable relationships with their armed forces, and few problems buying the most advanced hardware. But, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, they are limited by the small size of their forces, as demonstrated by Bahrain’s reliance on GCC allies during the 2011 uprising. Measuring up to any external threat would mean relying on western allies, particularly the United States.

The report says direct US military aid to the Gulf region is small and declining. In 2012, Bahrain, Oman and Yemen received disbursements worth $38m, compared to $48m the year before. That, of course, excludes the presence of US forces, including the US Fifth Fleet, in Bahrain. In addition, there are UK and US army, navy and air force personnel spread across the rest of the GCC, and the UAE also hosts a small number of Australian, French and South Korean forces.