Saudi Arabia has world’s third biggest defence spend

Gulf governments are pouring ever-increasing amounts of money into their armed forces in response to the dire regional security situation, with Saudi Arabia spending more than $80bn on defence in 2014. Published in Gulf States News, 19 February 2015

Saudi Arabia continues to climb the ranks of the world’s biggest military spenders and now has the third largest defence budget in the world, behind the US and China, according to London-based think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

In a report published on 11 February, IISS estimated that Saudi Arabia spent $80.8bn on its military in 2014, equivalent to around 10.4% of its GDP. This marks a significant increase on previous years. According to IISS, Riyadh’s outlay in 2013 was $67bn (a figure revised upwards in the past year), placing it fourth in the world. The previous year, it was sixth with a budget of $56bn.

While no other government in the Gulf can come close to matching Saudi Arabia in cash terms, all the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states seem to be following the same policy of

ramping up defence spending. In 2014, Bahrain and Kuwait increased spending to $1.3bn and $4.8bn respectively, or 3.9% and 2.7% of GDP. Oman’s outlay was greater, at $9.6bn or 12% of GDP. Data for Qatar and the UAE is not available.

Given the regional security situation, this seems likely to continue into the future, notwithstanding the pressure on budgets due to low oil prices. Gulf governments see dangers everywhere, including instability in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, the perceived threat from Iran, and the potential for domestic opposition.

In general, spending appears to be geared towards fighting conventional opponents, despite the rising threat posed by unconventional Islamic groups in the region. Expected deliveries due this year include KMW Leopard 2A7 tanks to Qatar, Boeing F15 aircraft to Saudi Arabia and an upgrade to Kuwait’s Patriot surface-to-air missiles. “Spending remains focused on air defence and strike systems, particularly in the Gulf,” director-general of IISS John Chipman said at the launch of The Military Balance, IISS’ annual assessment of defence economics.

The latest figures build on a trend towards higher defence spending that has been evident since 2011. It has resulted in the GCC states all having fairly well-equipped and well-trained forces. However, the perennial question remains how good these expensively assembled forces are. The Gulf ’s militaries remain relatively untested and the GCC continues to rely on the US for ultimate protection.

Recent years have seen attempts by several GCC states to project power and influence around the region. Qatari and UAE air forces patrolled the skies of Libya during the 2011 revolution and, in the past year, both have supported different factions there. In addition, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE have all provided aircraft or other capabilities to the US-led efforts against Islamic State forces in Syria. The UAE withdrew from bombing raids last year, following the capture of Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh by Islamic State jihadists, but reported taking part in combat operations against IS again on 10 February.

On a slightly different tack, Saudi Arabia is also financing $3bnworth of French military equipment which is due to be delivered to Lebanon from April. The order includes armoured personnel carriers, artillery and helicopters and has been welcomed by Beirut, although it would like more.

“The Saudis and the French have made an unprecedented act towards Lebanon. For Lebanon, relatively speaking, it is huge. For our needs, we still need more,” said Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil at a conference in Brussels on 10 February.

But money on its own can only go so far, and the Gulf states could find it increasingly difficult to project their power and influence, according to Toby Dodge, consulting senior fellow for the Middle East at IISS. “I think that Saudi [Arabia’s] but also the UAE’s very ambitious regional policy has realised its limits, and that limit is not in Lebanon or Jordan, it’s the bottomless pit of Egypt,” he said. “I suspect that Gulf regional power ambition has been contained and it’s rather optimistic projection of power into the post-Arab Spring non-oil producing states has also now been limited, because of the costs and the lack of capacity.”