Middle East defence spending sees downward slide

Pubished in MEED, 6 March 2018

Military spending around the Middle East has dropped for the third year in a row, according to data from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Despite ongoing turmoil in many parts of the region – including civil wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – total spending fell by 3.5 per cent over the past year, from $153.9bn in 2016 to $148.5bn in 2017.

The fall was not as steep as the year before, when spending dropped 4.1 per cent, but it was not far behind. These figures do not cover the entire region, as spending by some significant players, including Qatar and the UAE, is too opaque to be reliably included. Nonetheless, there has been a fairly consistent pattern of decline in budgets since 2014. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that oil revenues also began to tumble that year, putting pressure on many governments to rein in their spending.

Fiscal pressure has affected Saudi Arabia as much as anyone, but even though the kingdom cut its defence outlay to $76.7bn in 2017, it remained easily the largest defence market in the Middle East. Other countries to have cut their defence budgets over the past year include Algeria, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Tunisia. In dollar terms, Egypt also cut its defence spend, although that is a consequence of the devaluation of the pound in November 2016 – in local currency terms, its budget actually increased in 2017.

This trend for lower spending is all the more surprising given that, as IISS director general John Chipman says, “persistent conflicts and insecurity in parts of the Middle East … dominated the security environment” over the past year.

However, some countries on the frontline have taken a different approach. In the Levant, for example, Lebanon and Jordan have increased their military budgets for the past three years. That is a result of the threat of the fighting in Syria spilling over their borders – something they have to date largely managed to avoid. Even so, they remain minnows in the regional defence landscape, with a budget of $1.9bn for the Lebanese armed forces last year and $1.6bn for their Jordanian counterparts.

Whether any of the Middle East’s bigger spenders are getting value for money is a more difficult question to answer, particularly given the inability to end insurgencies such as the one in Egypt’s Sinai. Saudi Arabia’s armed forces have also failed to decisively defeat the much more poorly trained and equipped Houthi rebels in Yemen, despite three years of fighting.

A recent reshuffle of the Saudi top brass could be a sign that Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Mohammed bin Salman recognises a need for a fresh approach. On 26 February, the country’s chief of staff and the commanders of the land, air and air defence forces were all replaced.

Other governments with far smaller – albeit still substantial – defence budgets are ranked as more effective than the Saudi forces. The Global Firepower index, developed by US-based Military Factory, rates the Egyptian military as the most effective fighting force in the region, ahead of Iran in second place and Saudi Arabia in third.

These countries also have the greatest number of men under arms, led by Iran with 523,000 service personnel, including 125,000 in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). Egypt has 438,000 men spread across its army, navy, air force and Air Defence Command. These two countries along with Saudi Arabia have, collectively, some 1.2 million people in their armed forces, or 54 per cent of the 2.2 million serving across the region.

Despite the cuts to defence budgets over the past few years, governments are still allocating significant amounts of their total expenditure to their armed forces. Saudi Arabia is towards the front of the pack on this basis, with 11 per cent of GDP going on defence spending. However, it is outdone in ratio terms by Oman, where defence spending is equivalent to more than 12 per cent of GDP.

How long the downturn in military spending lasts remains to be seen, but budgets could start to rise if oil prices recover further or governments manage to reduce their budget deficits by other means. However, future spending may not be as heavily weighted towards the West as it has been in the past.

In a noticeable trend over recent years, many Middle East governments have been turning to suppliers in Russia and China rather than their traditional partners in the US and Europe. The shift is being driven by a desire to diversify procurement networks at a time when there is growing opposition in the West to arms sales to the region, as well as the technical advances being made by other suppliers.

“China’s emerging weapons developments and broader defence-technological progress means that it has become a global defence innovator and is not merely catching up with the West,” says Chipman.

What is clear is that military spending will remain a necessity, given the violence that characterises the region and the fact that there is no obvious sign of resolutions to many of the conflicts.