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The Saudi superpower? Riyadh becomes world's third-largest weapons buyer Open in fullscreen

Karim Traboulsi

The Saudi superpower? Riyadh becomes world's third-largest weapons buyer

Amnesty International has called for an arms embargo on Riyadh over the Yemen conflict [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 April, 2016

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Riyadh and Gulf capitals including Doha and Abu Dhabi are spending more and more on arms, as part of an increasingly assertive regional policy, but other considerations are at play.
Saudi Arabia has now overtaken Russia in terms of military spending, becoming the world's third-largest buyer of arms after the United States and China.

The kingdom spent $87.2 billion on military hardware in 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks arms expenditure around the world.

Since 2006, Saudi annual military spending has nearly doubled, but Riyadh's spending is still dwarfed by that of the US ($596 billion) and China ($215 billion).

"Saudi expenditure on arms is actually the highest in the world as a percentage of GDP, and that figure has gone up every year," said Marc Owen Jones, Gulf politics expert and lecturer at Tubingen University in Germany.

Yet the combined expenditures of the GCC nations on weapons and defence - more than $120 billion - puts them on quasi-superpower spending levels, despite the small size of their populations and limited capacity to project power beyond the region. 

Despite collapsing oil prices and troubled economies in the Gulf region, most GCC countries, which include big defence spenders Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman, spent more in 2015 on war gadgetry than the year before, for the second year in a row.
Last week, gas-rich Qatar said it would buy nearly $8 billion worth of defence systems
Last week, gas-rich Qatar said it would buy nearly $8 billion worth of defence systems, including drones and coastal rocket batteries - in addition to 24 French-made Rafale fighter jets. 

A report last year projected Qatar's 
defence spending would rise by an average of 12 percent annually through to 2020.

The Gulf military build-up is motivated primarily by the perceived need to assert themselves vis-a-vis regional foe Iran - especially in the wake of the nuclear deal that the Gulf capitals believe significantly emboldens Tehran.

Since March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition, mainly composed of Gulf forces, has intervened against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. 
There are considerations other than pragmatism and security that could be behind the continuous spending spree on arms
But there are other considerations that could be behind the continuous spending spree on arms and increased Gulf military assertiveness, including the threat from the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda, domestic unrest in light of adverse economic factors - not to mention old intra-GCC rivalries.

The GCC countries "feel they are taking the mantle for regional security into their own hands", Jones told The New Arab.

But, he added: "Saudi... are inevitably defensive not just because of perceived Iranian expansionism, or the Houthis, but [also] because of the potential domestic implications that low oil revenues will generate."

"One has to wonder whether the increase reflects a regime worried about its survival bolstering its defenses."

But not all assumptions should be of pragmatism, and arms purchases could additionally be motivated by sheer profit for some local brokers and appeasement of Western allies such as the US, UK and France.

"In countries where corruption is endemic... there is a lot of room for frivolous purchases that do not reflect any real need for that equipment," said Jones.

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