US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 21, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
In May 2017 US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia inked a $110 billion arms deal. Two years later, news that Riyadh was seeking to extend its missile capabilities has resurrected claims that the Kingdom is involved in an “arms race” with other countries in the region. However, there has always been an arms race in the Middle East between rival powers and it’s not clear that the current expansion is different than past build-ups of military equipment. What might make it different is if Iran actually tried to build a nuclear weapon.
CNN reported on June 5 that the US government “has obtained intelligence that Saudi Arabia has significantly escalated its ballistic missile program with the help of China.” This was despite US efforts to prevent missile proliferation in the Middle East, the article noted. “Discovery of the Saudi efforts has heightened concerns among members of Congress over a potential arms race in the Middle East.” A subsequent article noted that “exactly the White House’s decision to bend itself out of shape to suit the Saudi’s current thirst for more and better weapons, in a region already exhausted by conflict, will lead in the years ahead is unclear.”
The controversy with Saudi Arabia involves its interest in developing nuclear technology and allegations that the missiles it might be seeking could go against three decades of US policy that seek to prevent the acquisition of weapons that could include payloads of weapons of mass destruction. The logic is that if you add up Riyadh’s nuclear ambitions and its missile ambitions, it points in that direction. Add in the billions of arms sales, and that the Kingdom has become a 21st century military version of 18th century Prussia, so the argument goes.
In May Trump approved $8 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, maneuvering around Congressional concerns. This came amid rising tensions with Iran.
The problem with the arms race narrative is that there is no new arms race in the Middle East. There has always been an arms race. It used to be that the arms race was between countries allied with the US and those allied with the Soviet Union, for instance Iran and Iraq in the 1970s. But there was also an arms race before that, between Israel and its Arab adversaries, particularly Egypt and Syria getting Soviet technology and Israel getting western weapons.
THIS EXTENDED even after the Soviets left Egypt. For instance, in 1976 a Hawk missile sale to Jordan, with Riyadh paying for the missiles, was a major controversy. In 1981 another controversy erupted over the sales of Airborne Warning and Control System Aircraft (AWACS). US Senator Edward Kennedy called the multi-billion dollar deal “one of the worst and most dangerous arms sales ever.” In 1992 Israel protested the sale of F-15s by the US to Saudi Arabia.
Even in the last decade, particularly under the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey were the largest purchasers of US weapons in the world. A May 2016 CNN report noted that among the top five recipients of US foreign military finance were also Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Total bill: $5 billion in financing.
According to the Stockholm International peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks arms sales, 70% of Riyadh’s purchases come from the US currently. A graph shows that Saudi purchases have almost doubled since 2015.
What happened in 2015 that has caused Saudi Arabia to want more weapons? The US and other countries signed the Iran Deal. Iran would have access to more financing due to sanctions reductions and Iran would be able to continue to develop its ballistic missile program. As Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif pointed out on June 7, 2019 the 2015 deal did not prohibit activity related to ballistic missiles. It only “called upon” Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”
Riyadh has been shopping for weapons because it views itself as the main bulwark against Iran’s expansion and also because Iran has supported groups such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen who have fired ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia. For instance a report at CBS noted that in 2017 Saudi Arabia made $18 billion in new arms deals. Riyadh makes up 18% of the total US arms sales between 2013 and 2017. The tiny UAE, which some reports have called “little Sparta” was buying 7% of total US sales in the same year.
These countries want all of the US leading military technology. CBS gave a preview in October 2018: Paveway laser-guided missiles, guns, ammo, programmable bombs, BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, howitzers. But it’s worth to remember that this isn’t a new trend. Since the 1990s these countries have been arming up. At the time it was due to the trauma of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
SADDAM’S INVASION was important because prior to it many of these countries had focused their concerns on Israel, and vice-versa. But things changed. Iraq was the shield against the Iranian Revolution and Iraq sacrificed massively to fight the Iranians in the 1980s. The Gulf powers thought they could help support that without being front-line states. When Saddam turned on them they understood how fragile they were. Later the US toppled Saddam in 2003, weakening Iraq irretrievably.
Today the US is still rebuilding the Iraqi army, but it won’t return to the kind of army it was in the 1980s when it had was a Soviet equipped power-house with Swiss-built bunkers, French arms and French designed air defense, and a Canadian supergun.
Saudi Arabia has become a front-line state because Iraq is now an emerging Iranian ally and has 100,000 Shi’ite paramilitaries who are part of the government’s forces, called the Popular Mobilization Units. Saudi Arabia also has watched as its role in Lebanon has fractured as Hezbollah has grown more powerful.
Also, the Kingdom knows that its other allies, such as Jordan and Egypt must be focused more domestically today due to economic challenges. So Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become the Prussia and Sparta facing revolutionary Iran. Until 2015 they were largely untested in using all their weapons. The war in Yemen has helped changed that, but they have not exactly won a sweeping victory in Yemen, despite US arms. In fact Iranian media routinely mocks Saudi for fighting the poorer Yemenis. Iran however also highlights the Yemenis using Kornet missiles, drones and other weapons.
What about Iran. Ostensibly the Saudis and UAE are “racing” against Iran. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies Iran spent only $16 billion in 2017 while Saudi Arabia spent $76b. and the UAE $30b. Qatar, which is closely allied to Turkey, spent $6b. Iraq spent $19b.
The report noted that “many Arab imports, however, seem more oriented toward getting the most advanced weapons rather than the ones needed to best deal with the threat posed by Iran and extremism.” This paints an asymmetric picture. Iran has cheaper weapons, some made locally, while Riyadh and its allies have the most expensive weapons in the world. But Iran’s threats are also more complex. It knows its limitations, so it uses swarms of small boats or small drones.
IRAN ALSO threatens the US. President Hassan Rouhani warned the US against the “mother of all wars,” in 2018. Oddly, Saddam Hussein had threatened the same in 1991. The difference is that Saddam had a conventional army that on paper truly threatened his neighbors. Iran’s military power is more complex and relies on threatening weak points. For instance Iran recently claimed that its missiles had kept a US carrier strike group out of the Persian Gulf.
The Wall Street Journal reported on June 6 that the US spent weeks on edge over Iran’s missile boats. It has one opportunity to strike, even if its fleet pales in comparison to the US. Similarly its other weapons, such as Hezbollah’s missiles, can threaten Israel, but Hezbollah’s forces are not a match for Israel. Iran’s support for militias in Iraq seek to weaken aspects of the state and cannibalize other parts, but not to be more powerful than the conventional army. This is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps approach: Create mini-IRGCs everywhere and neutralize large standing armies so they become mostly decorative.
This isn’t an arms race. The Saudis and UAE already won the race in terms of actual weapons purchases. But in an asymmetric war the challenge is not just about dollars, it’s about layered technologies that can protect a state against a multiplicity of threats where the enemy can bring force to bear at any given point. It’s sort of like arguing that there is an “arms race” between a police department and the mafia. The mafia has less weapons and personnel, but that doesn’t mean the police are “racing” against it. It’s more like an arms cordon, than a race. Saudi Arabia wants a qualitative military edge, far beyond Iran, much as Israel once wanted the same against its adversaries. Insofar as Iran is also building ballistic missiles and constructing nuclear technology, Riyadh wants that too.