New figures shed light on massive Middle Eastern arms race

Saudi Arabia is buying military hardware at a dizzying pace, as it seeks to build up its force against arch-rival Iran. Iran’s domestic weapons industries are mass producing arms as well.

A new report by IHS Markit on global defense exports sheds light on the ongoing, massive Middle Eastern arms race underway between Sunni powers and Iran.

Global defense exports are, on the whole, declining for the first time in years, the report says, due to falling energy prices, growing domestic weapons production, and  the world “simply pausing for breath after such a long run of increases,” said Ben Moores, senior analyst at Jane’s by IHS Markit.

But the Middle Eastern arms build up isn’t going to slow down in the next four years. Here are key figures from the report:

  • “Middle East countries imported $21 billion in defence equipment in 2016 – one third of the entire global market – and will import at least $22 billion annually for the next four years.
  • Saudi Arabia increased its lead as top global importer, now importing nearly three times as much as its closest rival, India. This dominance is set to continue for at least five years with further large aviation, vehicle and naval orders.”                                         

Why is Saudi Arabia arming itself to the teeth? Primarily, so that it can deter or repel any potential attack by Iran, or Iran’s numerous proxies and allies. Saudi Arabia is directly fighting against Iranian-armed Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen, who in turn fire Scud missiles at Saudi cities on a regular basis.

Tensions between the Saudis and the Iranians extends across the rest of the region as well.

Jets fly in Saudi Arabia’s Northern Thunder multi-nation military drill in February 2016. Youtube screenshot

A few more figures from the report:

  • “The largest Middle Eastern defence importers – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Iraq – remained among the top importers in the world for 2016, importing a total of $15.2 billion in defence systems. This figure is up from $9.9 billion in 2014, and represents more than all of Western Europe’s imports combined. 
  • ‘Saudi Arabia’s 2016 imports grew from $4.9 billion to $8.3 billion – an increase that is three times more than the entire Sub-Saharan African market,’ Moores said. ‘As the Middle East has assets against which it can borrow until oil prices recover, we expect to see sustained growth in defence spending for the next few years.’
  • Based on the existing order backlog, Jane’s forecasts that this region will continue to import an annual average of $22 billion in equipment over the next four years, before dropping off sharply after 2020.”
  • For the third year in a row, Saudi Arabia was the primary recipient of American military equipment in 2016.”

On the other side of the fence, Iran’s domestic military industries seem to become more advanced, as they mass produce and improve upon a range of missiles and rockets.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, reportedly stocked up on Chinese medium-range ballistic missiles of its own in 2014, which, it seems safe to assume, are pointed at Iran.

Relevant background information: Transcript page by MEMRI of an interview by Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who is also the minister of defense.

During the interview, Bin Salman stated: “We will not wait for the war to be waged on Saudi soil. We will make sure that the war is waged in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.”