International Policy Digest

Saudi Press Agency
World News /16 Mar 2018
03.16.18

Gulf Countries Getting Serious about Military Power

Saudi Arabia hasn’t been acquiring new top-grade military weaponry any more than it always has, but it would be difficult to do so. For decades, the oldest American ally in the region has purchased what America has best to offer in terms of military gear, as part of the global security agreement with the United States. But that doesn’t mean that Saudi Arabia isn’t part of the regional onslaught towards increased might.

After three years of military stalemate facing Houthi Shiite rebels in Yemen, coalition leader Riyad has started to pound the table and get its own military back in shape. Huffington Post reporter Khairuldeen Al Makhzoomi said: “Although Saudi military action against the rebels has intensified, the intervention has led to few successes and has caused both a political and humanitarian catastrophe, ultimately leading to the loss of more than 2,300 lives.”

Future king and current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently announced a thorough shake-up of military command, along with other ministries to rid the country of its sloth and graft at high level, and make it more effective, namely in military levels. First Lieutenant General Fayyad bin Hamed al-Ruwayli was named as the new Chief of Staff, with high expectations weighing on his shoulders. Lela London reported for the Express that Crown Prince Salman said: “It is unacceptable that we are the world’s third or fourth biggest country in military spending but our army is ranked in the twenties. There is a problem.”

But even if Riyadh is acquiring new military power only to crack the Yemeni nut, it still poses a threat to neighboring countries, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Qatari Defense minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah is keeping a close eye on the Saudi military developments. Even though Saudi Arabia has made no official threats towards Qatar, Doha was nevertheless the target of a diplomatic coalition in the region, in 2017, from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. The crisis escalated all the way to withdrawals of embassies and embargos, the last steps before armed conflict. Bloomberg reporter Jennifer Jacobs noted that “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates considered military action in the early stages of their ongoing dispute with Qatar before Donald Trump called leaders of both countries and warned them to back off, according to two people familiar with the U.S. president’s discussions.”

In addition, even if Qatar were not facing such diplomatic pressure, it could not consider leaving a neighboring increase of military power unanswered. But Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah has a card up his sleeve.

Qatar, therefore, is counting on state of the art equipment to keep up with, and even in some ways dominate, the new stint of arms race occurring in the region. In 2015 and 2017, Qatar purchased the new Rafale jet fighters from French arms producer Dassault, thus creating one of the most powerful air forces of the region. In comparison, Saudi air forces, the largest in the region, is flying mostly on aging F-15s and even Panavia Tornado, whose design goes back to the 1970s. The Dassault Rafale is at the top of 4th-generation fighter planes, to the point that US officials are actively hindering its exports to protect its flagship F-35, hence its low sales figures. “The US has blocked Franco-Egyptian negotiations on the sale of additional Rafale fighter jets to the Egyptian Air Force by refusing to export an American component aboard the Scalp cruise missile,” French outlet La Tribune reported.

Qatar is considering the same technological jump regarding its land forces, studying which types of equipment could enable the small but powerful and trained army to keep its neighbors in check. The most likely hypothesis is the purchase of new CTA 40 cannons to be fitted onto Infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) turrets. CTA 40, also called telescoped ammunition, provides firepower superior in range and penetration potential according to RUSI analyst William Owen, that it makes redundant the use of heavy armor to push off enemy IFVs. Most of the IFVs of the region are aging BMP-3 which could never get anywhere near a CTA-40 mounted IFV. The new ammunition and turret being designed by a Franco-British joint venture, it would enable Qatar to remain within the bounds of its long-lasting alliance with Paris.

In the end, the three Gulf countries are simply adapting to the unstoppable force of progress, including of the military type, following the age-old adage: si vis pacem, para bellum. Saudi Arabia has long had the military girth to hold its grounds and is simply playing the angles. The arms race is unlikely to stall anytime soon, given the Americans renewed support to Saudi Arabia. The Emirates, in a geopolitical setting comparable to that of Qatar’s, seeks to upsize, while Qatar is going with the technological leap to keep its neighbors at bay.