Analysis by Emad Mekay
CAIRO (IDN) – Though nuclear blustering has remained hollow, Saudi Arabia has again increased its weapons imports and stood as the main catalyst for a climb of 10 percent (or $6.6 billion) in global weapons sales in 2015, according to a recent defence report. The rise is the latest sign betraying the level of anxiety in the conservative kingdom over what Saudi officials say is a threat from Iran.
The Saudis have recently been particularly rattled by the advances of Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East. Especially worrisome were the successes of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.
That coupled with the sentiment that the Saudis are being let down by the United States, their traditional protectors, explain a spate of moves the Saudis are making to protect their backyard in some Arab countries.
Many experts in the Middle East say the measures include Riyadh preparing for the worst case scenario of a war with the more powerful Iran through such massive arms purchases.
According to the annual Global Defence Trade Report by IHS Inc., based in Englewood, Colorado in the U.S., Saudi Arabia and UAE bought $11.4 billion (17.5% of the global total) worth of war systems in 2015, up from $8.6 billion the year before.
“The combined value of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s defence imports is more than all of Western Europe’s defence imports combined,” said Ben Moores, senior analyst at IHS.
Saudi Arabia’s arms imports grew from $6 billion to $9.3 billion; an increase that is three times that of the entire sub-Saharan Africa market, according to the report. Riyadh's arms purchases are forecast to rise to $10 billion by the end of 2016.
Global arms markets overall rose $6.6 billion, bringing the value of the global defence market in 2015 to $65 billion. Of those, the Middle East, now the scene for several wars and military operations where Saudi Arabia plays a crucial role, was the largest importing region, with a total of $21.6 billion in deliveries of weapons.
“The global defence trade market has never seen an increase as large as the one we saw between 2014 and 2015,” said Moores. “2015 was a record-breaking year.”
Among the top five importing countries in 2014, Taiwan, China and Indonesia left their positions for Australia, Egypt and South Korea in 2015. Egypt, another Middle Eastern nation, came in as the world's fourth largest weapons importer mostly due to the largesse of its deep-pocketed backers – Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Stemming Iranian influence
Riyadh is giving Egypt's military rulers unprecedented aid. Sunni Egypt is seen by the Saudi leadership as another layer, albeit untested, of protection of the Gulf Arabs against the possible re-emergence of a Shiite Persian empire in Iran.
Riyadh has recently taken a proactive foreign policy elsewhere in the region as well and has not hesitated to engage in military action or fund armed operations.
To stem Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia is widely believed to be channelling weapons to Syrian Sunni rebels who are fighting Shiite government in Syria, a close ally of Tehran. Riyadh is engaged in the proxy war to dislodge Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the small Alawite Shiite minority subsect.
Saudi Arabia was quick to use military power to bolster a Sunni ruling Al-Khalifa family in Bahrain against a popular uprising that was part of the initial phase of the Arab Spring.
While Bahrain has largely quieted, the oil-rich kingdom is still active in a costly air war in Yemen against Iran-backed Shiite Houthi forces. The Saudi military adventure has only produced mixed results and failed to roll back Houthis who could control the southern Red Sea entry point. Iranian influence is increasing among Houthis leading to further strain on Saudi military and further enflaming Saudi apprehension.
Saudi nervousness continued to be in full display in the second half of July as it was seen seeking anti-Iran allies, even in previously unbelievable relations.
News broke July 22 that a Saudi delegation, headed by a former army general, made an unprecedented visit to Israel. This was a major development for risk-averse Saudis. While no Saudi official was included, it is widely believed that the visit would never have happened without official approval.
The message Riyadh was sending is that it is willing to change how it holds contacts with Israel, which is technically at war with Arab nations for its occupation of Arab and Palestinian land. Riyadh had previously used multilateral forms as a vehicle for contacts with the Jewish State.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are the two countries who favour a U.S. military action against Iran's nuclear facilities and both fear Iran building nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons a security option?
As early as the beginning of 2016, Riyadh was still floating ideas it may seek nuclear weapons if it is left alone to face Iranian military might as one of its many security options.
A further sign of Saudi regional activism is that Riyadh and the UAE are pushing other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council – Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman – to take a more unified security position against Iran.
Saudi Arabia is also working to diversify security relationships as hedges against perceived U.S. decline and weakening commitment. The country is moving towards France, for example, as a major weapons supplier.
The country whose leaders have long bragged about a strategic alliance with Washington has been more vocal in terms of foreign policy and often now speaks against the U.S. when they do not agree on the Iran policy as they did in the past.
This new-found activism accelerated under the leadership of Saudi King Salman, who came to office in 2015. The proactive measures taken by his ambitious son and heir-apparent, 30-year old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, mean that these are unlikely to ebb any time soon.
The changes were not lost on Santa Monica-based Rand Corporation. The influential U.S. organization however said in a recent report that the Saudi moves were not designed for a real and fundamental shift in policy away from its strategic alliance with the U.S. but were more to press Washington to play a greater role in the security of the Gulf Arab countries versus Iran.
Saudi doubt of U.S. commitment turned acute after U.S.–Iranian cooperation following the nuclear agreement. Saudi Arabia feels threatened by the increasing restlessness among Shiite populations throughout the Gulf and see that a sanctions-free Iran will have enough cash and resources to comfortably stir those minorities as it did in neighbouring Iraq.
Riyadh now routinely points to Tehran for inciting sectarian tension. Saudi TV stations host pundits non-stop who say that Iran wants to see a repeat of Shiite ethnic cleansing against Sunnis in Iraq. Riyadh has bankrolled several media outlets that criticize Shiites and Tehran on similar grounds.
Yet, the most concrete sign of worry remains the billions of dollars the country invests in weapons systems. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 August 2016]
Related article: Saudi Nuclear Blustering Remains Hollow – for Now
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
Photo: Shahine short-range air defence (SHORAD) systems purchased by Saudi Arabia from France. Credit: GreenDef