Foreign Policy Blogs

Saudi Arabia and the UAE Heat Up Their Arms Race with Iran

While the world’s attention remains focused on the nuclear brinkmanship and missile launches on the Korean peninsula, the Middle Eastern arms race, pitting Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates against Iran has been slowly heating up and could soon reach a boiling point.

The spending boom among the gulf states, the Saudis and Emiratis chief among them, has accelerated in recent years but is not a wholly new phenomenon.  Careful observation can discern that increases in Saudi military spending appear to be linked to moments when the House of Saud feels threatened by the growing power of its Persian neighbor.  Following the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979—a moment that also coincided with the takeover of the Great Mosque in Mecca by extremists and Saudi financial involvement in repelling the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—the Saudis embarked on a spending spree, buying sophisticated weapons from Western countries in the billions.

Saudi Arabia has long feared that its leading position in the Muslim world would be threatened after the clerics took power in Iran. Between 1978 and 1982, Saudi Arabia doubled its military expenditures. Again, in 2003, after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein government in Iraq and signs that it would be replaced by a Shia-led government far friendlier to Iran, Riyadh again boosted its arms purchases.  Between 2003 and 2015, the Saudis quadrupled their military budget, persisting in large outlays despite the effect that depressed petroleum prices have had on other areas of the government’s budget.

With Saudi Arabia feeling new pressures from Iran in recent years, particularly in Yemen, it’s no surprise that its leaders have once again opened the coffers to acquire the latest in military hardware. Last May’s deal between the Saudis and the United States, in which the Americans would supply a package of arms, maintenance, ships, air missile defense, and maritime security totaling an astronomical $100 billion, was followed only months later by a deal between Riyadh and Moscow for the Saudis to purchase Russian-made S-400 air defense systems.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Saudi Arabia has spent more than 10% of its GDP on weapons purchases in each of the past three years.  For the sake of comparison, the United States has spent, on average, 3.3% of GDP during the same time period while the United Kingdom has spent 1.9%.  The UAE regularly spends more than twice as much on military hardware and arms as Iran despite having a population approximately one-tenth the size of Iran’s.

Shiite Crescent

Saudi Arabia remains convinced that its nightmare, a “Shiite Crescent” stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean, passing through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, remains a real possibility if Iran is left unchecked. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi lobbied extensively, and unsuccessfully, against the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that the Obama administration negotiated with Tehran.  Both the Saudis and Emiratis have a fundamental distrust of Iran and suspect that eventually their Persian rivals will renege on the commitments made in the agreement.

On the other hand, Saudi and Emirati doubts about the credibility of the United States of America as a strategic ally have risen, especially following the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear agreement and the lifting of the economic sanctions against Tehran.  The Obama administration’s decision to refrain from enforcing its red lines on Syria also caused a shift in thinking, with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi convinced they may have to rely on themselves in the event of a conflict with Iran.

During the 2012-2016 period, Saudi Arabia ranked second and the UAE third in global imports of weaponry (India, which buys largely from Russia, was first).  That four-year period marked a 212% increase in Saudi military spending compared to 2007-2011.

Winning Western countries’ loyalty

There is a secondary reason as well for the large military outlays by the Saudis and Emiratis. Gulf countries seek to win the support—and in some sense, the loyalty–of Western countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany through huge arms deals worth billions of dollars. The Gulf states hope that should their cold war with Iran ever turn hot, their close ties with Western powers—achieved, in part, by decades of weapons deals—will translate into tangible military and diplomatic backing.

Yet the alliance between the Gulf states has been marked my mutual mistrust and internecine disputes. During the Obama years, Washington encouraged the Gulf states to build a join missile defense shield against a potential Iranian attack, but the GCC countries could not resolve their disagreements about how and where to do so.  Fundamental differences over the Muslim Brotherhood and several conflicts in the region further undermined the alliance, as did the drop in petroleum prices in 2014, which has strained budgets and nerves.  While the Yemen war has showcased the close working relationship between the Saudis and Emiratis, it has also revealed the depth of disagreement within the bloc, with Oman and Kuwait declining to participate in the war while Qatar, which originally made a modest commitment of troops, has now decided to withdraw its forces against the backdrop of its dispute with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama.

The Gulf states are also well aware that before Yemen, they lacked military experience, unlike Iran which fought a long war against Iraq during the 1980s, sent paramilitary forces to Iraq after the fall of Saddam, and has been deeply involved in Syria since 2011.

Although Iran has more modest financial resources than its rivals across the Persian Gulf, it too is working to strengthen its military arsenal. In 2017, the Iranian parliament passed a resolution to raise military spending to 5 percent of GDP. In the meantime, Tehran has indicated no halt to its development of long-range missiles, armed drones, and cyber warfare capabilities.

In recent years, Iranian arms imports have declined, from nearly $14 billion in 2010 to just above $10 billion the last several years (though it did see an uptick to $12.3 billion in 2016). In the past, Iran has equipped its armed forces with Russian and Chinese weaponry in addition to developing its own indigenous capabilities. Despite its lower spending, most military analysts in the region believe that Iran would remain competitive with its Gulf rivals in any conflict as a result of its more-developed tactical capabilities.

As Saudi Arabia and its allies invest their money in acquiring the latest fighter aircraft, tanks, and Western missile defense systems, Iran continues to develop its missile program and its aims of expanding its political and military influence in the region show no signs of abating. Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces maintain a presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and possibly even Yemen, all of which fuel the fears of Saudi Arabia and its allies over the spread of Iranian influence in the region.

Despite the continuation of the economic embargo and the recent street protests over corruption and economic conditions, Iran maintains sufficient financial resources to fund its military and paramilitary influence in a number of the Middle East’s hot spots. The Saudis suspect that Iran’s nuclear ambitions have not been eliminated, only postponed.  And thus, the buildup of military capability, and the overall arms race, continues to grow hotter and more dangerous by the day.


Shehab al-Makahleh is an author and analyst of terrorism, military, and security affairs in the Middle East and co-founder of Geostrategic Media and is based in the UAE and Jordan.

Maria al-Makahleh is a political commentator, researcher, and expert on Middle Eastern affairs based in Russia, and serves as President of the International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub) in Moscow.