Arms and Influence in the Gulf

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi Get to Work

Saudi tanks take part in a military drill near the border with Kuwait, April 2014.
Saudi tanks take part in a military drill near the border with Kuwait, April 2014. (Faisal Nasser / Courtesy Reuters)

Since the formation of the modern Arab state system in the mid-twentieth century, no Arab country has succeeded in building and sustaining an indigenous national defense industry. Egypt tried hard, but ultimately failed because it lacked the requisite financial and human capital. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq came closest, thanks to its skilled population and oil wealth, but it was stymied by corruption, mismanagement, and war. The Gulf countries, meanwhile, have spent lavish sums on the most modern U.S. and European arms, which they often lack expertise in handling and servicing. “Arabs don’t do maintenance,” the adage went. 

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) may finally end this streak of Arab failures. Over the past decade, the two countries have quietly developed their military-industrial capacities. Today, they are capable of manufacturing and modernizing military vehicles, communication systems, aerial drones, and more. Further, they have significantly improved their ability to maintain, repair, and retrofit aircraft. And with U.S. assistance, they have trained their militaries to operate some of the most sophisticated weapons systems in the world, including Hawk surface-to-air missiles.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are nowhere near self-sufficiency. (Even the most advanced U.S. allies remain heavily dependent on the United States for its military technology and know-how.) Indeed, their defense-industrial efforts are hardly complete, and retain some glaring weaknesses. But both countries have taken advantage of strategic partnerships with the top transatlantic defense companies in order to learn from the best. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have primarily done so through so-called offset agreements, which compel foreign suppliers to invest in local industrial projects so that the recipient country can offset the typically huge cost of defense procurement. Such programs have allowed the two countries to connect their domestic defense sectors with global defense producers and acquire advanced defense industrial knowledge and technology. Meanwhile, the information technology revolution has made the international defense market even more accessible to smaller players, allowing Saudi Arabia and the UAE to manage, and in some instances, overcome key technological hurdles.

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