The November Dubai Airshow was once again an opportunity for the world’s aviation giants to showcase their products, including Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, which debuted at the 2017 Paris Air Show. It was also a time to announce major deals. In particular, Emirates airline’s orders for Boeing and Airbus planes, worth around $25 billion, confirm a shift from traditional centers of power in the West toward the Gulf region in aviation.
The Dubai Airshow was also a chance for the United Arab Emirates’ primary national security and defense stakeholders to unveil breaking news of their own. One of the most significant announcements was that the Tawazun Economic Council, which is responsible for the creation and development of a sustainable defense and security industry in the UAE, is taking a 50% stake in the Russian Helicopters subsidiary VR-Technology. Also significant was the UAE Ministry of Defense’s purchase of the first UAE-built military aircraft, Calidus’ B-250.
These messages show how serious UAE leaders are about having a thriving local defense industry serving multiple purposes, particularly increasing security self-reliance and economic diversification. Air power procurement in the Gulf has evolved in line with the Gulf Arab countries’ security strategies and is an illustration of their rise as new powers on the regional and international stages.
Air power development has always been a priority for the Gulf Arab states. As early as the 1980s, when most had only proclaimed independence a decade before, several had already put together incredible fleets, particularly the UAE and Qatar. In 1983, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ “The Military Balance” for that year, with an estimated population of 1,130,000, the UAE had 43 combat aircraft and Qatar, with an estimated population of 260,000, had 11 combat aircraft. At the same time, Lebanon – with a population of 2.9 million people – had eight combat aircraft, and Morocco counted 102 combat aircraft for a population of about 21 million people. Interestingly, however, this Gulf air power was not exercised until recently outside of air shows and military parades. Moreover, most experts believe that these countries’ armed forces did not have the capacity to use this air power effectively anyway, leading to the idea of “Mirages of Power.” In fact, Abu Dhabi first ordered Mirage 2000 fighter jets in May 1983. Certainly, it takes time to develop a credible military might, and having the right equipment is an important basis upon which to build, along with organizing and training armed forces. Yet, this is not the only explanation for the high militarization of these smaller Gulf states that have made little to no use of their firepower.
First, the “glitter factor” of arms procurement in the Gulf (an expression coined by Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies) always was – and to some extent still can be – a crucial aspect of decision making when it comes to purchasing military equipment in the region. This does not, however, mean that this objective was or is futile; the quest for state-of-the-art “shiny” arsenals has to be understood in relation to objectives of nation building (making the population proud), state branding (attracting external partners), and deterrence – although the presence and protection of Western forces, mostly from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, has arguably been a much more effective means of deterrence. The remarkable military equipment – air power in particular – acquired by the smaller Gulf states since the early 1980s has thus effectively contributed to their security thanks to the impression it has made on both internal and external observers, by bringing the former closer together behind their leaders, and keeping the latter at a cautious distance.
In fact, purchases of ultramodern combat aircraft could have indirectly provided security to the Gulf Arab countries in more than one way – which is especially apparent when considering the geopolitical value of arms trade. Arms sales can be considered as one illustration of a larger tacit “oil for security” pact between Gulf governments and their main Western partners, and this unspoken quid-pro-quo is most evident when it comes to air power procurement because the equipment is extremely expensive and central to the defense economy of the arms manufacturing countries. In France, for instance, it actually represents one aspect of the country’s strategic independence.
For the Gulf Arab states, security has also come from diversifying their defense suppliers. This has indeed allowed them to achieve relative autonomy by not relying too much on one partner, helping them to secure the support of a wide range of countries in the process. This is particularly interesting, as the argument is often made that such a plurality of suppliers leads to incoherence in national fleets and can hinder their overall capabilities because of interoperability issues. This debate is extremely topical as the Gulf countries are increasingly looking to other major weapons manufacturers beyond their traditional Western partners for their purchases, such as Russia and, to a lesser extent, China. While the argument of a certain complexity brought about by this diversification trend is certainly valid, it might be missing the vital point that it also brings additional security and stability through implicit nonaggression pacts or pledges of political backing as a collateral trade-off with a maximum number of international powers.
A recent example of the political value of air power procurement is apparent in the case of Qatar and its dispute with its Gulf neighbors. While Qatar’s defense spending had already increased following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, there was a significant peak in its military equipment purchases after the political rift in the Gulf in 2013, and even more so in the months following the beginning of the Gulf dispute in June 2017, when Doha announced the signing of about $20 billion worth of contracts, particularly for Rafale and F-15 fighter jets. While this certainly illustrated fears of a possible military confrontation with its neighbors, these purchases also, and perhaps most importantly, demonstrated an urgency to renew Western partners’ interest in protecting a country that invests so much in their economies, particularly through the arms trade.
Air power procurement in the Gulf is increasingly evolving in line with two key ambitions: power projection and economic diversification. The new regional context since 2011 has presented challenges and opportunities for Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia and indeed pushed them to become increasingly active and assertive on the Middle Eastern stage, including by deploying armed forces abroad. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the development of a local defense industry is tied to the drive for economic diversification.
The Gulf Arab states are approaching both power projection and economic diversification strategies determined to better identify capability needs and procure equipment accordingly. This explains many announcements in recent years, such as the inclination toward drones, including armed drones (Chinese Wing Loong I), highlighting human resource limitations and risk calculation; a renewed interest in helicopters as a source of force projection; and the creation of joint ventures with more of the production line at home aiming to develop a credible local defense industry.
These recent developments in Gulf air power procurement will likely have notable impacts on the global arms trade and the power dynamics associated with it – particularly as the Gulf countries increasingly look to create their own national defense technological and industrial bases. In that respect, the UAE has been leading the trend in the region. Not only does the country – which has long been characterized by a very specific and demanding offsets policy – host a mounting number of indigenous defense companies, but its military complex is structured in an increasingly efficient manner. After creating the Emirates Defense Industries Company in 2014, which already aimed to better organize and centralize the domestic arms industry, the UAE leadership announced in early November the formation of EDGE, an even more comprehensive defense and technology conglomerate. Following in the footsteps of its neighbor, Saudi Arabia has also started to develop a domestic arms industry, as illustrated by the General Authority for Military Industries and the Saudi Arabian Military Industries company, which are major components of Saudi Vision 2030. In fact, Qatar also seems to be considering similar avenues of economic diversification, with the possible support of Turkey.
While these initiatives are conceived as an additional means to achieve sovereignty over some defense capabilities, they are unlikely to lead to a clear drop in military purchases from outside partners. Given the continued – and sometimes still primary – political dimension of arms trade in the Gulf, and current regional tensions, the Gulf states will likely keep investing massively in the military complexes of the international powers that collectively ensure their security.