Beneath Saudi officials’ tough talk on the Regional Headquarters Program lies a strong desire for constructive engagement with top global firms and attracting greater inflows of foreign investment.
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In early July, Italy announced that it would loosen arms export restrictions on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – just months after it had refused licenses for missile sales to the two countries over human rights concerns in Yemen. The announcement came just days after the UAE evicted Italian forces from the Al Minhad Air Base in Dubai. The Italian decision to overturn an export ban is by no means unprecedented: In 2018, Spain reversed its decision to halt the shipment of precision bombs to Saudi Arabia over concerns that a $2.1 billion ship deal would be at risk. And in 2019, Sweden licensed the sales of two surveillance jets to the UAE despite tightened export criteria.
These three cases are part of a broader trend in European-Gulf relations. As the Gulf Arab states have asserted themselves as active shapers of regional security, their military experience, supplier diversification efforts, and domestic industry developments – in tandem with their traditional financial clout – have gained them greater leverage over European security partners. This decrease in influence – in arms trade relations but arguably beyond – refutes some previous insights on the effects of arms transfers and suggests a need for European policymakers to rethink their policies.
The Role of Arms in European-Gulf Security Relations
Despite lavish spending on modern, high-tech defense equipment, Gulf states’ militaries were traditionally known for their limited defensive or deterrence capabilities. This challenged the premise that arms purchases principally serve to bolster defense capabilities. Instead, their extensive investments may have been more about the “glitter factor” – indeed, military capabilities can boost pride and prestige. Moreover, arms procurements may bolster buyers’ security, as they are used to co-opt internal regime opponents as well as strengthen relations with external powers. In the case of the latter, known as the oil for security pact, massive arms transfers have complemented the flow of oil to reinforce foreign powers’ security guarantees. Gulf states have particularly deemed the relationship with the United States crucial for balancing against regional rival Iran, and for the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain also to avoid too great a dependence on Saudi Arabia.
Albeit less significant, security relations with European partners follow a similar logic. Arms deals and defense-cooperation agreements, especially those concluded with France and the United Kingdom, balanced a “mono-dependence” on the United States. Naturally, more is at stake in the European-Gulf security relationship. Historical ties and economic linkages bind the two regions together, with European countries for decades offering the largest market for Gulf states’ oil, gas, and petrochemical exports.
From a European perspective, arms sales are rooted in a mixture of strategic and commercial motivations. Weapon exports may help tilt regional balances of power; offer reassurances to allies; and increase influence over buyers’ foreign policies. But perhaps even more importantly, arms trade may ensure the survival of defense industrial bases, serving both strategic and economic interests. Naturally, not all European countries are the same. French arms policy is very much concerned with questions of sovereignty. A strong national industry, such as that in France, bolsters the autonomy of both supplier and buyer: The French seller can maintain an efficient defense industry while Gulf recipient states see their leverage increase as they diversify their suppliers. Especially during the Cold War, French officials thought this to be crucial to loosen the grip of the two superpowers. Britain’s arms trade, meanwhile became less an instrument of foreign policy and more about trade, with its decline as great colonial power, and has been described by Anthony Sampson as one of “commercial pragmatism.” Export policies of other European countries, such as Italy and Germany, have a mixture of strategic, industrial, and broader economic motivations.
Gulf States’ Changing Military Postures
The arms trade between Europe and the Gulf took shape at a time when Gulf states’ foreign and security postures were vastly different. A “cautious, conservative and pragmatic” foreign policy translated into weak military postures and a general aversion to foreign endeavors. This is no longer the case. Increasing regional polarization since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and growing concerns over a perceived declining U.S. role in the Middle East have led the Gulf states to adopt more active foreign policies. Even if the administration of President Donald J. Trump reduced some of the Gulf concerns fed by the cautious approach taken by the administration of President Barack Obama during the Arab Spring uprisings and the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, Trump’s calls for increased burden sharing did not go unnoticed. The U.S. pivot to Asia, as well as the 2008-09 financial crisis, changing energy patterns in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, and Gulf states’ growing food reliance on eastern and northern Africa all contributed to Gulf states’ strategic rethinking. A new generation of young, ambitious leaders in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar took their cues from these changes to pursue external policies ever more brazenly.
A new appetite for foreign interventions became first apparent in 2011 when Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent troops into Bahrain to help the regime quell protests. For the UAE, which until then had eschewed extraterritorial power projection, this was a remarkable shift in foreign policy. Kuwait contributed offshore security operations, while Qatar reportedly sent security personnel and observers. In Libya, Gulf states called for a no-fly zone, soon after which Qatar and the UAE joined the NATO-led intervention. Here, Qatar deployed hard power capabilities for the first time, marking a radical change of course in its soft power-focused foreign policy. Together sending 12 Mirage fighters, six F-16s, and two C-17 transport aircraft, Qatar and the UAE contributed 5% of the campaign’s total air power (though logistical challenges hampered their usefulness). Less visible, “but far more significant in terms of military impact,” were Gulf states’ efforts to arm and train opposition forces in Libya and provide intelligence to NATO forces. In 2014, Qatar and the UAE intervened alongside Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the international coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. While the UAE suspended its participation in 2015 after the capture and execution of a Jordanian pilot, it continued its efforts against Islamist militias elsewhere in the region. Saudi Arabia meanwhile announced the creation of a military alliance of Muslim-majority countries to fight terrorism.
The most important demonstration of Gulf states’ new interventionism has been the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. All Gulf Cooperation Council countries except Oman intervened in 2015 as part of Operation Decisive Storm, whereby Saudi Arabia deployed 100 fighter jets (mostly F-15s and Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft), which were joined by warplanes from the UAE (30 including F-16s and Mirage 2000s), Bahrain and Kuwait (15 each), and Qatar (10). During the first six years of the intervention, the Saudi-led coalition carried out more than 23,000 air raids, with potentially up to 66,905 individual airstrikes. In no other conflict in recent history have as many ballistic missiles, anti-ship missiles, unguided artillery rockets, and drones been launched, which has also resulted in the unprecedented use of air and missile defense systems. The war has not come cheap for these intervening states: Gulf Arab states combined have spent an estimated $14 billion per year on the operation, while the UAE lost 45 soldiers in one airstrike, marking the highest loss of life in the country’s military history.
The list continues: Saudi Arabia and Qatar propped up rebel groups in Syria; Saudi Arabia and the UAE supported the military coup in Egypt where Qatar backed the Muslim Brotherhood; the Emiratis covertly provided material and air support to General Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army in Libya despite a United Nations arms embargo; and so on.
With these endeavors, capability investments grew steadily. Between 2006-10 and 2011-15, Saudi Arabia’s expenditures on weapons increased by 275%, the UAE’s by 35%, and Qatar’s by 279%. And between 2011-15 and 2016-20, while global arms transfers shrunk by 0.5%, Saudi imports increased by 61% and Qatari by 361%. Sales to the UAE decreased by 37%, but major deliveries were still outstanding by the end of 2020, including French frigates, air defense systems, and 38 U.S. combat helicopters.
During this time, growth in arms purchases were matched by improved power projection capabilities. The UAE invested heavily in educational efforts, operational capabilities, and overseas infrastructure, while it asserted itself as a maritime and regional power from the Gulf of Oman via the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea and Suez Canal by establishing bases, even if temporary, in Eritrea and Somaliland and taking over several Yemeni ports and islands since 2015. Qatar purchased French Rafales, U.S. F-15s, and British Typhoons, alongside anti-ship missiles, radars, combat ships, and tanks. Oman invested in F-16 and Typhoon aircraft, smaller missile frigates, corvettes and patrol ships, and contingency air and naval bases to support U.S. and British forces. Kuwait meanwhile reintroduced military conscription while ramping up its air force – purchasing Eurofighter Typhoons and F/A-18E/F Super Hornets – alongside investments in land and maritime forces.
Implications for European-Gulf Security Relations
To varying degrees, and with some exceptions, the Gulf states have thus adopted more proactive foreign policies. As a result, they have matured into significantly more capable security partners. Where previously exporters could sell virtually anything to the Gulf states, either because of their lack of knowledge or indifference, today this is no longer true. Increased combat experience has made Gulf states more knowledgeable regarding what they are buying, and arms procurements serve the more straightforward goal of boosting military capabilities. This shift has made the Gulf buyers more mission oriented, as is illustrated by Emirati, Bahraini and Qatari investments in missile defense systems. Crucially, Gulf buyers have become notably more demanding. As Emma Soubrier put it: “Industrial companies working with them today are unanimous: it has become a great challenge to please these clients. In addition to the extra care companies have to invest in their regional marketing and sales campaigns, there are issues arising from the increasing Qatari and Emirati demands for transfers of defense knowledge and technologies.”
Facing Western arms embargoes over the conflict in Yemen, Gulf states have diversified their network of arms suppliers, while building domestic defense industries. The threat to European arms sellers became clear when Chinese arms exports overtook those of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom between 2011 and 2014 (even if falling behind again in the second half of the 2020s). Russia meanwhile overtook Italy as the UAE’s third supplier.
Diversification efforts arguably paid off. Regional instability – with a related desire by European states to enforce human rights concerns – has indeed had limited influence over European export policies, despite strict national and European Union guidelines. Many European countries banned the exportation of small weapons, and in 2018 Germany, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Belgium banned all weapons exports to parties involved in Yemen, while Sweden did not renew its military cooperation with Saudi Arabia. That said, such guidelines have not been implemented unequivocally. In addition to the Italian, Spanish, and Swedish sales previously mentioned, European transfers to the Arabian Peninsula have continued. After a brief pause in 2019, the U.K. exported $1.88 billion worth of arms, including missiles and bombs, to Saudi Arabia between July and September 2020. France continued sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and allegedly provided training to Saudi soldiers. And Germany, known for its more cautious export policy, exported $1.4 billion worth of arms in 2020 to countries involved in the Yemeni and Libyan conflicts, including Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain.
The growing leverage over European security partners appears to extend beyond the arms trade. When the UAE intervened in Libya alongside the Western coalition, Abu Dhabi threatened to withdraw support over NATO criticism for the Emirati intervention in Bahrain. Soubrier meanwhile suggested that the alignment of French and Emirati policies in Libya and the moderate French and British responses to the Yemen conflict and to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi reveal this inverse influence, where the buyer now shapes, to some degree, foreign policy decision making of seller countries.
European countries should recognize the impact of Gulf states’ changing military postures on European-Gulf security relations. As Gulf states are increasingly assertive and capable, European sellers are more and more subordinated to buyers’ demands. Selling more arms, even if serving economic interests and strengthening domestic industrial bases, does not necessarily signal growing influence over recipient states. Indeed, the opposite may be true. This is important to keep in mind as international competition and a European quest for strategic autonomy may lead to a scramble for influence whereby arms sales may be thought of – mistakenly – as a tried-and-tested method.
With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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