Strategic autonomy and technology transfers take center stage in a shifting UAE procurement policy.
Saudi Arabia first announced in July 2020 that it would host the World Defense Show. From the start, it was set to be a very big deal – like Abu Dhabi’s arms show, the International Defence Exhibition and Conference, but even broader. “It will be similar to IDEX, but expanding to all forces including cybersecurity areas,” Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz Al-Ohali, the governor of the General Authority for Military Industries, stated at IDEX in February 2021. That year, the arms show hosted 62,000 visitors, attracted 900 exhibitors from 59 countries, and concluded with $5.7 billion worth of arms deals. The World Defense Show itself was expected to host up to 30,000 visitors. Incentives to attract visitors included a free multientry 1-year visa to the kingdom. The World Defense Show involved nearly 600 exhibitors from 42 countries, but it may have otherwise fallen short of expectations, notably given the few official delegations present. Regardless, many contracts were signed (a “record $7.9 billion”). This first World Defense Show in Riyadh captured a moment in time when the kingdom’s economy, its international relations, and particularly its strategic relationship with the United States all seem to be at a turning point.
Showcasing Saudi Ambitions in the Defense Industry
Why would Saudi Arabia organize yet another defense exhibition, in a Gulf region that already hosts IDEX and other defense events, such as the Doha International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference in March? As Gulf states try to diversify their economies away from hydrocarbons, they are competing in similar sectors to do so – which economist Omar Al-Ubaydli argued could bring positive outcomes, “akin to a rising tide that lifts all boats.” The World Defense Show is indeed, first and foremost, a symbol of the Saudi journey to economic diversification, by way of the development of a local defense industry.
The World Defense Show also clearly aims to help the kingdom reach its self-dictated target, in line with Saudi Vision 2030, for 50% of its military spending to be domestic by 2030. In this sense, it signals two sides to a turn in the Saudi economy – a move to be less dependent on oil but also less dependent on outside partners. Saudi Arabian Military Industries was created in 2017 to boost the domestic defense industry, and, notably it announced on the first day of the World Defense Show that, like the United Arab Emirates, it plans to locally manufacture a drone.
A total of 29.7 billion Saudi riyals (around $7.9 billion) in arms contracts were signed at the World Defense Show, but there was little information reported about the nature of these contracts and the relative importance of contracts allocated to local companies. On the third day, 10 deals were signed, valued at 7 billion Saudi riyals. Four of these were signed with Saudi companies, for maintenance services and technical support for the Royal Saudi Air Forces, including three contracts, worth 1.7 billion Saudi riyals, with Alsalam Aerospace Industries, and one contract, worth 400 million Saudi riyals, with GDC Middle East. On the fourth day, 23 deals were signed, valued at 13 billion Saudi riyals: Five contracts, worth around 6 billion Saudi riyals, were signed with Saudi Arabian Military Industries to “purchase military vehicles, ammunition and communication systems.” Media reports give no detail about the contracts signed on the first and second days of the World Defense Show, thus leaving 9.7 billion Saudi riyals worth of arms contracts unaccounted for, of which it is unknown how many were allocated to local companies.
The Saudi Press Agency issued a statement indicating that 46% of the funds dedicated to these defense contracts went to Saudi companies, valued at 10 billion Saudi riyals. But the numbers don’t add up: 10 billion Saudi riyals is only 33% of the stated total 29.7 billion Saudi riyals in contracts. These claims have been challenged further by other reported numbers. The official statement also suggested that the show was “attended by more than 80 military delegations, and 65,000 visitors,” though the numbers seem to have been much lower. The absence or distortion of data surrounding the contracts and the show more broadly may be an indicator that the attendance and performance of the World Defense Show did not quite meet the expectations of the organizers.
A Display of Changing Times in Riyadh’s Partnerships
The lack of information available about the contracts signed at the World Defense Show is surprising given the importance of such events to showcase the dynamism of a country’s defense and diplomatic ties. In addition to the contracts signed with local companies, media reports only mention four deals signed with international companies, worth 4.7 billion Saudi riyals, for the third day, bringing the worth of detailed contracts for that day to 6.8 billion out of the reported 7 billion total, and four other deals, worth 3.5 billion Saudi riyals, for the fourth day – bringing the worth of detailed contracts for that day to 9.5 billion Saudi riyals, out of the reported 13 billion total. That leaves several billions worth of contracts unaccounted for (13.2 billion Saudi riyals to be precise, including 9.7 billion from the first and second day, 200,000 million for the third day and 3.5 billion for the fourth day). However, an examination of these contracts does bring to light an interesting picture of a turning point in the kingdom’s international relations.
Out of these eight deals with international companies, two contracts worth 3.5 billion Saudi riyals were signed with South Korean companies. One with Hanwha aims to support the defense capabilities of the Royal Saudi Land Forces, including “localization and supply chain services.” The other, with Poongsan Corporation, was for “various types of ammunition.” This shows the broadening scope of engagement between the two countries. According to the trade registers of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the only previous arms deal between the two countries was in 2017, for antitank missiles. This diversification of defense partners beyond traditional suppliers was also visible in the signing of a contract with Norinco, a Chinese company, for ammunition, worth 430 million Saudi riyals.
According to a March report from SIPRI, Saudi Arabia (the world’s second-largest arms importer) purchased most of its weapons from the United States (82%), France (5.1%), and the United Kingdom (5%) from 2017-21. At the World Defense Show, three contracts worth 2.3 billion Saudi riyals were signed with French companies – one with Naval Group and two with Thales Group. Two other contracts, worth 2 billion Saudi riyals ($533 million), were signed with the U.S. company Raytheon. An agreement to locally produce components for Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system to help develop the Saudi defense industry was also announced at the exhibition.
Besides these deals, the kingdom’s main historical partner, the United States, was relatively absent in terms of official representation. Representatives sent by other countries included Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the chief officer for military international relations of the French Joint Chiefs of Staff, Major General Laurent Marboeuf, Emirati Minister of State for Defense Affairs Mohammed bin Ahmed Al Bowardi, and Spanish Secretary of State for Defense Esperanza Casteleiro. In contrast, the highest representative of the United States was the charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia, Martina Strong, who reaffirmed “her country’s support for the Kingdom to achieve its Vision 2030 objectives” – and the strategic partnership between Washington and Riyadh. But the World Defense Show seems to confirm that bilateral relations are rather strained.
The U.S.-Saudi Strategic Relationship at a Crossroads
In her speech, Strong notably declared: “In these troubled times, when Russia is continuing to wage its brutal campaign against Ukraine and when Iran continues its efforts to destabilize the region through attacks and malign activities, it is clear to all of us and certainly to our Saudi hosts that strong security partnerships are actually critical for all our countries in this region, and really for the world.” The World Defense Show happened at a peculiar time. Tension between the representatives from Russia and Ukraine at the exhibition was the main focus of the show’s media coverage in the United States. While these geopolitical circumstances certainly explain in part why a higher-level U.S. official was not sent (Mira Resnick, deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security was present at the Dubai Air Show in November 2021), it also hints at a deeper rift between Washington and Riyadh, notably against the backdrop of the Ukrainian conflict.
The administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been particularly disheartened by the lack of cooperation of its Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in bringing oil prices down by raising their production, as the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia have contributed to increased prices. Other irritants have included the UAE having joined China and India in abstaining on the February 25 United Nations Security Council draft resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia having strengthened partnerships with China that notably translate in the defense sector. Interestingly, amid this context of heightened tensions between the United States and its traditional Gulf partners, Washington had already reportedly downscaled its presence at IDEX 2021, and this was in turn described as a vacuum that could benefit China – and Israel. Arms deals have historically been part of a broadened “oil for security” pact between the United States and Saudi Arabia as well as other Gulf partners. Today, it looks like this quid pro quo is seriously being reconsidered, on both ends.
One of the historical points in the establishment of the “oil for arms” bargain was when the Arab members of OPEC used their black gold as a political weapon through an oil embargo, retaliating against the U.S. decision to resupply the Israeli military during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. In “The International Relations of the Persian Gulf,” F. Gregory Gause, III recounted, “In January 1975, Kissinger said that, if oil supplies to the West were cut off, the United States could not rule out the use of force against oil producers. Less than a week later, the United States announced a $750 million contract to sell sixty fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. The deed speaks louder than the words.” At the time, it seemed like offering more arms in exchange for more oil were terms that pleased both parties. Those days may however be over, and it is at least what many people in the United States are calling for. As there were reports in early March that top U.S. officials might be considering a visit to Saudi Arabia to discuss global oil supply, the Biden administration attracted criticism from both sides of the political aisle. If the Biden administration does reach out to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to smooth things over, it will be crucial that it “doesn’t excuse their crimes in Yemen or bolster their militaries with additional arms sales or other military support,” wrote Bill Hartung in The Hill. If the World Defense Show is any indication of trends to come, the playbook may indeed completely change.
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