Riyadh's military ambitions

Riyadh's military ambitions

Simone Cantarini
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With the latest investments in weapons, Saudi Arabia aims to consolidate its leadership role and control over the Middle East, including through the support of the newly-created Military Alliance of the Islamic countries, to avoid, above all, possible Iranian misbehavior

In 2015, Saudi Arabia passed Russia in terms of military spending, with over $87 billion allocated to the sector - double the amount spent in 2006 - coming in third place after the United States and China, with $560 billion and $215 billion spent, respectively. The data confirm what had previously emerged in 2014, when the Saudi kingdom became the first country in the world to buy weapons, surpassing India. Riyadh’s willingness to raise funds for defense and security, which in 2015 accounted for 13.7% of the state budget, is all the more significant in that it coincides with a period of low oil prices which, last year, caused the Saudi economy a deficit of $97 billion. During the period between 2011 and 2015, Saudi Arabia’s weapons imports increased by 275% compared with the 2006-10 period, according to a report released recently by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Over the next 5 years the kingdom will receive huge amounts of weapons and vehicles, as a result of agreements signed between 2014 and 2015, including approximately 150 fighter aircraft, especially F-15, and thousands of air-to-surface and anti-tank missiles from the United States, plus another 14 fighters, especially Eurofighter Tycoons, as a result of a $4 billion agreement signed with the United Kingdom. New agreements could be signed on April 21, during US President Barack Obama’s visit. Obama will arrive in Riyadh to attend the meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). One of the anticipated agreements is expected to concern a plan to create a joint missile defense system between the Gulf countries. This is becoming increasingly urgent due to Iran’s continuous missile tests.

Who is afraid of Tehran?

The main reason that prompted the Riyadh government to increase military spending, in just one year, by 17%, compared with 2014, is essentially the return of its historic enemy, Iran, to the list of regional powers, following the lifting of the economic sanctions since the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal in July 2015. The most important step taken by Riyadh, to thwart attempts made by Tehran to expand its influence in the region, was its direct involvement in the conflict in Yemen where, since 2014 the clash has been ongoing between Houthi Shiite rebels, backed by Iran, and the Sunni forces loyal to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, supported by the Gulf Cooperation Council (CCC). During the operation, ongoing since March 2015, Riyadh has employed at least 100 aircraft, over 10,000 military trainers and special forces, over 30 Apache helicopters, armed tanks and vehicles, with a monthly cost of several hundred million dollars. Riyadh’s decision to allocate more and more resources to the defense sector is not limited, however, to the war in Yemen and to the financial support of various allied countries, especially Egypt, but is part of a broader project of geopolitical scope aimed at making the kingdom the main military and political power in the Sunni Muslim world. In recent months, Saudi officials have stated on several occasions that they are also willing to intervene in the war in Syria with the ground forces. The aim declared by Riyadh is to support the moderate rebels in the fight against Islamic State and, also, to balance the strengthening of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which began in September 2015, with Russia’s direct intervention in the conflict. So far the Saudi kingdom has been limited in increasing its military presence in the framework of the International coalition led by the United States, sending some war planes to the Turkey’s Incirlik air force base.

The military alliance of the islamic countries

The main example of the desire of the Saudi monarchy to stand as the flagship of not only the countries of the Middle East, but in general, of the entire Sunni Islam world, is the creation of the Military Alliance of the Islamic countries. The organization was formally founded in December 2015 to allow Muslim countries to respond jointly to the threat of Islamic State and terrorism. In truth, the new Alliance represents Riyadh’s response and that of the Sunni countries to the threat posed by Iran. For now, the members that have accepted the Saudi proposal are Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Bahrein, Bangladesh, Benin, Turkey, Chad, Togo, Tunisia, Djibouti, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Gabon, Guinea, Palestine, Comoros, Qatar, Ivory Coast, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Yemen. The initiation of the new Alliance in the field took place as of February 14, with the “Raad al-Shamal‘ (“North Thunder‘) drills, which ended in early March and were organized again by Riyadh. The maneuvers took place in over 20 countries, with a total of 150,000 soldiers, 20,000 tanks, 2,540 war planes and 460 helicopters. The operations have been defined as the most important maneuvers held in the region since the Gulf War in 1991. According to analysts, even in this case Saudi Arabia has carefully chosen the location – King Khalid Military City (Hafr Al-Batin), located just 80 kilometers from the border with Iraq – and the timing, very close to the lifting of the economic sanctions of the international community against Iran, the procedures of which began on January 16.