Recent increases in military spending and arms procurement by the eight states bordering the Gulf—Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—have revived widespread discussion about the possible impacts of military build-ups in the region. Saudi Arabia and the UAE stand out for their high levels of spending and arms imports, yet almost all the Gulf states devote a larger share of their gross domestic product (GDP) to military spending than the global average.
The available data on the Gulf states’ military expenditure is highly uncertain. In many cases—notably Bahrain and Iran—not all military expenditure appears in the official figures; while in others—notably Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia—states do not report their military spending separately from their broader spending on security (including internal security). It is also unclear whether some arms imports are paid for directly from oil revenues and thus do not appear in government accounts. In the case of Iraq, only budget figures are available, and actual expenditure may vary significantly.
The patchiness of the data makes it hard to describe regional trends in military spending. However, Saudi Arabia is clearly the biggest spender, followed by the UAE and Iran. Iraq’s military budget shrank by almost 30 per cent between 2008 and 2009. Almost all the Gulf states consistently spend a greater share of their GDP on the military than the global average. Indeed, in the period 2000–2008, Oman and Saudi Arabia spent more of their GDP on the military than any other country for which data is available.
The Gulf states accounted for 10 per cent of imports of major conventional weapons in the period 2005–2009. Since arms production capabilities in the region are limited, almost all procurements of major weapons were imports.
The weapons were supplied by at least 30 countries. The largest suppliers were the United States, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and China. Russian and Chinese exports went mainly to Iran, which received no major arms from the USA or most European states.
While the UAE accounted for 57 per cent of the volume of imports of major conventional weapons over the period 2005–2009 and Saudi Arabia for only 10 per cent, over the longer period 1990–2009 Saudi Arabia was the largest importer in the Gulf region.
Reports about arms procurement plans in the Gulf states must be treated with caution. Until a contract is signed, it is uncertain when and how many items will be bought and from whom.
– Saudi Arabia is the biggest military spender in the Gulf, followed by the UAE and Iran.
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–Almost all the Gulf states consistently spend a greater share of their GDP on the military than the global average.
–The UAE accounted for 57 per cent of the volume of imports of major conventional weapons in the period 2005–2009 and Saudi Arabia for 10 per cent.
–In the period 1990–2009, Saudi Arabia was the largest arms importer in the Gulf.
–The volume of arms imported by the UAE has increased significantly over the past decade and the country is likely to remain a major arms importer in the coming years.
–Signed contracts and known procurement plans indicate that Saudi Arabian arms imports are set to increase significantly
–Iraq is rebuilding its armed forces from scratch and has plans to buy a wide range of major conventional weapons from a variety of countries.
–Iran’s arms purchases have been relatively small in recent years. In 2010 it was placed
under a wide-ranging UN arms embargo.
This article is based on a SIPRI Fact Sheet, published in October 2010.