With 2015 underway, much of the world’s attention is focused on a turbulent Middle East—the site of a long civil war in Syria, chaos in Iraq, and the emergence of the Islamic State. This has brought the military capabilities of Saudi Arabia, one of the region’s most important and wealthy players, under greater scrutiny. A peaceful but dynamic transition of power following the death of King Abdullah created only more uncertainty for Saudi decisions makers. While much of the discussion centers on the need to increase capability in response to a heightened threat environment, a defining characteristic of Saudi Arabia’s defense spending strategy remains building relationships through strategic sourcing. The Kingdom continues to focus on maintaining procurement relationships with a diverse range of suppliers, often satisfying the same requirement with two competing platforms.
Avascent Analytics’ assessment of Saudi procurement patterns confirm the Kingdom is engaged in a continued spending binge, enhanced by its diverse source approach. Our data indicates that there has been a 41% increase in the past five years in Saudi defense spending, and projects another 26% increase over the next five. A 2011 Congressional Research Service report ranked Saudi Arabia first in all developing nations in total value arms transfer agreements.
As always, rival Iran is the most talked-about threat to Saudi Arabia, seemingly the driving force behind recent Patriot PAC-3 missile purchases and upgrades to its air force. Violent extremists and Syrian fighters have entered the conversation as well. On January 5, Iraqi militants killed three Saudi border guards and wounded three others in an early morning attack. The Royal Saudi Air Force has participated in coalition air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Saudi donors have been linked to moderate Syrian opposition groups as the threat posed by these neighboring conflicts has undoubtedly impacted the foreign policy of the majority-Sunni country.
Yet, Saudi spending is not likely a pattern that reflects an intent or an expectation that the weapons and systems will be often be used in response to specific threats. After all, Iran is unlikely to launch an air invasion with its outdated planes and the Royal Saudi Air Force does not need two similar platforms (F-15s and Eurofighters) to fulfill a potential ground attack role. Extremist militants tied up in a multi-front war will likely prefer a contained terrorist attack in lieu of the pitched battles of a half-decade ago involving Saudi Special Forces. And only 3% of coalition air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria were from Arab planes in December, as non-U.S. sorties plunged dramatically when easily identifiable targets lessened. Expensive upgrades like those in progress to the Kingdom’s fighter jets and Navy will probably serve a different purpose. Rather than being a direct result of growing security threats in the region, Saudi Arabia’s procurement patterns are likely an indicator of political priorities based on maintaining and fostering relationships with source countries and corporations.
Saudi military and political relationships sometimes blur the line between official alliances. Former Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah Bin Saud first visited Moscow in 2003, signaling a thaw in a relationship that had been frozen since 1938. With relations improved, some suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin was the catalyst in reviving partnerships between the two important oil-producing countries—culminating in a supposed 2009 deal for $2 billion worth of Russian helicopters and tanks. Further, there have been many reports detailing a 2007 Saudi purchase of Chinese DF-21 ballistic missiles, a move that had long been rumored.
While maintaining its relationship with Russia and China, the Kingdom made sure to keep in close touch with its Western defense partners as well. In 2010, a $60 billion Saudi deal with the United States for new and upgraded F-15 fighters, Apaches and Black Hawks had both political and military considerations. The deal represented an improvement of relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia following particularly hostile times in the years after September 11, 2001. The Kingdom signed two deals with Canada GDLS for a variety of LAVs and ground vehicles, and another deal with Britain’s Rolls-Royce for C-130J jet engines. Satisfying its continued relationship with the West thanks in part to fresh helicopters, Canadian armored vehicles, and American planes, Saudi Arabia followed with another deal for fighter jets. This time, the Saudis signed for 72 Eurofighters from the UK for $7.4 billion USD, a contract saga that ended in early 2014. The Saudi MoD purchased hundreds of fighter planes from two different nations and suppliers that provide very similar war-time functionality. The planes will mostly sit on the tarmac—but their cost has ensured two important allies through a diverse-source approach.
Plenty of analysts have wondered over the past half-decade why Saudi Arabian defense spending has jumped so dramatically. A 2013 Foreign Policy report called out the real reason behind a large Saudi purchase of anti-tank missiles: “the kingdom’s deep pockets can at least make sure their ties to the Pentagon remain as strong as ever.” Recent defense cooperation agreements with India, and a public access ad for outdated F-5 planes points to the persistence of a relationship-driven defense spending strategy that casts a comprehensive and indiscriminant net. And in a messy Middle East, maybe it is better to ensure a wide variety of military allies—while also getting a few fighter jets.