The New Arms Race in the Persian Gulf

It seems to be the deal of the century, as Saudi Arabia and a group of other Gulf states are planning to purchase $122.88 billion worth of US and other Western -made weapons. This military build-up is supposed to bolster the level of regional deterrence, as well as reduce the Arab Gulf countries’ reliance on Western powers in terms of security. Saudi Arabia will acquire the largest package of this deal, worth $67.8 billion. The United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait will invest $35.6 billion, $12.3 billion and $7.1 billion respectively for new Patriot and THAAD missile defence systems, fighter jets, off-shore patrol vessels and a variety of other military equipment.[1]

The arms deals are linked primarily to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) growing fear of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the Islamic regime’s increasing influence in the region. There is no doubt about the beginning of a new arms race in the Persian Gulf. It is questionable, however, whether the GCC’s military expenditures will have any meaningful impact on the current power struggle in the region and whether accumulating expensive modern weapons can provide any political or military leverage against Iran.

The Iranian Factor

Despite recent indications that Iran has agreed to resume negotiations within the UN on its nuclear programme, the success of international efforts in resolving the crisis by diplomatic means and sanctions is highly unlikely. The GCC countries would not, of course, want to see the rise of a radical nuclear Iran dictating the region’s economic and political profile. At the same time, however, they fear that if all diplomatic means fail to resolve the crisis, the consequences for the region could be grave. If an Israeli or American military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities took place, which seems increasingly likely, the Arab Gulf states would get caught in the line of fire of any ensuing conflict. Any kind of Western intervention would surely provoke Iranian retaliation against the Arab Gulf states. Furthermore, the planned withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq by the end of next year may leave a security vacuum, which Iran will then be more than eager to fill. The Islamic Republic would certainly use its proxies, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and other Shia communities in countries such as Kuwait and Bahrain, to cause turmoil in the region.

The balance of political and military power in the Gulf is currently tipped in favour of Iran. The Islamic Republic is determined not only to defend its own territory and regime, but also to undermine American influence in the region and project its strength and authority on its smaller neighbours. Alongside the realistic prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon in the near future, the Gulf States are also aware of the Iranian superiority in surface-to-surface missiles and maritime capabilities, which pose a direct threat to the GCC members. This mounting threat from a single regional player has pushed the GCC to reconsider their defence capabilities. It seems unlikely, however, that Arab Gulf States will be able to deter the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear capabilities or repel an Iranian military attack. Even such a massive procurement of advanced weapons, like the one currently taking place, will not be able to undermine Iran’s military power.

Under Foreign Protection

Security and economic stability in the Gulf are necessary to support the interests of the West in the region, and protection which countries such as the US can offer. The current balance of power in the Gulf is maintained by the ongoing local presence of American forces. The regional headquarters of the American Central Command is based in Qatar and the US remains the biggest supplier of modern weapons and defence systems to the GCC states. Due to their own military weakness, lack of a concrete strategic concept and growing regional insecurity, Arab monarchies in the Gulf are depending more on Western (primarily American) presence and protection.

Such past and present arms deals do not give Arab monarchies the military independence and leverage that they should have in the region. On the contrary, they actually tie the GCC closer to the US and prolong American presence. Some analysts argue that the large military build-up serves only to strengthen the American defence industry, which has suffered a heavy blow during the global economic downturn. American officials insist, however, that the weapons sales are aimed chiefly at improving the Arab monarchies’ deterrence capabilities against Iran. It is questionable, however, whether the GCC will be able to effectively confront the Islamic Republic. It seems that the bilateral ties between individual GCC members and the US actually have a negative impact on the Council’s collective military framework and compel the Arab monarchies to rely on foreign forces for the supply and maintenance of weapons systems.

The Arab Gulf States are bound to rely on the help of foreign forces in maintaining stability in the region in the near future. They are, however, trying to diversify the sources of such foreign assistance. The GCC states are participating in a number of international security initiatives, such as the partnership with NATO, as part of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative; the Peace Camp, a French naval and air base stationed in Abu Dhabi;[2] and the Combined Task Force 152, an American-led multinational naval task force, based in Bahrain.[3] The Gulf countries have not only sought allies in the West, but have also negotiated potential partnerships with Eastern powers such as Russia and India. The main reason behind seeking new international military partnerships is the Gulf monarchies’ fear that a security vacuum will be left after American withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. Any move reducing the US presence in the Gulf would leave the GCC members defenceless against potential Iranian aggression.

All for One and One for All

The Gulf Cooperation Council was established in 1981 by a group of Arab Gulf monarchies whose main objective was to collectively confront the emerging security challenges in the region.  In the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, they wanted to protect themselves from the threat posed by Iranian-inspired activist Islamism.[4] After nearly three decades of the GCC’s existence, however, the organisation is experiencing a noticeable lack of unity among its member states. There have been some efforts in re-establishing a common defence strategy and a joint military force called the Peninsula Shield Force, which would be a rapid and flexible intervention force with headquarters in Riyadh. A defence agreement was signed between GCC members in December 2000, which would oblige them to consider an attack on a member state an attack on all GCC member states.[5] A decade has passed since the security co-operation pact was signed, yet its general mission has never been properly defined and the agreement has yet to be ratified.

The lack of genuine cohesion within the GCC regarding a regional security strategy results from contradictory notions of threat, as each member of the Council has a different idea about the existing dangers. Each Arab Gulf monarchy also has its own political agenda, which often involves agreements with foreign (mostly Western) forces. Saudi Arabia, for example, is updating its military equipment not only to counter Iran’s growing strength, but also to deal more effectively with its own domestic problems. These include threats from home-grown terrorists and Houthi rebels from Yemen. The United Arab Emirates are involved in a territorial dispute with Iran over three islands in the Persian Gulf and Bahrain is concerned about a growing internal Sunni-Shia divide. Greater emphasis seems to be put on bilateral partnerships with outside powers than on tightening co-operation between GCC member states in the field of security and defence. Individual Gulf States have different security agendas and often the fear of one country’s dominant position within the union makes them reluctant to engage in a joint defence initiative. An American security umbrella could further preclude this level of co-operation.

The latest arms agreements with the West are, therefore, not part of a concerted GCC policy against Iran, but separate agreements, which suggests that each Gulf State has adopted its own cautious policy towards existing regional threats. These policies include maintaining good relations with both sides of the conflict. Qatar, for example, is not participating in the arms race, as it wishes to protect its delicate relationship with Iran. Not only does the sheikhdom share vast undersea gas fields with Iran, but it has also signed practical security co-operation agreements with the Islamic Republic. Security ties have also been strengthened between Iran and Oman, and Kuwait has engaged in joint military exercises with the Iranian regime. Although they may be fostering better relationships with Iran, these contradictory security policies do not help in creating a unified security framework within the GCC.

Balancing Power across the Gulf

The recent arms deals between Arab Gulf monarchies and the US are a sign of the GCC’s attempts to counter-balance Iran’s growing influence in its neighbourhood. At the same time, however, such a military build-up can only have a symbolic meaning. The purchased weapons might, of course, provide basic protection, but cannot equal Iran’s existing military force. The large procurement of advanced weapons systems has more of a psychological impact than real military significance. Having lots of conventional weapons will not be enough to repel a full-scale Iranian military attack and will become even more insignificant when Iran becomes a nuclear power.

The Gulf monarchies face various constraints that result from their disadvantageous geopolitical situation, domestic challenges and the difficulty in creating a unified and effective security pact within the GCC framework. They lack the ability to act independently outside a Western security umbrella and be a meaningful opponent for Iran. The message conveyed at the moment to Iran by Saudi Arabia and its neighbours is primarily political, signalling that they will not tolerate the Iranian regime’s adventurism; but it does not carry much military weight. The purchase of advanced and expensive military equipment has never given the Gulf monarchies real regional leverage in the past and it is unlikely that the situation will be any different this time. The US will remain the only significant guarantor of security in the region and a deterrent against a nuclear-capable Iran. The Arab Gulf States have to accept that their security ultimately lies in the hands of outside powers and allies.

It is now more important to realise that the military procurement in the Gulf will not balance Iran’s strength and that the danger posed by the Islamic Republic lies not in its missiles or fighter jets, but in its political influence in the region. It is its cells of Shia militants ready to sabotage the domestic fronts and shake the stability and security of the Gulf countries that should be given more attention in any defence strategies in the region.

Agnieszka Eile 


[1] James Drummond and Carola Hoyos, ‘Iran Fear Triggers Arms Surge’, Financial Times, 21 September 2010.

[2] The inauguration of this French military base in the UAE has significant symbolic meaning. It is France’s first permanent base in the Gulf, and the first overseas French military facility in half a century. It is also the first military base in a country that had no colonial ties to France. The opening of the base carried a message to Iran that any attack on the Gulf monarchy would be treated as an assault on France.

[3] Yoel Guzansky, ‘Beyond the Nuclear and Terror Threats: The Conventional Military Balance in the Gulf’, Strategic Assessment (Vol. 13, No. 1, July 2010).

[4] Information from <>.

[5] Guzansky, op. cit.

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