This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Middle Eastern governments have been busy recapitalizing their armed forces in recent years with the latest technology.
New fighters, main battle tanks and intelligence-gathering capabilities have been snapped up from defense companies eager to sell, given the historic lows in their traditional U.S. and European markets. Key to this strengthening is concern about Iran -- which continues to make noises about its nuclear program and wield major political influence in the region despite heavy sanctions -- and perhaps about U.S. involvement in the region.
In 2011, when President Barack Obama announced a "strategic pivot" in U.S. foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region, he was also signaling a turning point for U.S. energy policy. Improved techniques for extracting shale oil mean the U.S. could potentially become the world's largest oil producer and thus be almost self-sufficient in terms of energy production.
"The governments in the Middle East have known this was coming for a long time, but were slow to recognize its significance," says Jonathan Eyal, a Middle East expert with the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute defense think tank. "Of course, the U.S. has some strategic allies in the region, but these countries are realizing that they increasingly have to do more for themselves."
While the U.S. mulls how it will re-distribute its forces after the pull-out from Afghanistan, it is likely that the huge number of U.S. troops, aircraft and ships deployed in the region is likely to shrink significantly, leaving those Middle Eastern countries to deal with problems on their periphery.This may require greater cross-border cooperation or even joint military operations.
"Military cooperation lies at the very core of the [Persian Gulf Cooperation Council] agreements, and the countries do work together, albeit on a relatively small scale," says Eyal.
He suggests the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations may need to take a greater role in operations in which the U.S. and European navies have invested in the past decade, such as anti-piracy or surveillance of the Straits of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world's oil supply is transported.
While Iran has repeatedly threatened to restrict or shut off the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have worked to circumvent the straits by opening pipelines and terminals in the Fujairah emirate, just north of the border with Oman. But Iran's navy -- the biggest in the region and with a flotilla of small, fast-moving vessels -- is still able to pose a threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf and may force those states to spend even more heavily to protect it and their littoral waters.
Defense investments made by several Persian Gulf states are beginning to bear fruit. The UAE purchased several heavily modified Bombardier DHC-8s to provide a maritime patrol capability, the first of which was delivered in mid-2012. And the UAE navy recently received its first Abu Dhabi-class corvette, built in Italy by Fincantieri. Its first Falaj-2 class patrol boat is being built in Abu Dhabi by Etihad Ship Building, a joint venture between Fincantieri and Al Fattan Ship Industries.
Saudi Arabia's navy is upgrading its Eurocopter Cougars and purchased at least six new AS565MB Panthers for its patrol ships. The country is also interested in acquiring medium-sized warships and a fleet of shipboard helicopters such as the Sikorsky MH-60R, which is also being examined by Qatar. Reports suggest that the Saudis have set aside as much as $23 billion for a navy modernization program. Oman is building up its navy, too, with the purchase of patrol boats from BAE Systems.
Greater cooperation may lie with countries other than the U.S. France now permanently stations fighters in the UAE, and the U.K. is considering similar options. Exercises such as the Advanced Tactical Leadership Course -- essentially, a Middle Eastern Red Flag held in the UAE -- have allowed the air arms of forces in the region to work more closely with their Western counterparts.
Qatar and the UAE, in particular, have global ambitions, and their involvement in Operation Unified Protector over Libya heightened their status on the world stage. Qatar's deployment of six jet fighters and helicopters may have been small compared to that of other coalition partners, but it represented a large proportion of Qatar's fleet. According to Eyal though, GCC nations would probably struggle without the support of a Western coalition partner if they needed to sustain a major operation, at least at the moment.
"The participation of Qatar and the UAE in the Libya operation was very important, but their involvement was on a very small scale, as many of these countries do not have the logistical backbone as yet for sustained operations on their own," Eyal says. The countries are rectifying that by procuring Boeing C-17s (Qatar bought four and the UAE six) and Airbus Military A330 Medium Multi-Role Tanker Transports (MRTT). Qatar has also purchased Lockheed Martin C-130Js. But the two countries are still highly dependent on coalition partners; during Operation Unified Protector, the Qatari Mirage 2000 force was embedded with the French air force operation out of Souda Bay in Crete, while the UAE F-16s flew alongside those from other coalition nations at Sigonella, Italy.
But neither the UAE nor Qatar is a stranger to operations overseas. The UAE supported the U.N. mission in Kosovo in 1999-2001 with a detachment of helicopters and, while it usually goes unreported, UAE special forces have been operating in Afghanistan for more than five years. Qatar's quiet diplomacy may also be counteracting Iran's attempts to destabilize relations across the region, and it has been taking on humanitarian missions, flying aid to earthquake-stricken Haiti and Chile in 2010. With this background, it seems likely that both countries will be keen to extend their reach further and work to strengthen their logistical chains to be ready to continue such activities
Saudi Arabian forces, meanwhile, will have to maintain watch on two fronts. Much of its oil refining is on the Persian Gulf coast, just over the water from Iran, and there have been cross-border troubles with Yemen. The Saudis are investing in new equipment such as its multibillion-dollar purchases of F-15 Eagles and Eurofighter Typhoons and the training infrastructure to support them.
Like the UAE and Qatar, Saudi Arabia has acquired A330 MRTTs, C-130J transports and KC-130J tankers. The country is investing in a large new fleet of helicopters and the creation of a national guard to provide homeland security and protect the country's infrastructure. While it continues to rely on old allies such as the U.S. for equipment, the Saudi Arabian government is diversifying its supplier base, procuring hundreds of Leopard 2 main battle tanks, Dingo infantry fighting vehicles and Boxer armored cars from Germany. The Saudis will likely make further investments in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, too.
The UAE is also diversifying and creating offset policies that will help it build an indigenous defense industry. For example, Raytheon and Emirates Advanced Investments codeveloped the Talon laser-guided rocket, and the Fincantieri-Al Fattan Ship Industries joint venture has allowed the UAE to build its first warships. Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky are partnered with the Mubadala to provide aviation maintenance through the Advanced Military Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul Center. Companies such as the Streit and Paramount groups are setting up facilities in the country to build armored vehicles.
In addition, Saab recently announced it will team with Abu Dhabi-based Tawazun to create a new UAE-based radar company called Abu Dhabi Advanced Radar Systems (Adars). Saab says Adars will be "a local radar capability center for development of next-generation radar systems and for production, maintenance and support services in the radar-system area."
The UAE has been one of the biggest spenders on defense in recent years, although its expenditures are starting to taper off. According to Eyal and other observers, this is because officials in the country have a better understanding of their requirements and specifications, recognizing that equipment that has proved effective in the U.S. or Western Europe may not work so well in the blazing heat of the desert.
"Countries such as the UAE and Qatar depend on high-technology systems -- they need to because they don't have the manpower in the armed forces [that] their neighbors do," Eyal notes.
"I am sure they wouldn't like the comparison, but the UAE and Qatar are rather like Israel, highly dependent on technology. They feel the need to invest in anti-ballistic missile systems and drones to restore the balance," he says. The need for such technology may also explain why several major purchases are taking longer than expected, according to Eyal.
"Customers in this region are extremely savvy about what they are purchasing, and the bidding processes are a lot more considered now than they used to be," says an industry official with close knowledge of the Typhoon purchase in Saudi Arabia.
For several years, contractors have been chasing the UAE's long-standing requirement for an airborne early warning capability. In 2009, the UAE air force acquired two Erieye-equipped Saab 340s that are now in service to provide an interim capability until officials decide on a longer-term program.
The air force is also looking for a new fighter to replace its Mirage 2000-9s; Eurofighter and Dassault are pushing the Typhoon and Rafale, respectively, with strong backing from senior government officials. The UAE's Mirage 2000-9s performed well in Operation Unified Protector, and six recently deployed to Nellis AFB, Nev., for a Green Flag exercise.
Qatar wants to replace its small fleet of Mirage 2000s as well, and is in process of a wide-scale modernization, choosing a new trainer, acquiring AW139 helicopters and looking at more tactical utility helicopters such as the UH- and MH-60S. NH Industries is offering the NH90 helicopter, which is used by Oman.
Persian Gulf states such as the UAE and Qatar are also keen to procure anti-ballistic missile systems such as Lockheed Martin's Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, despite its high cost, to act as a deterrent to a conventional missile attack. Even with so much modernization already underway, there appear to be plenty more opportunities in the Middle East.