Securing the Future: The GCC States' Endeavors in Defense Industry, Warfare Technologies and Policy
Building on substantial and longstanding investments in arms, many of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman are pursuing the construction of military-industrial complexes in line with the rationales of their ‘Visions’ strategies. They also reflect the expediencies of a rapidly shifting regional and international landscape, in particular, a period of recent escalation in the Gulf and r ...
Building on substantial and longstanding investments in arms, many of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman are pursuing the construction of military-industrial complexes in line with the rationales of their ‘Visions’ strategies. They also reflect the expediencies of a rapidly shifting regional and international landscape, in particular, a period of recent escalation in the Gulf and renewed regional diplomacy, uncertain relations with the US, and growing security and defensive relations with Russia and China, coupled with a long-term aim of building greater state autonomy. This workshop explores GCC state military–industrial complexes, focusing on how new technologies might impact the status quo, and what the interaction is between these developing security and defensive pathways and other state, regional, and international security issues and relationships.
Description and Rationale
During the last few decades, the armed forces of the GCC nations have undergone a transformative evolution. From humble origins and despite often facing human resource and intra-GCC cooperative challenges, they have metamorphosed into some of the region's most technologically advanced military entities. Modernization has been pivotal to this transformation. Procuring state-of-the-art equipment, many of the GCC states have been relentless in bolstering their military prowess. Within the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have been some of the biggest spenders in this respect. According to data obtained from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) database, over the last two decades (2002-2022), Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular occupied the 3rd and the 5th positions in the top five list of the world’s largest arms importers. Defense dynamics vis-à-vis the United States in an unstable regional environment, including the war in Yemen, have contributed to these leading arms import positions. Yet US military assistance programs, within the context of other internal monarchical security interests, are routinely queried for their ability to promote military efficiency and coordination. From the Khaleeji perspective, the drive of localization of the defense industry is multifaceted. Strategically, it ensures that the GCC nations maintain greater autonomy over their expanding defense capabilities, minimizing and/or helping to guarantee (in the case of Bahrain) external dependencies (especially on the US) whilst maximizing technology transfer and self-reliance, thus giving the GCC countries a boost to their overall state autonomy and decision making, national-defense level capacities and economic diversification prospects. When coupled with hedging, these moves may increase the political maneuverability space vis-a-vis externally imposed conditionality and unforeseen developments amid the diffusion of global power, including the return of the great power competition. Military-industrial complexes also serve to insure against further regional tensions and continued uncertainties but could also contribute to greater regional cooperation in specific areas. From an economic perspective, a robust indigenous defense industry can be a significant employer, fostering technological innovation and trickle-down technologies that could boost economic growth, as evident in the case of Israel and Turkey. The ramifications of these initiatives are profound, influencing not just the defense sector but also the broader socio-economic fabric, including rising nationalist sentiment.
The quest for the indigenization of defense industries among GCC countries is not merely a matter of economic or technological ambition. It strikes at the very heart of Gulf regional security, especially when considering future prospects. Relying heavily on defense imports, especially from Western nations, has presented both opportunities and vulnerabilities for the GCC states. On one hand, it provides them access to cutting-edge technology and capabilities. On the other, it exposes them to potential risks associated with geopolitical shifts, changes in foreign policies of supplier countries, and the unpredictability of international relations. By localizing their defense industries, GCC nations aim to reduce such dependencies, thereby enhancing their strategic autonomy and resilience. This move not only has implications for their defense and security postures but also for the broader geopolitics and international relations of the Gulf, as it could recalibrate alliances and power dynamics.
The topic matters also because the defense dynamics of the GCC countries have implications that ripple far beyond their borders, on several levels, including:
a. Geopolitical Level: The GCC states, given their strategic location and vast energy reserves, have always been at the nexus of global geopolitics and geo-economics. Any shift in their defense posture or capabilities can influence the power dynamics in the region and beyond.
b. Economic Level: The localization of the defense industry in the GCC sub-region can leave its impact not only on the economy of the meant nations but also on the global defense trade. It can reduce some trading relations, open up new markets, foster collaborations, and even introduce competition.
c. Security Level: The localization of the defense industry can embolden some GCC state's armed forces. The integration of AI in the local defense industries, the defense doctrines/strategies, especially in areas like cybersecurity, hybrid warfare, and maritime security among others, can set precedents and leave various implications of different levels.
d. Diplomatic Level: The GCC state's defense collaborations resulting from the localization of the defense industry can redefine diplomatic relations, dependencies/alliances, and other dynamics in the region and beyond.
Asmahan Qarjouli, “Qatar Second Top Military Spender in Gulf Region,” Doha News, 26 April 2023, https://dohanews.co/qatar-second-top-military-spender-in-gulf-region/
Rawan Radwan, “How Saudi Arabia’s SAMI is Driving the Localisation of the Kingdom’s Defense Industry,” Arab News, 21 August 2023, https://www.arabnews.com/node/2358496/saudi-arabia Saudi Arabian Military Industries, https://www.sami.com.sa/
SIPRI, “Arms Trade,” https://armstrade.sipri.org/armstrade/html/export_toplist.php
Bilal Saab, Rebuilding Arab Defense: US Security Cooperation in the Middle East. (Lynne Rienner, 2022).
SIPRI, “World Military Expenditure Passes $2 Trillion for First Time,” https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2022/world-military-expenditure-passes-2-trillion-firsttime
SIPRI, “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021,”
Zoltan Barany, Indigenous Defense Industries in the Gulf, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 24 April 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/indigenous-defense-industries-gulf
Directors’ bio notes
Dr. Robert Mason FHEA FRSA is a Non-Resident Fellow with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow with the Gulf Research Center in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Mason holds a Ph.D. in Middle East Politics from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. His thesis focused on the economic, geo-strategic, and ideological aspects of Saudi and Iranian foreign policy. He is the author or editor of nine books, including Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia: Economics and Diplomacy in the Middle East (I. B. Tauris, 2014) and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates: Foreign Policy and Strategy in an Uncertain World, (Manchester University Press, 2023). His work has also appeared in the Middle East Journal, Middle East Policy, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Third World Quarterly, and European Foreign Affairs Review. He also writes regularly for outlets such as the Atlantic Council, Stimson Center, Middle East Institute, Cairo Review of Global Affairs, and Middle East Council.
Dr. Ali Bakir is a Research Assistant Professor at Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Sciences. He is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow with the “Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative” and Middle East programs at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. Bakir has over 15 years of professional experience working with senior officials, decision-makers, and stakeholders for governmental, non-governmental, and private-sector institutions. Before joining Qatar University, he was a senior adviser at Qatar’s Embassy in Ankara.