ABU DHABI — The political influence of two of the world’s biggest arms buyers is growing throughout major capitals in the world as their defense budgets continue to increase.
The top five weapons importers — India, Saudi Arabia, China, the UAE and Pakistin — accounted for 33 percent of the total arms imports from 2010 to 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfer report released last week. The UAE and Saudi Arabia combined accounted for 9 percent of the total arms imports over that period, eclipsing China’s 5 percent stake.
During the period, 23 percent of arms transfers to the Middle East region went to Saudi Arabia and 20 percent to the UAE. The US accounted for 47 percent of total arms supplies, Russia for 12 percent and the UK for 10 percent.
“As a result of their growing military prowess and purchases, Arab states have started exerting their will successfully upon the international community,” said Matthew Hedges, an independent Arabian Gulf-based military analyst.
Over the past five years, Hedges added, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have used their purchasing power to influence major decisions in Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin and other power seats in the world.
“In 2013, when the US ceased military aid to the Egypt, the two countries lobbied and influenced the US to reverse its stance successfully as well as help broker a preliminary deal with Russia for arms worth $3.5 billion,” he said.
An analysis by Washington-based Sunlight Foundation last year revealed that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have spent a total of $25.3 million in 2013 to influence the US Congress.
The UAE alone spent $14.2 million that year to influence Americans, making contacts, among many others, with columnists and reporters to discuss “illicit finance issues” focusing on terrorist financing and Iran sanctions.
The UAE is the US’ second largest arms export partner, accounting for 8 percent of its total exports; Saudi Arabia accounts for 41 percent of the UK’s total arms exports, according to the SIPRI report.
“The Saudis in particular have leveraged American arms purchases to exercise domestic influence in the US for decades, though, so that’s not a brand new factor,” said David Weinberg, gulf expert and senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Even before he was the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud worked out of the embassy, mobilizing arms companies and their employees to support Riyadh’s policy initiatives.
“That having been said, some of these states’ commercial influence in Washington is new,” Weinberg added. “Since the Dubai Ports controversy, the level of UAE expenditures on lobbying firms has dramatically increased, along with the level of Emirati imports from the United States.”
Arms sales have been a pivotal component of US relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the past decade due to the dramatic volume of purchases being made, Weinberg said.
“A big part of this comes in the context of the shared strategic alliance versus Iran’s threatening military posture and aggressive actions in the region,” he said. “The UAE’s participation in the Afghan stabilization operation was also an important and appreciated part of this context here in Washington.”
Western capitals for the most part of aware of the situation, said Theodore Karasik, a gulf-based geopolitical affairs analyst. “Western countries in this regard keep pursuing policies emphasizing high-tech solutions that the key Arab states know are delayed by internal politics, high prices, and the fact that their defense industries are not keeping up with demand,” he said.
“Other countries, such as Russia, provide ideal equipment, at a lower cost and less political nuances for tasks at hand specifically counter-terrorism operations and urban warfare.”
The major purchases are first and foremost about balancing relationships with major foreign capitals in terms of constantly weighing their policy inputs and follow-thru in actions, Karasik said.
“Up until the mid-2000s, the UAE and Saudi Arabia seemed mostly dictated to by Western governments in terms of their requirements,” he said. “This fact launched the pursuit by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to seek more diversity in their order of battle.
“Clearly, these gulf states became fed up with what is perceived to be being told what to buy for their threat environment,” he said. “The UAE and Saudi Arabia are now buying what they need through creative shopping lists — if you will — on equipment that not only they need but what their allies in the region require as key neighboring countries disintegrate.”
The key now, Karasik said, is in terms of balance of requirements versus purchases for friendly countries such as Libya. Hedges said Saudi Arabia uses its role as the regional linchpin and vast oil reserves to strengthen its global position. “Weapon transfers to Lebanon, Egypt and Libya have seen the UAE and Saudi Arabia play a leading role in regional politics, assisting the rise of friendly regimes whilst also opposing those acting contrary to their interests,” he said.
These states have also led regional involvement in a number of campaigns, including action in Afghanistan, Libya and most recently Syria.
“It is these weapons imports that have enabled them to act decisively in this manner,” Hedges said.
Furthermore, these states have developed a pragmatic foreign policy and meaningful relationships with China, Russia, Serbia and South Africa, he said.
“This has also seen a number of tech-transfer deals and cooperation ventures resulting in advanced capabilities to the regions armed forces,” Hedges said. “These relationships have, however, been borne out of a fear of Western dissociation with the region, most specifically the US pivot to Asia.”
Sir John Jenkins, director of the Middle East office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said the two countries’ influence is dictated by their economic weight, not their procurement initiatives.
“I don’t think the international position of the UAE or [Saudi Arabia] is defined by defense procurement policies,” he said.
“They have a particular importance in the region and the wider world,” he said. “This is partly because of their economic weight. It is also in Riyadh’s case because of the kingdom’s particular importance within Islam.”
There is also a sense in which both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in the forefront of the fight against violent extremism, Jenkins added. “They may approach this from different angles. But the security of the UAE is inevitably entwined with the security of [Saudi Arabia],” he said. “That is why they both want to strengthen their defense capabilities. But these capabilities are a reflection of not the cause of their international political significance.”