Middle East in huge naval expansion
Security concerns fuelling boom in maritime defence spending in the region.
Last Modified: 31 Mar 2010 12:42 GMT

Concerns over maritime security in the Middle East and North Africa are fuelling a massive expansion of naval capacity in the region, bucking a worldwide trend of slowing military spending as a result of the global recession.

Problems with piracy, long-term stability and energy security are prompting Arab governments to spend billions of dollars on naval equipment, ranging from ships to unmanned drones, experts at the Doha International Maritime Defence Exhibition told Al Jazeera.

"In terms of percentage growth, the Middle East and North Africa actually leads the world naval market," Bob Nugent, a maritime defence market analyst, said.

"The focus is on capabilities that can give you the anti-piracy, anti-terrorism sorts of missions."

The trend for countries in the region to increase maritime spending comes as governments in Europe, Africa and Asia have slashed spending in light of constraints placed on them by the global economic slowdown.

But in the Middle East, naval security is increasingly being viewed as a priority by governments.

Many Middle Eastern countries rely on off-shore energy reserves that policy makers believe may require protection in the future as energy security becomes an increasing concern.

This, coupled with worries over the impact of Somali piracy and the suspected military ambitions of nearby Iran, has prompted a boom in naval spending that experts predict will last for decades to come.

Avoiding war

"It's not so much that you're expecting to have a war with another nation," says Michael Codner, director of the military science department at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"You want to remove any possibility of it coming to that situation by being perceived to be the weaker power."

The concerns driving the spending have also seen an increase in Middle Eastern countries producing their own naval equipment, Nugent said.

"One of the new developments is the capability to produce indigenous shipbuilding," he said.

Analysts expect $30bn to be spent by 2030

"That’s an increasingly significant part of the local market."

The biggest growth area is in Corvette style warships.

Known for their versatility, these relatively light craft are manoeuvrable enough to conduct patrols, yet well-armed enough to act as a serious naval deterrent.

As a result Corvettes are expected to represent almost a third of total Middle East naval spending over the next 20 years. 

Up to a quarter of the $30bn expected to be spent on naval procurement in the region by 2030 will come from Saudi Arabia, analysts predict.

Many Saudi oil interests lie offshore and the country's major shipping lanes run through the lawless waters of the Gulf of Aden, where pirate attacks have been on the increase.

This, together with the Middle East's historic instability and the healthy oil revenues enjoyed by many countries in the region, make the naval spending spree no surprise, experts say.

"It's risk management in an area of the earth that for many years now has been perceived to be the area which is most prone to conflict," Codner says.

"If you are a nation in that area, and also dependent on the sea, then clearly maritime spending is very important." 

Al Jazeera
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