The GCC’s arms race and the Iranian ‘threat’

GCC countries have spent billions of dollars on US arms. Will that guarantee their security?

139th anniversary of Qatar National Day
Qatari Air Force perform to commemorate the Qatar National Day in on December 18, 2017 [Anadolu]

For the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, 2017 is ending with much insecurity and uncertainty. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to mount as does friction between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey.

Yemen’s humanitarian disaster is getting worse, as Houthi fighters continue to fire missiles into Saudi Arabia and Riyadh responds with heavy bombardment of Sanaa and other areas. Sporadic attacks in Bahrain continue targeting the kingdom’s security forces and infrastructure. Qatari-Turkish military cooperation is deepening as more Turkish troops arrive in Doha.

Amid the GCC states’ sense of vulnerability to regional chaos, an arms race is under way in the Gulf. On December 18, during its independence day military parade, Qatar showcased its Chinese-made ballistic missiles. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia announced its budget for 2018, which will set aside $56bn for defence spending with expenditures on education no longer surpassing the military budget. In May, US President Donald Trump announced the signing of arms deals worth $110bn in Riyadh.

Since Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt severed diplomatic and economic ties with Doha on June 5, Qatar has spent tens of billions of dollars on US, British, and French fighter jets, German tanks, Italian warships, Chinese ballistic missiles, and Turkish military gear.

In September, the United States approved a $3.8bn arms package to Bahrain, and that same month President Donald Trump announced that a $5bn fighter jet sale to Kuwait had received the State Department’s green light.

Seeking favour with Washington

Whereas decades ago Washington’s relations with Gulf states were largely driven by Cold War geopolitics and high US demand for foreign oil, today’s circumstances are different and defence deals, rather than energy, play dominant roles in the US-GCC relations.

For the US, lucrative arms sales to GCC states factor into Trump’s “America First” agenda and boost his standing with his supporters at home. For the GCC countries on both sides of the ongoing crisis, these deals are a way to win Washington’s favour.

Arms purchases worth billions of dollars will not solve the domestic problems of Arab countries.


Trump’s support is a decisive factor in the crisis, as both Qatar and the Saudi/UAE-led bloc continue to wage a “soft war” against each other via media outlets, think tanks, and public relations firms.

But, it appears that arms deals with GCC countries have their own economic rationale that operates autonomously from political considerations. For example, Trump shook the hand of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, at the Riyadh Summit in May 2017 and said that he and the Qatari monarch would discuss Washington selling “beautiful military equipment” to Doha.

The following month, in the immediate aftermath of the GCC dispute’s outbreak, Trump accused Qatar of sponsoring “terrorism” in a tweet. A week later his administration authorised over $12bn of US weapons.

Last month at the Dubai International Airshow 2017, Turkey’s state-owned Mikina ve Kimya Endustrisi signed a $20m munition deal with the UAE despite recent harsh rhetorical exchanges between officials in Abu Dhabi and Ankara. For all of Russia and Saudi Arabia’s differences over Syria and Iran, their negotiations of a sale of S-400 defence system are intriguing.


Although the GCC states’ sources of weapons are diversifying, the United States remains the Gulf states’ top arms dealer. Yet, in Washington, there is growing concern about US arms sales to GCC members. There have been suggestions that the Trump administration block arms sales to the region until the GCC crisis is resolved. Another concern is the deadly military campaign in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia, which is armed with US weapons.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, politicians and activists have called on the UK government to stop selling arms to Riyadh which could be used in the Yemeni war, where air raids by the Saudi-led coalition have killed thousands.

A faulty anti-Iran strategy

Despite the controversy that surrounds Washington’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other GCC members, it is likely that such transactions will continue. The Trump administration’s plan to remove restrictions on arms sales that the Obama administration linked to human rights issues is one indication of that.

In the Gulf, there will be a continuous demand for such arms deals driven by perceptions of a growing “Iranian threat”; this sits well with anti-Iran hawks in Washington. 

Iran has exploited much of the chaos in post-2003 Iraq, the Syrian civil war, sectarian unrest in Bahrain, the Yemeni Arab Spring of 2011 and the collapse of the government in Sanaa in 2014. Arab governments and societies that fail to effectively deal with issues of poverty, youth unemployment, ethnic and sectarian marginalisation, human rights abuses, and high levels of social inequality will remain vulnerable to Iran’s efforts to capitalise on Arab states’ internal weaknesses.

Put simply, to push back against Iranian influence, Arab governments must improve their standing with certain segments of their societies that see no sound alternative but to look to foreign powers such as Iran for support. Arms purchases worth billions of dollars will not solve the domestic problems of Arab countries.

Ultimately, arms sales serve a political purpose at a time of increasingly confrontational rhetoric between the US, GCC states, and Iran. Officials in Tehran, however, see through the arms charade and are aware of the show Trump is putting up for his domestic audience.

So Gulf states will need a much more comprehensive approach towards Iran than spending billions on US arms to curb its growing influence and shield themselves from regional instability and violent extremists. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.