Experts answer: Saudi Arabia’s Arms Deals: Goals and Effects on Regional Power Balance

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Interviewer: Ramin Nadimi
Expert on defense issues

During recent weeks, the important and restive West Asia region has seen speeding up of political and geopolitical developments. Among the most important of those developments, one can enumerate the following:

1.      A trip to the region by US President Donald Trump and conclusion of 110 billion dollars worth of military contracts with Saudi Arabia, which include, among other things, four advanced shallow-water naval vessels, 30 high-speed patrol boats, 150 Lockheed Martin Blackhawk helicopters, 48 Chinook helicopters, 153 M1A2 SA tanks, 20 M-88A2 armored vehicles, an unknown number of M109 155-mm self-propelled howitzers and Bradley armored personnel carriers in addition to cargo and maintenance planes, and P-8 Poseidon military aircraft;

2.      Increased tensions between Tehran and Riyadh and the first terrorist attack by Daesh on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s capital city followed by Iran’s missile launch against terrorists’ positions in Syria in reaction to the attack;

3.      A number of military confrontations between American forces and the Syrian army and its allied forces near the Tanf border crossing, including downing of a Syrian jet and two Iranian drones by American warplanes as well as bombardment of the positions of the Syrian army and its allies near the Tanf border crossing;

4.      Breakout of intense military differences between a Saudi-led bloc of Arab countries and Qatar and their effort to isolate Doha; and finally,

5.      The launch of a military operation by the US-led coalition in Syria to recapture the city of Raqqah, which is known as de facto capital of Daesh’s so-called caliphate in the Arab country.

The current situation in the region, especially the latest developments in relations between Tehran and Riyadh, has been the subject of the following interview with two experts on defense and strategic issues, Messrs. Mohsen Moradian and Abdolrasul Divsalar.

The interview represents an effort to give answers to the most important questions with regard to regional rivalries between these two important West Asian countries, especially in the Persian Gulf, while taking into account all possibilities. We hope this interview would give readers a more complete view of the present and future states of military balance in the Persian Gulf as well as challenges and opportunities ahead of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Q1: What is your viewpoint on the reasons and goals behind Saudi Arabia’s signing of such a hefty arms contract with the United States under conditions when Riyadh has been facing severe budget deficit during the past four years due to falling oil prices? What effect will this contract have on the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran?

Moradian: Saudi Arabia had started buying arms since a long time ago. The country had purchased about one hundred billion dollars of weapons a few years ago and the new contract is, in fact, the second package of Saudi Arabia’s arms deals, which is of very high importance to Iran. We are engaged in an age-old rivalry with Saudi Arabia in the region, which dates back to the years before the victory of the Islamic Revolution. At that time, this rivalry was sometimes intensified and even escalated to a level above ordinary rivalry. However, since both countries were allies of the Western bloc, tensions quickly subsided. Those tensions were mostly rooted not in ideological matters, but in economic and political issues and were amenable to rapid control and containment. Following the Islamic Revolution, however, Saudi Arabia considered Iran as a threat, because it thought Tehran was trying to promote the Shia way of thinking and believed that Iran was expanding its sphere of influence while Riyadh was lagging behind despite having huge potential to do so. But at the present time, it can be said that by purchasing such weapons, Saudi Arabia has disturbed balance of power and it is necessary for Iran to take suitable measures under these conditions.

In my opinion, weapons that have been purchased in the past few years by the member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, especially by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the development of military forces of these two countries – an example of which is expanding cooperation with the Pentagon for deployment of six American F-22 stealth fighter jets to an Emirati base – have led to new conditions. As a result, we must not see Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as they were years ago. We must also not forget that Saudi Arabia has huge soft power potentialities. This country also enjoys high influence and ability to “mobilize” other countries in the Islamic world, including Egypt and Pakistan, and also enjoys high influence among Muslim countries in Southeast Asia.

With these facts in mind, it is clear that Saudi Arabia can tilt the regional balance of power in its own benefit after acquiring these weapons. Let’s not forget that up to fifteen or twenty years ago, most people serving in the Saudi army were foreign mercenaries and soldiers. This people were mostly former military personnel coming from such countries as Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and so forth. However, this is not the case anymore and even if there are mercenaries in this army, they are recruited at low levels and for the service work. The Saudi air force, on the other side, has no mercenary forces whatsoever and all of its personnel are Saudi nationals. By the way, Arab countries of the Persian Gulf have greatly increased their military power in past years and Saudi Arabia, for example is now equipped with long-range DF-3 and DF-21 ballistic missiles made by China. There are rumors about existence of seven nuclear weapons in Saudi Arabia’s military arsenal and they say that Riyadh has bought them from Pakistan and the former republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the Zionist regime of Israel have had common concerns about Iran during past years, which have somehow brought Tel Aviv and Riyadh close together. Perhaps, their current relationship cannot be described as an alliance, but the past hostility does not exist between the two sides anymore and unlike past years, Saudi Arabia does not have a hostile approach toward the Zionist regime. On the other hand, one can even claim that cooperation between Riyadh and Tel Aviv has already started at a certain level, which is currently mostly limited to intelligence collaboration.

So, in general, one can say that Saudi Arabia’s recent arms deals were not a result of the country’s high military budget and its willingness to spend that budget, since countries do not usually spend their money simply because they have a lot of it. It is a general rule that countries behave more wisely and spend their money only in those cases that are totally necessary. Of course, Saudi Arabia is sure to have priorities of its own and if Saudis embark on such hefty deals it means that they are very scared. They are concerned about Iran and see that the Islamic Republic’s power is constantly on the rise. Therefore, they are trying to keep themselves on a par with Iran by any means.

The issue of the two countries’ population is also a source of concern for Saudi Arabia. According to current assessments, Iran’s population will start its decline almost in 2030. At the present time, we have a population of about 81 million and this population is expected to continue to increase up to 2030. However, this increase in population will not be due to an increased birth rate, but due to a reduced mortality rate. In other words, the rate of birth is low, but the rate of mortality is lower and, as a result, the population will continue to grow more or less. The point, however, is that our population is faced with the problem of gradual ageing of the generation that must defend the country in time of need. This comes at a time that conditions in Saudi Arabia are totally the opposite of Iran. That is, the population in Saudi Arabia will get old after 2030 and this will continue up to 2050. At the present time, Saudi Arabia’s main weakness is its vast land as opposed to a low population. However, after 2030, Saudi Arabia will overcome the problem of low population and since it will have enough money and military hardware, it will have major advantages over Iran.

Divsalar: This issue can be viewed from a number of standpoints. One of those key and determining factors behind Saudi Arabia’s hefty arms deals is to increase the country’s power to influence the United States’ foreign policy. Saudi officials are well aware that unlike the Obama administration under which the foreign policy played a powerful role, the new American administration attaches more importance to military industries and defense-related bureaucracy. For example, when it comes to structural comparison between US departments of state and defense, the role played by the Department of Defense in the country’s foreign policy currently outweighs that of the State Department, because these conditions are close to personal approaches adopted by US President Donald Trump. Therefore, Saudis have found out that at the present time, they will be able to influence the foreign policy of the United States in a much more dynamic and effective way through the country’s military industry lobby. It is for this reason that this contract is partly the result of a more strategic understanding by Arabs who believes that the existing security arrangements in the region must change and this change will not be possible in the absence of support from military bureaucratic structures in the United States. As a result, one can claim that part of this contract has nothing to do with the military hardware at all and must be viewed from a software standpoint where creating the aforesaid security arrangements in the region is of high significance.

From another standpoint there is a series of major weaknesses in the current defense structure of Saudi Arabia and other member countries of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council. This issue has been corroborated by many analyses offered by American and NATO military advisors on the issue of redesigning military structures of the Council’s member countries in order to give them common operational capabilities. At the same time, their weaknesses are exactly considered as points of advantage for Iran in a possible regional military confrontation. Iran has always used weak points of Arab states of the Persian Gulf to establish a balance with them. Some of these weak points have been related to coastal defense systems or the equipment known as Anti Access/Area Denial or A2/AD. Now, a glance at new arms deals signed by Saudi Arabia will show that part of these deals are aimed to change the current defense balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia by eliminating those weak points that exist in defense structure of Arab states. Therefore, one can clearly say that Arab states have not merely embarked on “bulk” purchase of weapons or are simply buying weapons in order to spend their defense budget. On the contrary, their arms purchases are planned with due care and this care has been quite evident in the type of weapons that they have ordered in comparison with weapons possessed by Iran. In short, the main goal of these arms deals is to change the current balance of power and create a new balance in favor of Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region and also to fill the existing strategic voids.

I think that the third factor that is influential in such military purchases is Saudi Arabia’s effort to give legitimacy to its military power by exponentially increasing the strength of its military arsenal. In other words, some Arab countries, due to their cultural and historical backgrounds, are trying to develop a powerful cultural aspect for themselves and want to give legitimacy to this cultural aspect by increasing their military power. From this viewpoint, Saudi Arabia believes that it would be able to safeguard the Arab culture if it enjoys high military power.

As said before, at the present time, Saudi Arabia’s military forces are suffering from a few weaknesses in the face of Iran. One of the most important of those weaknesses is Iran’s missile power. Up to this time, Saudi Arabia has been lacking a powerful missile defense system to be counted on for countering possible missile attacks from Iran. Therefore, Saudi Arabia deems it necessary to meet this need in order to be able to change the existing balance of power. Secondly, another field in which Saudi Arabia has been admittedly facing problems in the face of Iran is the issue of coastal defense. This means that due to its long coastal line along the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia sees itself extremely vulnerable in the face of a land invasion by Iran. For this reason, procurement of a set of coastal defense systems, which would enable this country to block sea and land invasion of its territory through its long coasts has been among top military priorities of Saudi Arabia.

And thirdly, according to analyses by Saudi Arabian sources and American think tanks, Saudis see themselves extremely weak when it comes to offensive air power against Iran, including facilities for transfer of military forces to enemy’s lines by air. Air offense needs rapid logistics and this has been also on the purchase list of Saudi Arabia in its recent arms deals with the United States. From my viewpoint, an important part of this contract, whose all details have not been revealed yet, is related to creating a rapid logistical supply chain for the Saudi army. This capability will allow Saudi Arabia to transfer its forces into the enemy territory in a short period of time.

On the whole, use of the entire cycle of advanced weapons, which have been purchased by Saudi Arabia in recent years, can totally change the power balance in the region. In other words, if conditions in Iran’s defense sector continue in the current state and the rate of its growth remains unchanged, alterations that have come about in Saudi Arabia’s military purchase strategy will change the balance of power in favor of Riyadh when these weapons are delivered and become operational. Therefore, one can claim that Iran needs to make a strategic change in its threat assessment and also alter its approach to threat when Saudi Arabia is involved.

Q2: What is your viewpoint on efforts made by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to establish their own indigenous defense industries and form a pan-Arab military force through cooperation with other member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council? What are the chances for formation of such a military power in your viewpoint?

Moradian: The issue of establishing a United Arab Army dates back to about twenty years ago. At that time, Saudi Arabia was planning to launch a 40,000-strong Arab army in cooperation with other member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council and they have taken good steps in this regard as well. For example, Saudi Arabia’s military incursion into Bahrain was not carried out as an intervention by Saudi Arabia’s royal army, but was considered to be an operation by the United Arab Army. Of course, it is quite evident that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are heavyweights in this army and other countries like Bahrain and Qatar do not play a very important role in this regard. In fact, this army is actually the same as Saudi Arabia’s army, but it has been established under this title in order to obtain international prestige and make its operations acceptable to the world public opinion. In another instance, although the plan for the deployment of a common missile defense shield in the Persian Gulf has not been finished yet, part of this common missile shield, which includes Patriot missile batteries from member countries of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, has already been made ready in the form of a connected network.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has been taking steps since a few years ago to indigenize its defense industries and technology and the country is currently producing part of its generally light arms and equipment. Since Saudi Arabia spends a lot of money on this issue and is also helped by important countries that make military weapons and equipment, one can expect rapid transfer of this technology to Saudi Arabia or even the United Arab Emirates. Their main goal is to produce part of their needed defense products through reliance on their own capabilities.

Divsalar: It is not impossible to achieve this goal. A glance at the past experience of Arab countries in such fields as economy and spatial planning will clearly show that they have learned the culture of advisory management and its related skills. Therefore, when you look from this viewpoint, it seems that strategic thinking has grown a lot in Arab countries. They have changed the way they thought about military relations and have developed it. Therefore, it is not impossible or unexpected for them to achieve this level of self-sufficiency. However, no clear date, for example 2030, can be set for it. Nonetheless, this development can take place sooner or later. The issue that exists here, however, and can help speed up this development, is the improvement of relations between Saudi Arabia and the Zionist regime of Israel and strengthening of Riyadh's ties with Tel Aviv and Washington. This development will turn Saudi Arabia into a trusted party with regard to defense structures in the United States and Israel and will give Riyadh better access to those structures in order to further shore up its military industries. An obstacle to transfer of military technology to Arab countries in past years has been serious opposition from the Zionist regime of Israel. If this obstacle is removed, there will be the possibility of more profound military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States and the Zionist regime. This more profound cooperation can include transfer of technology to Saudi Arabia and Riyadh’s membership in the club of countries that can produce weapons.

If opposition from the Zionist regime is removed as an obstacle, a similar development can take place between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Since Russians’ main policy is to establish balance of power in West Asia, opposition from Iran cannot prevent sales of military technology by Russia to Saudi Arabia. On the whole, Riyadh enjoys high potential at global level to create a military industrial infrastructure.

Q3: How do you see the prospect of successful use of advanced weapons purchased by the armies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates?

Divsalar: Let’s first scrap this totally incorrect presumption that Arabs, in general, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, in particular, do not have a correct understanding of strategic relations and lack solid military thinking, and only embark on purchasing military hardware due to their high oil revenues. This idea that all military purchases by Saudis are limited to buying hardware equipment is also incorrect. A major part of these contracts includes purchase of advisory services, while ordering weapons is just one part of them. In other words, military advisors, planners and designers from the United States and some other Western countries, especially France and Italy, present their military packages to their customers in the Persian Gulf. Most of those packages have nothing to do with military hardware and an important part of them is related to training, organization planning and creation of a professional army.

This is why Arab armies will not need a great number of soldiers. Of course, some details about the recent military contracts between Saudi Arabia and the United States have not been released yet, but the available evidence shows that a large part of this military package is about advisory services. Therefore, it will include such issues as creation of a professional military force, taking advantage of the purchased weapons and equipment, defense readiness and location services, and passive defense. At the present time, when military purchases are going to be made, in the first step, military needs of the buyer country are identified and assessed by advisory teams from countries, which manufacture and sell military equipment, on the basis of the buyer country’s strategy and operational goals. It is only then that steps are taken to satisfy those needs.

Q4: In your opinion, if the balance of power is changed in favor of Saudi Arabia, how can we achieve new balance with Saudis in the next ten years? In view of the existing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, what policy will be adopted by Russians with regard to selling defense weapons and technology?

Moradian: In my opinion, from the viewpoint of ground forces, we have the upper hand over Saudi Arabia. However, since we have no land borders with Saudi Arabia, the possibility of a terrestrial war between the two countries is very low. At the same time, Iran must do whatever it can to further bolster its air force. With regard to the naval forces, although Saudi Arabia’s naval power is almost entirely focused on the Red Sea, purchase of new littoral combat ships, which cannot be detected by radar, by Saudi Arabia can give this country some sort of superior position in the Persian Gulf. With regard to the air force, the air forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have greatly uplifted their capabilities in recent years. During the same years, Emirati jet fighters have been engaged in combat operations in such distant countries as Libya and Syria. Conducting such long-range missions is of special importance and very meaningful to military experts. On the other hand, the army of the United Arab Emirates has undergone great developments compared to twenty years ago. This is also true about the Saudi Arabian air force, which has gained great experience during the Yemen war over the past two years. However, many observers in our country still stick to the same clichéd viewpoints about these countries.

Therefore, the first solution must be to bolster our country’s air force either through domestic production of needed equipment, or through complementing domestic production of such equipment via foreign purchases. In view of resources available to Iran, such purchases can be only made from Russia and China; of course, if Russians do not repeat the obstructionist measures they took with regard to delivering the S-300 missile defense systems to Iran. At any rate, Iran can somehow change the balance of power in the region to its own benefit by purchasing fighter jets. If this development does not take place, Saudi Arabia will have a very wide maneuvering room.

Divsalar: The policy of arms sales followed by Russia since the time of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has been based on defense cooperation and selling arms to both sides of a rivalry. Under Iran's former monarchial regime and during the 1970s, the Iranian army made its biggest purchase of terrestrial military equipment from the Soviet Union, which was worth about 500 million dollars. This was an unchanging pattern in the policy of Russian’s arms sales. I think that Saudi Arabia will soon, and when it deems suitable, turn to buying military technology from Russians. However, the sure point is that in order to make a bigger effect on the US foreign policy and maintain its lobbying leverage in this regard, Saudi Arabia will not go to Russians first, because it knows that this would have a negative impact on Washington. Therefore, although it is possible for Saudis not to make a decision on directly tapping into Russia’s military technology potentialities, this is an area about which Saudis are certainly thinking and if necessary, they will go there.

I think what is happening here is that the dynamism of threats posed to Iran in the Middle East is changing and we need to change our assessment of these threats as well. During past years, Iran's military forces and defense strategy were configured to address a possible aggression by the United States or a possible war with the Zionist regime. In other words, our defense structure has been designed for a possible confrontation with the United States and the Zionist regime. This structure or defense strategy has not been designed to handle a possible confrontation with Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the most strategic development, which must take place, is to update Iran's military doctrine and defense strategy and come up with a new definition for the aforesaid threats.

I think that we are witnessing two important developments in the offing. One development is that Saudi Arabia is evolving into a more real threat to Iran, which can be assessed at a level on par with the threat posed by the United States and the Zionist regime. The second development is the threat posed by Daesh and other forms of terrorism. I mean, these two sorts of threats are like two changes, which must be reflected in Iran's military strategy. In doing this, Iranian forces should move spontaneously and use the necessary technology, which could boost Iran's “Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD)” capability. I do not think that there would be much concern about obtaining the military technology, because we have already shown that we are able to rapidly go through a process of developing our military industries. We have been also able to develop necessary technology for our operational needs and give meaning to these operational needs by combining them with our practical experience and move toward acquiring needed technologies. Therefore, after going through this process, we have new and beneficial experiences, provided that we have a correct assessment of threats ahead of us.

Therefore, I believe that the first step that Iran must take in the near future is reassessment of military threats against it, and within this framework, priority must be given to reassessment of threats posed by Saudi Arabia. This is not simply because Saudi Arabia is a Sunni and rival country, but also because military balance with this country is on the brink of a change and is going to be disturbed. According to most strategic theories and ideas, if this balance is disturbed, the potential for violence and breakout of war will greatly increase. Therefore, we are naturally duty-bound to maintain this military balance stable so as to reduce chances of violence and as such, reduce the possibility of war with Saudi Arabia. If we want to continue our deterrence strategy in a more effective and sustainable manner in the future, we need to do a new assessment of threat, so that, by means of that assessment, we would be able to prevent a change in the military balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the future.

Q5: During recent years, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have spent a lot of money on buying cargo planes and helicopters, including Boeing C-17 Globemaster planes and Chinook helicopters. Do you think that these two countries are considering the possibility of operations in which they would have to airdrop their forces into battlefields relatively farther away?

Moradian: These air transportation facilities can be meant for two purposes: both for use by those countries, which have bought them, and for use by third countries in the region, including the United States, because they can help facilitate transport of American’s forces during military operations in West Asia. Of course, the point, which must not be ignored here, is that part of this military equipment, which has been purchased by these countries, is not simply meant to counter the external enemy, but also to deal with internal concerns and threats. The reality, which must be taken into account, is that Saudi Arabia is a vast country and lacks suitable roads and land transportation routes over most of its territory. Therefore, it is possible that Saudi Arabia would need this equipment for air transportation over a large part of its soil. However, in addition to all possibilities, these remarkable air transportation facilities can be used against the Islamic Republic of Iran as well.

Divsalar: As said before, part of the military equipment recently bought by Riyadh is meant to bolster the country’s air offense capability – for example, to airlift military forces to the enemy’s positions – and also shore up Saudi Arabia’s logistical capability. Such capability will allow Saudi Arabia to dispatch its forces into enemy’s territory over a short period of time.

***Q6: The Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormoz account for the lion’s share of the maritime sales of oil and also provide major routes for important shipping lines. It seems that Saudi Arabia is trying through purchasing 30 high-speed American patrol boats to bolster its maritime capability by relying on small and high-speed units as a counterweight to Iran's speedboats. As an expert on defense issues, how possible, do you think, is a maritime confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Moradian: The Persian Gulf can be likened to a limited body of water with an average depth of 30-40 meters. I do not think that the Persian Gulf will turn into the theater of a maritime war in the real sense of the word due to the definition and characteristics of this type of war. The reality that must be taken into account here is that in case of a conflict with Iran, American maritime units deployed to the Persian Gulf must keep adequate distance (about several hundred kilometers) from Iranian speedboats in order to avoid being attacked by them. As for Saudi Arabia, it does not seem that Saudis have made plans for engaging Iran’s Navy in the Persian Gulf.

Maritime capabilities of Saudis in the Persian Gulf are limited to defending their coastline, because the lion’s share of their naval forces is deployed to the Red Sea. It is a reality that Iran has the upper hand in the Persian Gulf. We have a longer and better coastline in the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, however, major energy resources and facilities present in both Iran and Saudi Arabia, including a major part of their refineries, oil export terminals, oil and gas wells, as well as important export and import ports, are located close to the Persian Gulf coasts. As a result, both countries are vulnerable to a possible conflict in this region. Regardless of the final result of a limited maritime conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, one can claim that there is currently some sort of balance in this region between the two countries. Another issue, which cannot be ignored, is that closing the Strait of Hormoz will not only affect countries located along the southern rim of the Persian Gulf, but it can also have negative impacts on the Iranian economy as well. In conclusion, I do not think that Saudi Arabia has any plan to have its naval units engage those of Iran.


*Photo Credit: nytimes

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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