The Changing Trends in Gulf Military and Security Forces: A Net Assessment

This report presents a book-length net assessment of unclassified data on the military balance in the Arabian Gulf or Persian Gulf. It is designed for review by experts on net assessment and the regional military balance and focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of each Gulf military power, the strengths and weaknesses of the unclassified data now available, the need to address every element in the force structure in each Gulf power, and the limits to any analysis that focuses on force strength and military expenditures, rather than readiness, the quality of force planning, and potential warfighting capability.

It compares a wide range of sources in graphic and tabular form to show that the unclassified data on many conventional measures of military strength such as military spending and arms transfer data cannot be trusted, and other measures have major uncertainties.

As such, it is a working paper designed to provoke outside comment, highlight the need for better data, and evolve with time. It is available in full on the CSIS web page at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/2023-11/231121_Cordesman_ChangingTrends_Gulf.pdf?VersionId=h9VUWm2xoIpJ2TvcJ1R5myL_pNOQoKZT, and a downloadable copy is available at the end of this introduction.

The Scope and Focus of this Net Assessment

This analysis compares the unclassified data and reporting on the current security developments in the Gulf. It differs from most such assessments in several key respects:

  • It focuses on current country-by-country forces and capabilities rather than on the regional balance. Part of the reason is that Iran may be the principal direct threat to the Arab Gulf states, but it is far from clear that it would attack all Arab states in a given contingency or that they would unite against it. Qatar had a serious confrontation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the recent past. The Arab Gulf states did not unite when Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched a major campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, and Iraq has remained largely separate from the security arrangements of the Southern Arab Gulf states and faced threats from Iran on its own.
  • It openly addresses the fact that Arab Gulf states develop their forces with limited attention to cooperation and interoperability with other Arab Gulf states and do so in ways that make the Gulf Cooperation Council—and broader Arab alliances—little more than military façades. This lack of unity and interoperability leaves the Southern Arab Gulf states heavily dependent on U.S. support and power projection capabilities despite the uncertainties in whether the U.S. will provide such forces and support.
  • It highlights the fact that most Arab Gulf powers depend heavily on outside powers like the United States for most of their arms and specialized military equipment, as well as help in training, intelligence, battle management, and organizing their forces. Gulf military forces also remain heavily dependent on outside powers like the United States for help in training, intelligence, battle management, and organizing their forces, as well as other support and resupply in a truly major conflict.
  • The analysis covers both military and internal security forces, rather than just military forces. It does so because many Gulf states have serious internal divisions, uncertain governance, and face terrorist and extremist threats. This makes the size and quality of their individual internal security forces as important to their security as their military forces. At the same time, it highlights the critical lack of accurate data on paramilitary and internal security forces, on internal threats and terrorist and extremist forces, and the ability to draw the proper balance between effective internal security forces and destabilizing repression and violations of human rights.
  • The analysis provides summary data on neighboring powers but does not address their force capabilities in detail or examine the range of scenarios that could broaden a Gulf conflict or engage a Gulf state against a neighbor outside the Gulf like Israel, Syria, or Turkey. For all the reasons shown in the following map, the Gulf states must also consider the threats posed by states outside the Gulf as well as the opportunities they present for creating security partnerships and alliances. Several Gulf states also face serious internal threats from internal divisions and factions and extremist groups and forces.
  • The analysis covers comparative military expenditures and arms transfers, but it exposes critical limits to the quality of such data and the lack of any reliable data on the true cost of all national security efforts, including paramilitary and security forces.

Iran as the Center of the “In Gulf” Threat

  • The analysis shows that Iran’s militant Shi’ite theocracy presents the main current threat to all the Arab Gulf states. Iran is the power whose advances in missile warfare, irregular warfare, proxy warfare, and air defense capabilities are doing the most to reshape the balance and structure of Gulf military forces. It has also developed missile forces that have carried out precision strikes against high-value petroleum facilities in Saudi Arabia, and its advanced capabilities for irregular warfare have become a major naval threat in the Gulf.
  • Iran’s strategic focus also extends well beyond the Gulf in ways that affect the Gulf military balance. Iran has also expanded its influence in Iraq and the Levant: Iran plays a major role in supporting the Assad regime in Syria and in supporting the Hezbollah in Lebanon and has steadily increased its support of Hamas in Gaza before Hamas’s invasion of Israel in October 2023 It has strong ties to Iraqi popular militia forces in Iraq, and plays a major role in supporting the Houthis against the Saudi and UAE-backed government of Yemen. It is expanding its naval capabilities and capability to operate in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Its efforts to acquire nuclear forces present a major challenge to the Arab Gulf states, and a major challenge to Israel that could trigger a major conflict between Israel and Iran and lead to major air missile and nuclear exchanges.

A Weakened and Divided Iraq

  • Iraq was once the major military power in the Gulf region, but its military forces never recovered from their defeat in the liberation of Kuwait in 1990 and from the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Iraq is still divided into Arab and Kurdish areas and between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shi’ites. Its central government’s military forces now face serious challenges from its Popular Military Forces, some of which are Sunni elements tied close to Iran and from ISIS.
  • Iraq’s central government’s military forces also face serious internal challenges from some of its Popular Military Forces, some of which are closely tied to Iran. The Iraqi central government still clashes with the remnants of ISIS and extremist groups in Eastern Iraq. and must deal with sporadic attacks by Turkey on Kurdish targets in Iraq that Turkey claims support armed Kurdish factions in Turkey. Iraq is also the only Arab Gulf power that now faces a serious threat from armed Islamic extremist movements like ISIS.
  • At the same time, Iraq faces challenges from the continuing instability in Syria and from the Assad regime, which has largely won the civil war and has close ties to Iran and Russia. Russia has active air and some land forces in Syria and uses a Syrian port as a naval base.

The Arab Gulf States in the Arabian Peninsula

  • The Arab Gulf states in the Arabian Peninsula—Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE—have only limited strategic and military unity despite the fact they are all nominally part of an alliance called the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Each state pursues its own military interests and force development. Sporadic efforts to create a more unified GCC force structure and one that has effective joint force planning, command and control, and interoperable units that are shaped to achieve common missions, have largely failed.
  • As a result, their forces are largely independent national entities, and most are heavily dependent on the United States for military support, broader exercise planning, and battle management in any serious conflict with Iran.
  • Bahrain is the center of a major U.S. military presence and is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia for economic support and emergency aid in dealing with the deep divisions between its Sunni-led monarchy and a large part of its Shi’ite majority. It has largely ended its past tensions with Qatar, but it faces continuing pressure from Iran, which has supported some of its more radical Shi’ite elements and made claims to Bahrain in the past.
  • Kuwait has built up more effective military forces since its liberation in 1990, but its forces remain small, and it is heavily dependent on the United States for both military support and the ability to isolate itself from the divisions in Iraq and deter any threats from Iran.
  • Oman has largely stood aside from the disputes between its Arab Gulf neighbors and has consistently sought to moderate tensions with Iran. It also has stood aside from the civil war in Yemen. It has good military relations with the United States but also has close relations with Britain. It has relatively effective military forces but lacks the oil wealth to fund the levels of arms imports and military modernization that has taken place in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Its forces are also relatively small compared to those of Iran, and Oman would have to seek British or U.S. support for any confrontation with Iran over control of the Strait of Hormuz and in Indian Ocean waters.
  • The deep political divisions between Qatar that led to a major confrontation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem to have ended. However, Qatar’s military development—which focuses heavily on its ability to buy the most advanced weapons available—remains separate from that of the other Gulf states. Its small forces are well equipped and have some effective elements, but their overall effectiveness is mixed. This, and their relative size, makes Qatar dependent on the United States for political or military support in a major crisis or conflict with Iran or its neighbors. Like Oman and the other Arab Gulf states, it is dependent on the United States and Great Britain in a serious conflict that threatens its regime and territory and the secure flow of petroleum exports.
  • Saudi Arabia and the UAE have some of the most effective military forces in the region and cooperate more closely than the other Arab Gulf states. However, they exhibited only limited to moderate capability to cooperate and fight effectively when they went to war to back the Yemeni government in its civil war with the Houthis. Both countries have well-equipped forces but have not developed the readiness and joint warfare capabilities to operate effectively against Iran without outside support, and both have sometimes focused more on buying the most advanced modern weapons and military equipment than on creating balanced and effective forces.
  • At the same time, Saudi Arabia has the largest and most effective forces of all the Arab Gulf states, has had its own steadily improving Chinese-supplied long-range missile forces since 1988, is the only Arab Gulf power with a strategic missile force, and is seeking to obtain nuclear power and uranium enrichment capabilities in ways that send a clear signal that it might seek nuclear weapons if Iran persists in acquiring them
  • Saudi Arabia has established close relations with Egypt and sought to create broader military alliances with other Arab states—although these efforts have accomplished little other than creating a hollow shell of a meaningful strategic partnership. The UAE has its own ambitions in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, but these have so far done little to expand its strategic influence.
  • More broadly, the Southern Arab Gulf, or GCC states, have made only tenuous progress in creating integrated land-based air and missile defense. They have limited ability to integrate air operations and even more limited naval and other capabilities to deal with Iran’s steadily improving capabilities for irregular naval warfare.

Yemen: A Crippled State Caught Up in Civil War

Technically speaking, Yemen is not a Gulf state. However, the Yemeni civil war has been the scene of a major power struggle between a Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and a Houthi-dominated faction backed by Iran. Iran has made major transfers of missiles and drones to the Houthis. This fighting has shattered the weak and divided social structure and economy of one of the world’s poorest states and has made Yemen a major human tragedy. Yemen is also the poorest state in the Gulf and faces a large-scale humanitarian crisis that is likely to endure for years after any settlement to its civil war. It has reduced Yemeni government land forces to marginal levels of capability, made the Houthis the winner in most of northern and western Yemen, and the Yemeni government no longer has a functional air force or navy. Yemen has been further divided by a range of local power struggles and clashes with and between other factions and suffers from a broad range of internal power struggles that could again divide Yemen into two states.

Addressing the Limits to the Unclassified Data Now Available

It should be stressed that there are many reports on given national forces that do address their strengths and weaknesses in depth and provide far more insight into individual national capabilities than a report that focuses on Gulf-wide comparisons can address. A net assessment that focuses on comparable data and direct quantitative comparisons also lacks the perspective that only narrative analyses can provide.

Nevertheless, the following broad problems emerged in examining the unclassified data now available:

  • The best unclassified data on personnel and weapon strengths are still highly uncertain and often include weapons that are no longer active or supported in each country’s force structure Little reliable information is available on active versus stored weapons holding, upgrades and modifications.
  • The best open-source data that directly compare the military forces in the region and their total personnel, force structure, holding of major weapons, military expenditures, and arms transfers are the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Their sources are often unclear, however, and they do not agree on some data like military spending. Their data often differ from the data in other comparative sources, from outside studies of a given country, and from the country-by-country data provided commercially by IHS Janes, which seems to be the best such source.
  • A review of the data now available shows that order of battle comparisons that highlight the name and type of unit disguise major differences in real-world size, structure, and capability. Comparisons of the number of major combat units by type and order of battle comparisons are omitted because they differ so sharply from country to country, and often within given countries, that they do not provide meaningful data—so do categorizations and comparisons of ships by types, and aircraft by level of capability and modernization.
  • Even if accurate data were accurate and reliable, data on total personnel and weapons numbers would not reflect the impact of proper recruitment and promotion practices, training, experience in actual combat, sustainability, basing structure, and facilities. They do not reflect the steadily growing role of advances in C3I, AI, and space systems. They do not reflect the growing impact of all-domain, joint warfare, and combined arms capability, of logistic and support capabilities, of the ability to project and support forces away from their peacetime bases and facilities, and of combat and serve support capabilities. There are good reasons why military history is filled with cases where the largest force lost the battles and wars.
  • There is a critical lack of unclassified data on the current efforts by Gulf and neighboring states to cope with the ongoing advances in intelligence and reconnaissance sources, missile and drone warfare, joint all-domain force structures and tactics, and AI-driven command, control, computer, and secure communication systems emerging out of great power competition and the lessons of the fighting in Ukraine.
  • Reports on progress in the Southern Gulf in developing the capability to deploy and fight in different Gulf countries and/or at a substantial distance from their peacetime main bases are limited, although largely negative.
  • The analyses that follow show data on paramilitary and internal security forces are even more uncertain than the data on military forces and often have serious gaps. There is no common definition of paramilitary forces and how they should be counted and compared with military forces. In many countries, the police and civil intelligence services play a role in internal security that is not counted in paramilitary forces. Data and comparative assessments are lacking that describe the capabilities and importance of strategic partners, allies, and neutrals.
  • As noted earlier, there is no clear data that indicates how the military balance in the Gulf is being reshaped by the growing confrontation between the major powers. As has been stated earlier, the United States and its strategic partners in European Asia, Russia, and China now compete directly in reshaping their forces and power projection capabilities in the same areas as Gulf states but compete at a global level, but the future of that competition remains unclear.
  • It is clear from unclassified reporting that Iran and many Arab Gulf states are planning or have begun to plan, implement, and purchase such capabilities, weapons, and supporting systems. Iran has already greatly modernized its missile and drone forces, and most Gulf states are now increasing their missile, drone, and precision weapons forces and capabilities. Reliable details are lacking, however, and even the most advanced military powers are still examining what changes to make in an environment of constantly changing technology and tactical and strategic options.
  • There are other major uncertainties. As is described in detail later in this analysis, the tables on comparing military expenditures and arms transfers are particularly uncertain. Countries tend to exaggerate the advances being made in military forces while understating their real cost. Spending on military and internal security forces does not bring regional or internal security and stability without effective governance, internal political unity, steady advances in development and economic growth, and attention to key issues like poverty and care for the aged, employment and career opportunities, and the causes of internal social and political divisions.

At the same time, unclassified data do not accurately reflect the many increases in Gulf and other regional paramilitary and internal security forces driven by factors like ethnic and religious differences, the rise of violent extremist movements, and weak or failed development and governance. Despite the weaknesses and contradictions in the unclassified data on military forces, the data on the nature, scale, and cost of such internal security forces are far weaker, and the data are heavily politicized. Many countries do not provide meaningful reporting on their increases in internal security activity and its real-world cost and/or exaggerate the threat posed by legitimate criticism and opposition.

Human rights groups tend to react by ignoring the very real threats that Arab Gulf states must deal and being overcritical. The U.S. State Department’s annual country reports on human rights also tend to ignore the threats posed by terrorists and extremists and often do not address the internal ethnic, sectarian, and regional threats Gulf governments must deal with. At the same time, they provide somewhat more balanced assessments of Gulf state internal security efforts and also warn that internal security forces can play as great a role in shaping national security as military forces and internal threats.

Finally, no one should forget that the cost of military and internal security spending and government activity comes at the cost of investment and spending in the civil aspects of security. The Gulf is no more immune to the growing needs imposed by global warming and the need to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, water shortages, population growth, hyper-urbanization, and economic development than other regions. Successful national security efforts must be both military and civil and the right overall priorities must be given to military security, internal security, and civil security and development.

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Photo: CSIS