Military Spending and Arms Sales in the Gulf

There are many ways to measure the Gulf military balance, but one key indicator is to look at the relative size of Gulf military expenditures and the size and nature of Gulf arms imports and transfers of military technology.  The Burke Chair has prepared a detailed comparison of key estimates of both military spending and arms transfers, drawing upon official sources as well as the work of key research centers like the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

This report is entitled Military Spending and Arms Sales in the Gulf: How the Arab Gulf States Now Dominate the Changes in the Military Balance, and is available on the CSIS web site here. It provides a wide range of tables and charts describing the patterns in military spending and arms transfers both in  comparative dollar terms and by major weapons system and transfer of military technology.

The summary  data show that the Arab Gulf states have a decisive advantage over Iran in both the size of their recent military spending and the size and quality of their arms transfers and imports of military technology.

What is most striking, however, is the growing level of sophistication in Arab Gulf arms and related weapons technology at a time when Iran is facing major constraints on its military modernization due to the limits to its military spending and the impact of sanctions and other political constraints on its access to arms.

The full text provides the details of key arms transfers, and explains the following key trends in military spending and arms transfers:

•    The limits to Iran’s military expenditures have been a matter of necessity more than intent, and this necessity has resulted from international pressure and sanctions as the limits imposed by Iran’s GDP and its need to support a large native population. Iran has been subject to expanding and crippling sanctions, leading to a devalued currency, significant reductions in oil exports, trade disruptions, higher inflation, and a shrinking economy; challenges that some GCC Gulf States are not facing. 

•    It is scarcely surprising that the GCC collectively spends more on their military than Iran. Saudi Arabia, alone, spent nearly $56.5 billion on its military in 2012, compared to Iran’s $10.6 billion. Collectively, the GCC spent nearly $98.5 billion on their militaries, outspending Iran nearly 10:1. This spending superiority allows the GCC to invest in newer technology, weaponry and defense acquisitions.

•    IISS estimates of total military expenditures show that that the GCC, as a whole, spends far more than Iran on its military. Saudi Arabia alone spent about 5.5 times more than Iran on its military and the United Arab Emirates spent almost twice as much as Iran during this period. And, as a whole, the GCC combined spent just over 9 times more than Iran on its military.

•    SIPRI data show a similar Arab lead over Iran. Saudi Arabia spends some 4-5 times as much as Iran, and the UAE alone has outspent Iran since 2007. If Saudi Arabia and the UAE – the two Arab Gulf states with the most modern Arab Gulf military forces are combined – they have consistently spent more than six times as much as Iran.

•    Data issued by the Congressional Research Service show that the GCC took $38.5 billion worth of new arms transfers between 2004 and 2011: 35 times Iran’s deliveries of only $1.1 billion.  The size of new orders during 2004-2011 has been less favorable, but the Gulf states still ordered $106.1 billion worth of arms to Iran’s $9 billion – an uneven spending ratio of almost twelve-to-one (12:1).

•    SIPRI data also indicate that the Arab Gulf states in the GCC have a massive lead over Iran in arms imports. The gap is so great in given periods that the GCC states lead Iran by nearly 7:1 during 1997-2007, 10:1 in 2004-2008, 33:1 in 2009-2013, and 27.5:1 in 2007-2014.

•    The Arab Gulf states had a clear advantage between 2004 and 2008 in terms of both total spending on arms imports and access to modern US and European arms. Saudi Arabia’s expenditures alone were twice as large as Iran’s, and the UAE was more than seven times larger.

•    The gap between Iran and the Arab Gulf states widened sharply from 2009-2014, during which Saudi Arabia’s arms imports have been more than 18 times larger than Iran’s. The UAE’s imports are 16 times larger.

The GCC advantage in importing weapons and military technology has been partially offset by the lack of standardized, and to some extent interoperability in GCC and allied forces that come from each country buying a different mix of weapons and equipment from different suppliers, as well as from the lack of standardization in doctrine, training, supply, and logistics. 

At the same time, the GCC states benefit from access to outside training facilities, military experience, and access to advanced US Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (IS&R) capabilities and Command, Control, Communications, Computer, and battle management capabilities (C4I/BM). They also do not face technological risk since they can choose between proven systems while any Iranian produced systems that are not exact copies of foreign systems mean Iran must assume the risk of problems in performance, delivery delays, and cost escalation.


Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

with the assistance of Michael Peacock