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Saudi Arabia, Gulf Allies Are (Heavily) Armed And Itching For Battle

Saudi weapons imports increased 275 percent in five years. Its Persian Gulf partners are also amassing billions of dollars in advanced military equipment

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Obama meets with Gulf Cooperation Council members at Camp David — REUTERS
Feb 25, 2016 at 4:27 PM ET

A growing appetite for advanced arms among Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies is flooding the Middle East with foreign weapons.

Arms imports by members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a block of states on the Persian Gulf, surged dramatically over the last five years, according to new data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and analyzed by Vocativ. Saudi Arabia amassed nearly $10 billion in new missiles, aircraft and other high-end weapons between 2011 and 2015. That’s a 275 percent increase from the previous five years, and makes the wealthy kingdom the world’s second-largest arms importer behind India. The United Arab Emirates received another $6.5 billion in foreign arms in that time to come in fourth behind the $6.6 billion China brought home.

During that same five-year period, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman boosted their imported weapons hauls by 279 percent, 232 percent and 194 percent, respectively. Bahrain was the only Gulf state to see its weapons imports dip, falling 44 percent to $115 million between 2011 and 2015. The U.S. State Department had imposed an arms sale ban on the tiny island nation after it cracked down on protestors during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. The ban lifted last June.

All told, more than $20 billion in foreign military equipment poured into Gulf states since 2011, an unprecedented sum. Thanks to dozens of recent deals with defense contractors in the United States and Europe, these oil-rich monarchies are expected to receive bombs, helicopters and fighter jets worth billions of dollars more in the years to come.

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The weapons-buying bonanza comes amid a growing proxy war with Saudi Arabia’s arch rival, Iran. It also reflects a willingness among Arab nations to flex their military muscle in a region awash with war, sectarian violence and human rights abuses.

“The growth in GCC arms imports is partially tied to modernization of their forces,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior advisor to Gulf State Analytics, a Dubai-based geo-political consulting firm. “It also demonstrates their foresight that the regional situation would take a turn for the worse.”

The Middle East is mired in more conflict now than at any time in recent memory. Beyond fears of Iranian influence, the Saudis and its Gulf allies have become grown concerned with the Islamic State and Syria’s chaotic civil war. Faced with increased instability, they’ve taken a different tack from the years of exercising power through their financial wealth and diplomacy: accelerate the purchase of high-end military equipment.

Outfitted for battle, these oil-rich nations are now putting their weapons to the test. Beginning in March, the Saudis spearheaded an aggressive—and escalating—Arab military coalition campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who the Sunni kingdom and its allies accuse of being proxies for Iran, a mostly Shiite power. The war has since deteriorated into a humanitarian crisis.

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Even as the fighting persists in Yemen, some members of the Arab coalition are eyeing other conflicts in the region. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates agreed to increase their participation in U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS. The two nations, along with Qatar, have offered to put boots on the ground in Syria. And in a separate show of military strength, the Saudis launched a massive military drill involving armed forces from 20 nations, including all five of its GCC partners—Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar.

The newly-assertive Arab states have drawn critics who believe their actions are stirring sectarian violence throughout the Middle East.

“I think there’s a huge danger in the increased militarization of the Gulf states,” William Hartung, a senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor, a watchdog group, told Vocativ. “The Obama administration and British government would argue that these huge increase in arms sales, Saudi Arabia in particular, is somehow going to stabilize the region and counter Iranian influence. But there’s no evidence to support that.”

Hartung pointed to the deepening crisis in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country. Using weapons and fighter jets purchased from the U.S. and Great Britain, the Saudi-led coalition has bombed Yemen continuously for almost a year. More than 2,800 civilians have now been killed during the fighting, the vast majority by these airstrikes, according to the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Millions more are in need of food, water and medicine. And there are no signs that the war will end soon.

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Multiple experts and analysts, including Hartung, believe the conflict in Yemen could be the prelude to a larger Sunni-Shiite war in the Middle East. A political vacuum created by that conflict has already allowed al-Qaeda and ISIS to flourish, say military officials.

The reality of an increasingly armed and aggressive bloc of Arab states has begun to make some lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe anxious. Senate Democrats in the U.S. tried—and failed—to prohibit new arms sales to Saudi Arabia, citing claims by human rights groups that its bombing campaign in Yemen has indiscriminately targeted civilians. Opposition leaders in Britain’s Parliament, meanwhile, have openly clashed with Prime Minister David Cameron over continued support for the war in Yemen.

On Thursday, European Union lawmakers went further and called for an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Here’s the rub: the resolution is non-binding.