Saudi Arabia’s hunger for weapons, initially aimed at staving off the threat of Iran, has grown with the upcoming US withdrawal from Iraq and instability in Yemen and Bahrain, analysts say.
“Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries in general realise that they must rely on themselves to defend themselves during this critical period marked by the beginning of a US withdrawal from Iraq,” said Anwar Eshki, director of the Middle East Institute for Strategic Studies.
About 46,000 US troops remain in Iraq and are due to leave by December 31 under an agreement with Baghdad, although US officials have said they may keep some there after the deadline if requested by Iraqi authorities.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, has traditionally bought US and British arms, but it showed no hesitation in contacting a new supplier, Berlin, with which it is negotiating the purchase of 200 Leopard tanks, according to reports in Germany.
The order is worth some two billions euros ($2.8 billion), German magazine Der Spiegel said on its website.
“The kingdom is looking for weapons in Germany and even in Russia, knowing that with the vacuum left by the Americans in Iraq, Iran might begin to extend its influence to the Levant reaching out to the Mediterranean sea,” said Eshki.
“Gulf countries need to feel capable of facing any threat from Iran or Iraq, as Kuwait and Bahrain are Saudi Arabia’s last lines of defence,” said the Jeddah-based researcher.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, whose country sent about 1,000 troops to Bahrain, freeing up local security forces to crush a month-long uprising, recently reiterated Riyadh’s rejection of “foreign adventures” in Bahrain, in a reference to Iran.
“Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have strategy to maintain their security,” Faisal said on July 5.
“If Iran wants to play a key role as a regional power, it must take into account the interests of neighbouring countries and not just its own,” the minister said.
Relations between the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states and non-Arab, predominantly Shiite Iran were strained following the March crackdown on Shiite-led protests in Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia, a key player in Middle East politics, is also facing threats from neighbouring Yemen.
Yemen has since January been gripped by protests calling for the ouster of its long-time president, and also must contend with the threat of Al-Qaeda militants.
“Saudi Arabia is facing new threats in Yemen, (and) Iran’s nuclear programme,” said Theodore Karasik, the director for research and development at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
“This programme raises fears due to its unclear nature. It represents a threat to Saudis especially within the perspective of American withdrawal from Iraq and the events in Syria and Lebanon,” he said.
Western nations accuse Iran of seeking to develop an nuclear bomb under the guise of an energy programme. Tehran vehemently denies the charges.
The United Nations has already slapped a wide range of sanctions on the Islamic republic over its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment programme.
“Iran’s war games also do not reassure the Saudis, who are paying attention to Iran’s behaviour in the shadow of its ballistic missiles weapons,” said Karasik.
Saudi Arabia’s “foreign policy is more aggressive; it is not like before anymore — it is more assertive,” he added.
The Saudis are diversifying their weapons suppliers, but remain major customers for US weapons.
“Saudi Arabia’s pre-eminent security partner for external and internal defence remains the US, and this is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future,” says London-based Gulf region analyst Neil Partrick.
Saudi Arabia and the United States are holding negotiations on the final details of a massive arms deal.
The United States said in November that the $60 billion deal would take effect despite initial worries from US lawmakers over its impact on Israeli security.
The Pentagon unveiled plans on October 20 last year for the sale to Saudi Arabia of 84 F-15 fighter jets, 70 Apache attack helicopters, 72 tactical Black Hawk helicopters and 36 light helicopters, as well as upgrades for 70 F-15s.
The delivery of the weapons to the kingdom, thought to be the largest single US arms sale ever, would be spread across 15 to 20 years.
“However, potentially widening the arc of suppliers, and even possibly advisers, fits a general trend seen for sometime in Saudi Arabia and in other GCC states who want to ensure a broad range of diplomatic and possibly security supporters on the international stage,” said Partrick.