Can Saudi Arabia Decrease Its Reliance on Foreign Defense Imports?
In 2016, the new deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, revealed his highly-anticipated Vision 2030 development plan. One of the Vision’s most ambitious goals is the increase in Saudi Arabia’s defense manufacturing to meet 50 percent of the country’s defense needs, up from only 3 percent currently. Although this goal is largely unrealistic, it could lead to the greater production of homemade military equipment and the improvement of capabilities in maintenance and servicing. This would allow Saudi Arabia to sustain its current weapons systems and supply them with more parts and technologies.
Saudi Arabia, much like other Gulf Cooperation Council countries (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar), imports a massive amount of military hardware and supplies. In 2015, the country surpassed Russia as the third largest defense spender in the world at $87.2 billion. However, about 98 percent of the country’s annual defense spending is put towards importing foreign weapons and equipment, mainly from the United States and Europe.
To supply its current operations in Yemen and elsewhere – Saudi Arabia launched military operations in Yemen in March 2015 – Riyadh depends on a steady supply of imported weapons and defense materiel. Yet these supplies are not always guaranteed. Recently, a bipartisan bill in the United States threatened to cancel a sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia that included smart bombs for operations in Yemen. While the bill eventually failed in the Senate, it stoked Saudi leaders’ concerns of potential disruptions in arms sales from Western countries.
The potential for such disruptions in foreign arms imports, coupled with a more assertive Saudi foreign policy, has spurred Riyadh’s efforts to build up domestic defense manufacturing. Saudi Arabia launched its domestic arms industry in the early 1980s with an economic offset program to bring in companies with advanced technologies to help manufacture equipment. As a result, the Saudi economy benefited from new jobs and technological knowledge transfers. In recent years, the country has come a long way in developing capabilities in maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO), armored vehicles, and other critical defense equipment.
Saudi companies such as the Abdallah Al Faris Company for Heavy Industries, the Al Salam Aircraft Company, and the Middle East Propulsion Company have produced armored ground vehicles, provided maintenance for advanced aircraft, and upgraded imported platforms. One ground vehicle that the Saudis produced and supplied to their armed forces is the Abdallah Al Faris Company for Heavy Industries’ Al Fahd armored personnel carrier. The Al Fahd has been a success—Saudi Arabia has even sold it to other countries in the region, such as Kuwait and Pakistan.
Through the King Abdulaziz Center for Science and Technology, the Ministry of Defense has developed a small research prototype drone called the Saker. While the drone cannot carry weapons or radar and has a short range of only 250 kilometers, it is a good start for a country that has only just begun to design high-tech equipment.
Still, Saudi Arabia remains far behind Europe, the United States, and other Asian countries in producing advanced military equipment. The Royal Saudi Air Force still relies entirely on foreign imports of aircraft (F-15s from the United States, Eurofighter Typhoons from Europe, and Tornados from Great Britain), ground vehicles (Humvees and M1 Abrams tanks from the United States), and ships (French and American frigates). These comprise the “significant military equipment” (SME) – as termed in foreign military sales jargon – that are the backbone of any modern military.
But servicing, arming, and sustaining SME equipment is already within reach for the Saudis. The Al Salam Aircraft Company, for example, has maintained the Kingdom’s fleet of fighter jets for years. Recently, it won a sole-source contract from the US Air Force to provide support to the Kingdom’s F-15S fleet in upgrading three of the airframes to the newer F-15SA configuration. The Middle East Propulsion Company also provides maintenance services for F-15 engines.
What is important is not that Saudi Arabia is incapable of producing fifth generation fighter jets or advanced smart weapons, but rather that the country, with a defense budget of $87 billion and a gross domestic product of almost $800 billion dollars – which is equivalent to or greater than many developed countries in Europe – has committed to a very ambitious goal of localizing 50 percent of defense manufacturing. With such a large amount of capital to invest, this initiative, sooner or later, will lead to much greater independence for the Saudi Armed Forces.
Brett Sudetic is a Middle East Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also an Analyst at LMI, where he works in defense and international business development. Brett received his MS in supply chain management from the University of Maryland in 2015. He speaks Arabic fluently and is proficient in Persian.