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Military Expenditure by Iran, Saudi Arabia and UAE

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have deployed their armed forces in Yemen since March 2015. The UAE has been involved militarily in the conflict in Libya. Some anti-government rebel groups in Syria have been supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In addition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have provided arms to non-state armed groups in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa. These military deployments take place amid long-standing rivalries and tensions in the region. For example, in 2017, a dispute arose in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut all ties with Qatar and imposed sanctions against it.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an independent resource on global security, there is a pattern of rapid military build-ups in Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the past 15 years, high levels of military spending as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) among the middle eastern countries, and growing military asymmetry in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to build diverse and advanced military capabilities while Iran is unable to do the same due to the sanctions.

  • IRAN

Iran’s military expenditure in the period 1994–2018 peaked in 2006, which is far lower than the Saudi Arabia (see figure 1). The fall was steepest in 2012–2013, after the economic and financial sanctions on Iran by the United States and European countries. In 2018, Iran’s military expenditure decreased again, by 9.5 percent, to $13.2 billion which was 2.7 percent of its GDP, as 25th highest in the world and 3.8 percent of its GDP in 2019. Generally, the level of Iran’s arms imports decreased significantly between 1994 and 2018 (see figures 2 and 3).

The volume of Iran’s arms imports in this period was relatively small compared with the volumes imported by many other states in the Middle East. For example, the total value of Iran’s arms imports in 2009–2018 was equivalent to just 3.5 percent of Saudi Arabian arms imports in the same period. It is noteworthy that, since 2008, UN Security Council Resolutions have restricted the transfer of major arms to Iran. However, as part of Iran Nuclear Deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 14 July 2015, the UNSC adopted unanimously resolution 2231 on 20 July 2015. According to the paragraph 5(b) of the ‘Annex B: Statement’ of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231:

“All States may participate in and permit, provided that the Security Council decides in advance on a case-by-case basis to approve: the supply, sale or transfer directly or indirectly from or through their territories, or by their nationals or individuals subject to their jurisdiction, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in their territories, to Iran, or for the use in or benefit of Iran, of any battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems, as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, or related materiel, including spare parts, and the provision to Iran by their nationals or from or through their territories of technical training, financial resources or services, advice, other services or assistance related to the supply, sale, transfer, manufacture, maintenance, or use of arms and related materiel described in this subparagraph. This paragraph shall apply until the date five years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.”

As adopted by the UNSC Resolution 2231, the provisions related to remaining restrictions on the export from and transfer to Iran of identified weapons is scheduled to be lifted from 18 October 2020 automatically.


In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s military spending amounted to an estimated $78.4 billion. It was the third-largest military spender globally and by far the largest military spender in the Persian Gulf region.

There have been three periods in the past 25 years in which there were major increases in Saudi Arabia’s military expenditure (see figure 1). Military expenditure increased by 57 percent between 1996 and 1998, by 76 percent between 2003 and 2007 and by 63 percent between 2011 and 2015. A clear indication of the high priority that Saudi Arabia gives to military capability is the fact that Saudi Arabian military spending was 8.8 percent of GDP in 2018 and 10.1 percent in 2019.

At its peak in 2015, military spending was 13 percent of GDP. In contrast, all other countries among the 15 largest military spenders in the world allocated less than 4 percent of GDP to the military in 2018. It is worth-noting that the Saudi Arabia’s per capita military spending in 2018 was higher than any other country in the world.

According to the SIPRI’s Report of May 2018, Saudi Arabia’s arms imports increased rapidly (see figure 4). They rose by 192 percent between 2009–2013 and 2014–2018, making Saudi Arabia the world’s largest arms importer in 2014–2018. The United States, and the United Kingdom were by far the largest arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia in 2014–2018 (see figure 4). Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland are the main arms suppliers to the Saudi Arabia. Despite the reports that Saudi-led coalition committed war crimes during the armed conflict with Yemen, the main arms suppliers, such as United States, the United Kingdom and France, have continued to supply arms.

Saudi Arabia’s substantial investment in its military means that it has the largest inventory of advanced weapons among the states in the Persian Gulf region. Imports included arms such as combat and tanker aircraft, which have increased the reach and strike power of the Saudi Arabian Air Force. The United States commenced delivery of 154 F-15SA combat aircraft in 2016, which will add to the delivery of 72 Typhoon combat aircraft by the UK in 2009–2017. Both aircraft types are equipped with cruise missiles and other guided weapons. The six tanker aircraft delivered from Spain between 2011 and 2015 increase the range of Saudi Arabia’s combat aircraft.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is improving its capability in aerial defence. In 2014–2018 it received 23 Patriot PAC-3 air and missile defence systems from the United States. Also, in 2018 it ordered seven highly advanced THAAD missile defence systems from the United States. Saudi Arabia’s land and naval forces have been and continue to be modernized and expanded. In the period 2014–2018, a total of over 4000 armoured vehicles were delivered from Austria, Canada, France, Georgia, South Africa and Turkey, and 338 tanks were delivered from the United States. Saudi Arabia ordered three large patrol boats from France in 2015, four frigates from the United States in 2017 and five frigates from Spain in 2018. In a change from past practice, several of the current major arms import projects involve final assembly of imported arms in Saudi Arabia. For example, 68 of the F-15SA combat aircraft procured from the United States will be assembled in Saudi Arabia.


The most recent available estimate of military spending by the UAE was $22.8 billion (current US dollars) in 2014 (see figure 1), or 5.6 percent of GDP. In 2014 the UAE was the second largest military spender in the Middle East and ranked 14th in the world.

The increase in its military expenditure was particularly large between 2006 and 2014 (136 percent). According to the SIPRI’s Report of May 2018, for two reasons it is likely that the UAE’s military spending in 2018 higher than in 2014. First, it was involved in major military operations in Yemen in 2018, which was not the case in 2014, and remained militarily involved in Libya, as it was in 2014. Second, it has continued to import large volumes of arms, as it did in 2014. The UAE has invested heavily in new arms since 2000. The volume of its arms imports was almost four times larger in 2004–2008 than in 1999–2003 (see figure 6).

The UAE was the fifth-largest arms importer worldwide in the period 2009–2018. After enlarging and modernizing its fleet of combat aircraft in 2003–2008, in 2009–2018 the UAE procured equipment that enhanced the reach of its armed forces, including 3 tanker aircraft, 8 long-range transport aircraft and 10 corvettes. It also acquired an advanced air and missile defence capability, comprising nine Patriot PAC-3 systems and two THAAD systems from the USA. It is currently expanding its intelligence, reconnaissance and target-acquisition capabilities, most notably with the procurement of five airborne radar systems and two surveillance satellites for delivery from 2019. The largest suppliers to the UAE in 2014–2018 were the USA and France (see figure 6). The UAE has invested in its arms industry in the past two decades, which for example assembles armoured vehicles and missiles from South Africa and corvettes from France.

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