Ankara - Riyadh: A Geopolitical Fault Line (I)

Ankara - Riyadh: A Geopolitical Fault Line (I)

According to the annual report by SIPRI (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), at the end of the five-year period from 2010-2014, India was still the leading national importer of weapons (responsible for 15 % of all arms purchases globally), but after looking at the numbers from 2014, as the international consulting firm IHS has done, it turns out that when it comes to the weapons trade, Saudi Arabia has now edged out all other customers. Between 2013 and 2014, Saudi purchases of arms and military equipment increased by 54%. And according to experts from IHS, imports of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia will expand 52% in 2015, totaling $9.8 billion. In 2014, the country’s military budget rose to a record $64.4 billion.

Along with Saudi Arabia, Turkey is also rapidly arming herself. In 2013, Ankara moved from 16th to 14th on the list of countries with the highest military expenditures, surpassing, in particular, some NATO member states such as Canada. As for Saudi Arabia, in 2013 she increased her military spending by 14%, rising from 7th place to 4th. The Saudis are in the global top ten in terms of funding for their armed forces. In 2006 Saudi Arabia had a military budget of $31.255 billion (equivalent to 10% of GDP), which was the largest of the countries of the Persian Gulf, and by 2011 the Saudi military budget had risen even higher, to $48.2 billion (11.4% of GDP). [1]

One of the main tools in Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical strategy is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is actually directed from Riyadh. Other members of this organization include Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE. The GCC’s Secretariat General is located in the Saudi capital, and according to SIPRI’s reports, that organization is treated as a unified military entity.

From 2010 to 2014, arms imports to GCC countries rose by 71% compared to 2005-2009. For comparison, imports of weapons to other countries caught up in the crisis in the Middle East grew by only 54%. «Mainly with arms from the USA and Europe, the GCC states have rapidly expanded and modernized their militaries», writes Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher with SIPRI. «The GCC states, along with Egypt, Iraq, Israel, and Turkey in the wider Middle East, are scheduled to receive further large orders of major arms in the coming years». [2] 

Saudi Arabia is herself the biggest importer of arms from Great Britain (responsible for 41% of all weapons exported from the United Kingdom) and is the third biggest customer of Spanish armaments (10%). [3]

Alain Rodier, the director of research at the French Research Center on Intelligence Matters, notes that the continued growth in Saudi military imports is «part of the ongoing struggle between Tehran and Riyadh for influence in the Middle East». Among Riyadh’s geopolitical rivals Alain Rodier also includes the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, which, he claims, «seek to overthrow the royal family». This French scholar predicts relations between Saudi Arabia and the US will gradually cool as Riyadh transitions to a more active policy throughout the entire «Greater Middle East» and even beyond: «The US has for several years placed a higher priority on advancing her interests in the Pacific region. The two biggest security issues for Americans are located there - North Korea and China. The Saudi family feels ‘cast aside’ and does not place much confidence in the Americans, who have allowed faithful allies such as Hosni Mubarak to fall. Therefore, purchasing expensive weapons is a form of insurance that is intended to show Washington the importance of holding on to such a good customer (even if some of the purchased equipment will simply gather dust in warehouses)».

Alain Rodier recalls that «Saudi Arabia’s army is far more powerful than the others [of the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. - P. I.], thus giving her the status of the undisputed leader, including in relation to Qatar, which has been trying to pursue her own policy by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (another sworn enemy of the Saudis)». «We can’t ignore the risk of a potential escalation based on missiles or nuclear weapons. Fortunately that’s not a point we’ve reached yet, but we can’t rule out that sort of contingency, especially if the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) is unable to successfully negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program», warns the expert from the French Research Center on Intelligence Matters. 

US-Saudi relations have for many years served as one of the fundamental components of a US-centric world order. Recently however, an internal contradiction is increasingly emerging within this relationship. The essence of this contradiction consists of the fact that the US is committed to a path of confrontation with Russia - on one hand, trying to gamble on falling oil prices in the global energy market, while on the other, attempting to preserve her privileged relationship with the world’s leading oil exporter, Saudi Arabia. 

Nonetheless, the Saudi government is aware that they do not wield sufficient leverage over American energy policy, if for no other reason than because the US produces about half of the oil she consumes, while the other half primarily comes from other countries on the American continent (particularly from Venezuela and Canada). [5]

In this context, one can expect Saudi Arabia to move toward a more active and independent policy in Eurasia. And there she can expect run-ins not only with Iran, but also with Turkey, a member of NATO.

In some regional conflicts (primarily in Syria), Ankara and Riyadh are tactical allies, but since both countries aspire to regional leadership, the natural result is an intensification of their rivalry and discord. This process is accompanied by, on one hand, both countries’ attempts to win over the United States, and on the other, by the search for new allies, which can include Russia.

(To be continued)

[4] Shaffer B. U.S. Policy Toward The Caspian Region: Recommendations for the Bush Administration // CSP Policy Brief № 5. Caspian Studies Program. Cambridge University. July 2001.
[5] Valasek T. U.S. Policy Toward the Caspian and Black Sea Region // Connections. 2003. Vol.II. № 1. P.16-17.