Naval build-up ongoing in Arab Gulf States

Last week saw Qatar host the second Doha International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (DIMDEX). The event gave companies in the maritime security field the opportunity to show off their goods and services to a wide audience of international and regional naval personnel. On display were ships from Pakistan, India, France, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Turkey. Additionally, Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard was the keynote speaker of the event and shared his thoughts as Commander of the NATO mission in Libya before an audience of Qatari delegates, naval commanders and security experts.

But most of all, the event was used to showcase the growing naval ambitions of the GCC states (Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf). Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman are all seeking to expand their influence out to sea, albeit some more so than others.

Traditionally, GCC states have had little need to worry about the ‘away-game’ but this is quickly changing due to two growing threats: Iran and piracy. For GCC navies, the Strait of Hormuz is a choke point that is far too important to be ignored. In the first respect, it is seen as a strategic vulnerability if Iran were to choose to close it. In the second respect, it represents the gateway to an area of lawlessness on the High Seas. The oil and natural gas tankers that constitute the backbone of the area’s energy geopolitics are worth too much to both the Sheikhdoms and the global economy be put in a situation of risk. It is these two strategic imperatives that are driving the growing market for naval technology in GCC states.

Recent events across the Middle East and North Africa have not changed the fundamentals of security in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. remains the primary guarantor of stability in the region and GCC states (with the exception of Bahrain) have experienced little domestic upheaval. As emphasized in the conference proceedings from “The Future of Gulf Security in a Region of Dramatic Change,” which was held in Washington, D.C., over the summer, the GCC is fundamentally a defensive organization whose aim it is to counter the influence of Iran. This has not changed. (For more on this see: Aaron, David, Frederic Wehrey and Brett Andrew Wallace. The Future of Gulf Security in a Region of Dramatic Change: Mutual Equities and Enduring Relationships. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011.)

What has changed recently is the vast increase in naval spending among the six GCC states. These navies see an increasing need for two-tier maritime forces that can venture offshore, guard against asymmetrical threats like piracy and smuggling, and engage in search and rescue operations. The development of blue water capabilities has become a newfound objective for these states. For the most part, they currently lack the capabilities to participate in multinational maritime security deployments and to overcome the denial capabilities of Iran in the Straight of Hormuz.  (For more analysis see: Tringham, Kate. “Building New Capabilities.” Jane's Defence Weekly, Vol. 49, No. 11 (2012): 26-33.)

Consequently, naval procurement is growing in the region. While the UAE’s Baynunah-class corvette programme is cited as the most expensive in the region at $1 Billion USD, Saudi Arabia, the most powerful GCC state, has plans that are expected to eclipse that figure.  They are believed to be assessing the USN’s Littoral Combat Ship and the French FREMM 6,000-tonne multi-mission frigate. The Royal Bahraini Navy is acquiring a small number of high-speed interceptor craft and is thought to be enhancing its anti-submarine capability. Kuwait will receive ten interceptor craft by 2013. Oman, with one of the most effective navies in the region, is nearing completion of Project Khareef, which will see the Royal Navy of Oman acquire three 99-metre corvettes from BAE. Qatar awarded a contract in 2010 for six new patrol vessels to replace its fast attack craft. Meanwhile, the UAE is currently procuring smaller patrol craft and corvettes to project influence beyond their littoral. In the medium term, larger surface combatants and submarines are a possibility.

As the event in Doha highlighted, GCC states are ‘doubling down’ on their naval capabilities. While the U.S. remains the largest force in the region, the Arab states of the Gulf are preparing to take more responsibility into their own hands. One cannot also ignore that they are increasingly looking to the East. As demonstrated by the presence of Turkish, Pakistani and Indian ships at the Doha seaport, the West’s influence in the region will decline as long as the energy routes continue to get redrawn towards the growing markets of Asia.