The wars around the Middle East are causing unprecedented suffering for the people of Syria, Yemen and Libya. They are also testing the abilities of the region’s armed forces like never before.

After years of pouring billions of dollars into their military machines during the oil boom, governments in the Gulf and elsewhere are now starting to discover whether all that money was well spent.

A Saudi-led coalition is fighting against Houthi rebels in Yemen from the air and GCC troops have been deployed on the ground, leading to a significant number of deaths of service personnel.

At the same time, many of the GCC states have been involved in the Syrian war too. For now that has been restricted to helping the US-led air campaign and providing funds and weaponry for rebel groups, but there has been speculation that Riyadh might place troops onto the ground there too.

All this is coming at a time when military budgets are coming under pressure from the sharp drop in government revenues as a result of low oil prices. While there has been plenty of discussion about cutbacks to capital spending programmes in Saudi Arabia and the lifting of fuel subsidies in the UAE, less has been reported about the impact that the tighter fiscal environment is having on their armed forces.

Yet the signs are that here too governments are taking a more cautious approach.

By some measures, the amount being committed to military spending is still increasing.

Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think-tank, defence budgets across the Middle East accounted for 6.5 per cent of regional gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015. That marks a slight rise on the 6 per cent figure for the year before, although the difference is at least partly explained by military budgets holding steady at a time of declining GDP for oil exporters.

Overall, the growth rate of spending decelerated last year, in spite of the costs involved in the operations in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. IISS says that regional defence spending rose by 1.2 per cent in 2015, after taking into account inflation and exchange rate changes.

In dollar terms the amount actually fell, from $212bn in 2014 to $205bn last year, as a result of the fall in value of some of the region’s currencies against the dollar. Figures come with a significant health warning, though, given the secrecy surrounding military budgets in most countries.

Mena – military forces and spending
Country Active personnel Defence spending ($m) Spending as % of GDP
2014 2015 2014 2015
Algeria 130,000 11,863 10,837 5.6 6.2
Bahrain 8,200 1,345 1,533 4.0 5.0
Egypt 438,500 6,749 6,394 2.4 2.1
Iran 523,000 15,862 n/a 3.8 n/a
Iraq 64,000 18,868 21,100 8.4 12.8
Israel 176,500 23,252 18,597 7.6 6.2
Jordan 100,500 1,568 1,603 4.4 4.2
Kuwait 15,500 4,803 4,430 2.8 3.6
Lebanon 60,000 1,270 n/a 2.5 n/a
Mauritania 15,850 153 n/a 3.0 n/a
Morocco 195,800 3,759 3,298 3.4 3.2
Oman 42,600 9,631 9,887 12.4 16.4
Qatar 11,800 5,090 n/a 2.4 n/a
Saudi Arabia 227,000 80,762 81,853 10.8 13.0
Syria 130,500 n/a n/a n/a n/a
Tunisia 35,800 926 n/a 1.9 n/a
UAE 63,000 14,400 n/a 3.6 n/a
Yemen 10-20,000 1,890 n/a 4.4 n/a
Total 2,253,550 212,202 204,966 6.2 6.8
Note: no data available for Libya, Palestine; n/a = not available; Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies                                    

“The Middle East is getting harder to assess and to estimate the spending,” says Giri Rajendran, research associate for defence and economics at IISS. “There are more countries in turmoil which means budgetary documentation is getting poorer. Our estimate is that, from the Arab Spring in 2011 until 2014 spending was increasing at about 10 per cent per annum. Last year in 2015 we think it decelerated quite considerably to 1 or 2 per cent [growth].”

Overall spending in the region is still dominated by Saudi Arabia, which has the third largest defence budget in the world, behind only the US and China.

Riyadh’s $81.9bn outlay is now equivalent to 13 per cent of the country’s GDP and makes up 42 per cent of the total military spend across the entire Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region.

The next largest military spending programme is Iraq’s, at $21.1bn, followed by Israel with $18.6bn and Algeria with $10.8bn. Among the remaining GCC states, the biggest spenders are the UAE and Oman.

One country which is likely to be eyeing an increase in military spending in the years ahead is Iran. Secondary economic sanctions imposed on the country as a result of its nuclear programme were lifted in January, in the wake of the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the EU, US, Russia and others.

Some sanctions remain, however, notably on the sale of military weapons. These will remain in place for a further five years in the case of conventional arms and for eight years in the case of ballistic missiles and related technology.

Nonetheless, the clock is counting down and Tehran can at least look ahead to a time when it will be able to start modernising its creaking air force, navy and army, which have been struggling with obsolete equipment for many years.

“A considerable proportion of Iran’s inventory is so old that it can be considered obsolete,” says John Chipman, director general of IISS.

“Most of Iran’s front-line combat airpower dates back to the 1970s and [is] kept in service by a combination of local maintenance skills and parts bought on the grey market. The same goes for land and naval forces, with the T-54/55 and Chieftain main battle tanks, and the Alvand-class corvettes among those showing their age.”

Despite the limitations of its outdated equipment, Iran continues to be actively involved in projecting its political and military power around the region, most notably in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia has also been flexing its military muscle, although it has relatively little to show for its year-long operation in Yemen, with no decisive weakening of the Houthi forces it is battling against.

Top 15 defence budgets – 2015
Rank Country Budget
1 US 597.5
2 China 145.8
3 Saudi Arabia 81.9
4 Russia 65.6
5 UK 56.2
6 India 48.0
7 France 46.8
8 Japan 41.0
9 Germany 36.7
10 South Korea 33.5
11 Brazil 24.3
12 Australia 22.8
13 Italy 21.6
14 Iraq 21.1
15 Israel 18.6
Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies                                                                             

The danger is that, as Iran starts to invest in its armed forces once again, the GCC states will feel compelled to act, potentially setting off an arms race in the Gulf, with the US and Europe supplying their GCC allies and Russia and China selling their skills and technology to Iran.

It could also prompt the GCC states to finally start cooperating more closely with each other, as the US has long been urging them to do.

“Previously, Gulf states assumed that they would retain a qualitative edge over Iran. If Iran re-arms, this assumption may no longer hold,” says Chipman.

“While the US has exhorted Gulf states to better coordinate these capabilities, the US still remains at the hub of regional missile defence. If Iran re-arms, this may spur greater cooperation among GCC states, building on the military ties now seen in Yemen.”

Military spending may have decelerated over the past year, but it seems that the trend could well be a short-lived one.