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How US defence industry is losing dominance in the Gulf

A military vehicle made in UAE put up for show at Abu Dhabi Defence Expo 2022

Changing dynamics in world affairs, scaling down of regional conflicts, rapprochement between rivals, and above all an urge to assert strategic autonomy is giving birth to a “new Gulf.” With goodwill of new partners like China, Russia and France, the Gulf has begun to defy the hegemony of the US, starting with a blow to its behemoth defence industry.

Estimates by various US think tanks and defence analysts reveal that the volume of military exports from the US to the Gulf region is repleting and that it might lead to sharp job loss in the US. Or it might already be causing it.

Quoting a US Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) report, the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington-based think tank, in its analysis said that $15.5 billion defence sales to the Gulf have potential to create or sustain 127,328 employment opportunities – it comes down to 8,215 jobs per $1 billion. Any slump, that has already set in, in such sales will disturb defence firms’ management of labour, it is feared.

Overall, the Gulf imports arms worth more than $100 billion annually.

The Carnegie report interestingly informs that most of the Gulf states have resorted to the purchase of state-of-the-art latest weapons from the US, shunning old tenuous-to-operate aircraft (like F-35) and missile systems like Patriot. Until very recently, the fattest checkbook for US defence companies used to be F-series fighter jets.

The old technology, according to the US national security doctrine, no longer holds the central position. The weapons modelled on old technology mostly come with guiding manuals and are considered redundant in the modern AI-driven warfare landscape.

According to a defence analysts, the Gulf states are purchasing low-end munitions from the US with a reason as regional conflicts in Yemen and Syria – both are subdued, yet still raging – need only such weaponry.

In another interesting development, as the Joe Biden administration moved to put the Trump-era signed defence deal with UAE under review and is conditioning sale of defence equipment to Saudi with rapprochement with Israel, other defence exporters like France have stepped up an alternative. France, according to Al Monitor, is in the final stage of talks for sale of 24 Rafale fighter jets to Qatar. Besides, Al Monitor reports that many other Gulf countries are lining up to bid for Rafale in place of US’ F-35.

According to reports, the UAE has already announced plans to buy 80 Rafale jets.

Besides, Russian, and Chinese arms, as showcased prominently at a recent Defence Expo in Abu Dhabi, have made their entry into the Gulf theatre, and may soon claim deals like that of France.
Turkey, which has established itself as the world’s 12th largest weapon exporter within only 16 years, has emerged as a significant challenger for the US defence industry in the Gulf. On July 18, Saudi Arabia signed a $3 billion deal with Saudi Arabia to purchase an undisclosed number of AKINCI Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs).
It has been the biggest defence export deal in the history of the “Republic of Turkey.” And given the world-renowned reputation of Turkish UCAVs and cost-effective use of such precision made-in-region weapons, many other states are likely to vie for them.

In 2022, the UAE reportedly offered the biggest contract to buy 120 Turkish Bayraktar TB2 at around $2 billion. The procurement contract included a request to purchase 120 TB2 drones, as well as ammunition, command and control units, and training services. Not finalised yet, the contract is very likely to go through.

Indigenous Industry
Turkey’s example of phenomenally making strides in defence manufacturing sits well with the Gulf monarchies that aim to catch up in the sector, at least starting with “low-end weapons.” As per the 2020 deal with the US, the UAE had conditioned to locally manufacture a portion of Paveway bombs. Similarly, the Saudis’ agreement with Turkey will allow them to locally assemble some of the UCAVs.
In the Gulf, three major powers – UAE, Saudi, and Qatar – have accelerated efforts in the direction of the establishment of their own defence firms. The EDGE, SAMI, and BARZAN defense entities, respectively, are working to fulfil that purpose.