Rome (AsiaNews) - F-15 fighters, Apache and Black Hawk helicopters and missile defence systems are among the weapons bought by Gulf States as they worry over rising tensions in the Middle East. Studies released between 2010 and 2012 indicate that some US$ 40 billion were spent in the Arabian Peninsula on armaments. "An arms race is on in the Persian Gulf," Jan Grebe, a researcher with the German-based Bonn International Center of Conversion (BICC), told AsiaNews.
Last year, Saudi Arabia bought US$ 34 billion worth in weapons, including 84 new F-15 fighter jets and 132 Black Hawk helicopters. The Saudi monarchy also oversaw a deal between Lockheed Martin, a leading US global aerospace, defence, security and advanced technology company, and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, the kingdom's main technology hub. The company also opened its first office in the Saudi capital. Until 2020, it will sell Saudi Arabia defence-related know-how and IT.
Other Arab Gulf States have also lined up to upgrade their defences.
In November, the United Arab Emirates bought a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, an advanced antimissile shield that includes radars, valued at US$ 3.49 billion, as well as 16 Chinook helicopters for US$ 939 million.
Oman (2.8 million people) replaced its old Tornado fighter planes with 18 F-16 for US$ 1.4 billion.
Last year, the emir of Qatar, a major player in Europe's economic recovery, spent US$ 9.9 billion to install a Patriot missile system. He is also expected to buy more from the United States this year.
Recently, Germany sold 200 Leopard tanks and other war materiel to Saudi Arabia and Qatar worth US$ 2 billion. The German government "justified the move on national and world security grounds."
Like Germany, Great Britain is also selling fighters planes to Saudi Arabia, following Prime Minister James Cameron to Riyadh in December 2012.
"In the past few years, European nations have come to realise the strategic importance of the Gulf States and have become partners with the various sheikhs," the German expert explained. "They are in direct competition with the United States, which has been the region's major arms dealer."
For Grebe, Western nations want to make the Gulf States more stable and autonomous from a military point of view, by providing them with the means to solve regional crises that might fall out from the Syrian civil war, Iran's nuclear programme and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are two main reasons behind their rearming: defence against Iran and domestic stability.
Indeed, Leopard tanks could in fact be used to quell domestic uprisings, or in neighbouring countries as was the case in Bahrain in 2012.
Grebe has no direct evidence that weapons are being smuggled to Syrian rebels or Islamists terrorists in North Africa.
"We do not have enough evidence for any certainties," he said. "We do not have any real reason for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman upgrading their defences at the same time or developing common military policies."
Most published documents about military contracts are either incomplete or covered by military secret. "These states have the same oil policy but from a political and strategic point of view, they have different ideas. Some are competing for regional supremacy (Qatar and Saudi Arabia)."
Still, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and United Arab Emirates are among the most militarised countries in the world, and social spending is one of the first victims of rising military outlays.
In the past five years, each monarchy has spent ten per cent of its GDP on the military. This is significant if we consider that the United States spends 4.5 per cent and the world average is 2.5 per cent.
More alarming is the fact that defence dwarfs what these countries spends on health and education.
Qatar is the black sheep, with only 1.8 per cent of GDP going to health and 2.5 per cent to education, at a time when its growth rate reached 18.8 per cent. By comparison, Saudi Arabia is a bit more generous with 4 per cent spent on health and 5.6 on education.
Iran's social spending is higher than its Arab neighbours. Surprisingly, the Islamic Republic is 34th in the BICC ranking in terms of defence spending. The top ten positions are occupied by Israel (n. 1), followed by the Gulf States.
With 5.6 per cent going to health and 4.7 to education, Iran spends about 1 per cent more than the pro-Western Arab monarchies.
See the BICC's Global Militarization Index 2012 for the relationship between GDP and military spending.