Sunni States’ Military Spending Sprees Could Benefit Radical Islamists
Faced with an array of developing threats to their stability and survival, Sunni Arab states have gone on an unprecedented military spending spree, buying up some of the very best capabilities the West has to offer. But this spending carries a great potential for danger, should these states be overrun by radical Islamists.
As long as the Sunni governments remain firmly in power, possessing high quality Western weapons in such large quantities will serve their goals of defending themselves.
But should the Sunni countries disintegrate into failed states, or undergo an Islamist revolution — an unfortunate, yet distinct, possibility in the 21st century Middle East — Israel and the West could face an explosively dangerous adversary. And the scenario is real enough that Israel acknowledges that it’s planning ahead for such a possibility.
Outgoing Israeli Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel spoke explicitly about this danger on January 24 at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
His air force, Eshel said, must be able to conduct pinpoint strikes based on good intelligence. But it also must be able to operate like a “big hammer,” and deal with large-scale threats. In the tumultuous Middle East, he said, it seems unreasonable to believe that the current situation will remain stable. “In five, 10 or 15 years, states can fall,” he warned.
“Even if we have shared regional interests [with these Sunni countries now], we do not know what will happen in the future. Western military sales to these countries have reached $200 billion. This is state of the art weaponry. It is not just about the quantity,” Eshel said.
Most of the Arab countries’ spending sprees have gone into their air forces and surface-to-air missiles. The Israel Air Force must ensure it can deal with these capabilities, Eshel added, in the event of future jihadist revolutions.
In the same week that Eshel spoke, the US State Department announced the first weapons sales to Gulf states under the Trump administration, pending approval by Congress.
The sales reportedly include $400 million worth of helicopter gunship parts and air-to-air missiles to Kuwait, and $525 million for intelligence balloons to Saudi Arabia. ISIS has already built and deployed its own armed drones, according to reports, and it has stated its desire to seize control of Sunni military assets on the battlefield.
Gulf Arab states continue to break records in their rush to purchase military hardware. As part of its bid to deter Iran, Saudi Arabia has modernized its missile arsenal in recent years, purchasing Chinese medium-range surface-to-surface missiles, in a deal reportedly facilitated by the CIA.
More recently, the Saudis, who are leading a coalition against Iran-backed Houthi Shiite rebels in Yemen, spent $179.1 billion on weapons in 2016, and intend to spend $190 billion in 2017.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has replaced Russia as the third largest defense spender in the world. Salafi jihadists would like nothing more than to topple the Saudi royal court, which they see as a Western puppet, and take control of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.
In additions, last September, the US approved $7 billion worth of fighter jets (F-15s and F-18s) to Kuwait and Qatar, and more than $1 billion in F-16 sales to Bahrain.
Egypt, too, has joined the shopping rush, becoming the world’s fourth largest defense importer in 2016, by buying arms from the US and France, as well as submarines from Germany.
Egypt, which is in a state of deep civil conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, is also fighting a stubborn ISIS jihadist insurgency in its Sinai province. ISIS’ terror campaign has claimed many lives in the Egyptian security forces, and threatens to spread to other areas of the country.
Should Sunni states begin their own nuclear programs in response to Iran’s own nuclear efforts, the danger of atomic bombs falling into Islamist hands would also increase.
There is no alternative but to plan for such contingencies in the current unpredictable regional environment, where today’s rational states could be replaced by sinister forces tomorrow.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence. This article was originally commissioned by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.