BEIRUT — Saudi aspirations for a homegrown defense industry are certainly ambitious, but already its Vision 2030 is coming to life. Last month, the kingdom unveiled a broad plan to develop infrastructure and industry across the nation — and the defense sector is along for the ride.
The program is expected to net more than $426 billion in investments by 2030 and create 1.6 million jobs, according to a government statement.
As part of the Vision 2030 economic approach, Riyadh wants at least half of the equipment it will need for national security and its military to be locally produced by 2030.
The kingdom also reorganized the government to better manage the growth of the domestic defense industry. In May 2017, the country stood up the state-owned defense company Saudi Arabian Military Industries, or SAMI, which engages in domestic and regional markets. The General Authority for Military Industries was also created to coordinate weapons procurement as well as research and development with an emphasis on local sourcing.
“No doubt the regional defense industry has become highly aware of the importance of building and developing its own military equipment to break free from the international constraints,” said a Saudi military source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Saudis are diversifying their economic status so not to remain dependent on oil and have an industrial base for various civil and military areas, while providing the needs of their armed forces and security agencies and make their country a more self-sufficient one.”
Among the deals announced as part of last month’s revealed plan was an agreement with French aerospace and defense company Thales and CMI of Belgium for military-industrial cooperation.
Commenting on its part in the deal, Thales told Defense News: “In line with Vision 2030, the company is developing several partnerships with local companies and universities in the Kingdom in order to address the country and the region[al] needs in the field of high technologies.”
But what does Vision 2030 mean for other Mideast states?
For retired Kuwait Air Force Col. Zafer Alajmi, effort may serve an incentive for Arab countries to circumvent Riyadh. The former officer says Gulf countries have come a long way in overcoming deteriorating relations in the region as a result of the war in Yemen – the Arab coalition, created to target Houthi rebels, provided an opening for defense cooperation between non-Saudi states.
To Alajmi’s point, Saudi Arabia’s economic approach is to create a regional powerhouse; in response, other Gulf nations may turn to each other to mitigate the effects of a neighbor dominating the Mideast defense industry.
“When the Vision 2030 program was established, it became quite apparent ... that Riyadh was looking to become stronger in terms of defense than other countries such as South Korea or some Western nations," according to Amjad Taha, the regional chief of the British Middle East Center for Studies and Research. "Achieving the defense scheme within the Saudi Vision 2030 means providing economic benefits and increasing the country’s autonomy in the decade ahead, just like Turkey.”
“Therefore, Saudi Arabia has sought to lower its dependence on arms imports by building up its own defense industry and has also considered diversifying the sources of its arms by looking to suppliers such as Russia and China,” he added. “Changing the scheme from a ‘supplier-vendor’ relationship to a ‘partnership model’ one means the country will form its own defense [artillery] and armament while selling it to its alliances.”
Taha also noted that Saudi Arabia is positioning Vision 2030 as a means to counter “a Turkish-Iranian axis” and bring peace to an unpredictable Middle East.
“Per the wealth of Saudi and thrilled ambition of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s defense by 2030 will be stronger than Turkey, if not equal, which is somewhat already irritating Ankara’s regime — what may explain their dogmatic rivalry with Riyadh,” the analyst said.
The two countries took separate paths in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt severed ties with Qatar, accusing its government of supporting “terrorism” and destabilizing the region. Saudi Arabia closed its land border with Qatar, through which much of its food supply crossed; Turkey immediately sent aid and supplies to Qatar.
And October 2018 saw the two countries clash over the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan alleged an order to kill Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul came from the highest level of Saudi leadership. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar accused Saudi Arabia of sending an 18-member “kill team” to commit the murder.
As for whether Saudi Arabia can achieve its economic goals, Pieter D. Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute questions the kingdom’s timeline.
“Given the challenges that Saudi Arabia faces in developing its industrial base more generally, and the difficulties other countries have faced when pursuing military industrialization, the extent to which these goals can be achieved within [its planned timeline] is highly questionable,” the senior researcher said. “Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia remains highly dependent on arms imports, and the developing indigenous Saudi arms industry can be expected to be based on imported technology and expertise for many years to come.”
Burak Ege Bekdil in Ankara, Turkey, and Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report.
Chirine Mouchantaf contributed stories on Middle East defense and wrote for SDArabia, an Arabic security and defense magazine.