Combined, the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are among the world’s largest spenders on defense equipment. Sales to the region have provided a significant boost to the West’s aerospace and defense industry and, to a certain extent, to those in Russia and China as well. But that is beginning to change as the Middle East’s purchasing power is turned into industrial power.  

GCC governments, particularly those in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, have come to the realization that their oil-dependent economic might is no longer assured, nor is their access to high-tech Western weaponry, as recent embargoes on Saudi Arabia—and more recently Turkey over its invasion of northern Syria—have illustrated. 

Technological sensitivities have meant some GCC nations have struggled to purchase equipment such as U.S.-made armed unmanned aerial systems, forcing many of the countries to turn instead to China and Turkey for those items.

Indeed, GCC nations could follow the Turkish approach to developing their national defense industrial capability. Heavy investments in research and development, along with international partnerships, have allowed Turkish industry to develop equipment ranging from ammunition to sensors right up to tanks and helicopters. Defense exports also increased by 170% from 2009 to 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), with its limited oil reserves, was among the first GCC nations to take steps to develop its defense sector, focusing first on an obvious regional need for armored vehicles. 

A cottage industry has developed across the Emirates, feeding regional demand for more protected mobility. The UAE’s ambitions have since grown: Several aerospace startups have been created to meet local needs, and Calidus, which developed the B-250 Bader light attack aircraft with Brazilian company Novaer, is relocating development of the platform to the UAE.

The Gulf nations are not looking to replace Western OEMs as a source of defense equipment, just merely augment them by developing niche capabilities; protected vehicles and self-developed counterinsurgency platforms fit that criteria.

State-run investment agency Mubadala has been leading the charge in developing the UAE’s aerospace industry, establishing a cluster near Al Ain for fledgling aerospace businesses such as Strata, an aerostructures manufacturer supplying components to Airbus, ATR, Boeing and Pilatus. Other companies at the Al Ain cluster—known as Nibras—include the Advanced Military Maintenance Repair and Overhaul Center, which is completing a large new campus on the west side of Al Ain International Airport where it will service and overhaul the UAE military aircraft fleets as well as those of its neighbors. Calidus is also expected to move development and ultimately production of the B-250 to Al Ain.

The Emirates Defense Industries Co. (EDIC) owns companies specializing in training and in the production of firearms, ammunition and specialist military wheeled vehicles, several of which have seen combat debuts in the Yemeni conflict.

Mubadala has also invested in the development of defense companies along with the Tawazun Economic Council, an organization leading development of the country’s defense and security sector. In February, Tawazun launched a defense and security development fund, worth 2.5 billion UAE dirham ($680 million), to build the capabilities of local small and medium-size enterprises to encourage self-reliance, creativity and innovation.

Saudi Arabia is taking a different approach to developing its industrial complex, in part because it has less time to generate capability. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman wants 50% of defense procurement to be from local manufacturers by the end of the next decade. The kingdom already had established some national defense industrial capabilities, developed as offsets to major defense procurements such as fighters from the UK and U.S. Indeed, BAE Systems has recently been carrying out final assembly of Hawk jet trainers in Dhahran with a largely Saudi workforce (AW&ST May 6-22, p. 22).

Vision 2030, as the approach is called, prompted the creation of Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), an umbrella organization that is absorbing the kingdom’s existing defense and aerospace capabilities and bringing them, along with established joint ventures with major OEMs, under a single management structure (AW&ST July 1-14, p. 44).

“Unlike other countries, we do not have 50 years to catch up; we have 12 years to achieve something. The only way to do this is by parallelizing everything and not copying what the others have done,” SAMI CEO Andreas Schwer tells Aviation Week.

Key to SAMI’s success will be a series of industry clusters centered around a skills base. For aerospace, SAMI’s cluster will be positioned around maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities owned by Saudia Aerospace Engineering Industries (SAEI) at the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. A defense electronics cluster will be based in Riyadh near the city’s main airport, and shipbuilding facilities will be located on both coasts on the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf. At the center of the electronics cluster is the Advanced Electronics Co.; SAMI announced its purchase in June. Another company likely to be brought into the fold is Alsalam Aerospace Industries, and there are options for different levels of collaboration with SAEI.

SAMI plans to work with major OEMs on final assembly of at least two helicopter models in-country, one a light helicopter in the class of the Airbus H145 and a heavier platform for the military. Sikorsky’s Black Hawk has been selected for the latter; Saudi government officials are mulling the selection of the lighter platform.

Beyond local assembly of platforms and MRO services, the company also wants to become a major aerostructures supplier to both military and commercial airframers in cooperation with Emirati company Mubadala, focusing on composite and metallic airframe components. Cooperation with the UAE will not end there, Schwer says: The two nations are discussing joint procurements, initially of protected vehicles.

Qatar is also looking to build its defense capabilities. Aside from its significant military buildup of fighters, air defense systems and armored vehicles purchased from the West, it has created Barzan Holdings, a defense investment fund that has established several joint ventures with large Western defense companies. So far, these have mostly focused on setting up capabilities associated with land warfare, naval and cybercapabilities, but reports suggest an arm of the fund, Barzan Aeronautical in South Carolina, is working on development of an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for the Gulf state.