Post-Arab Spring political tensions are driving up military spending in the Middle East, analysts say.
Expenditures escalated to an estimated $150 billion in the region in 2013. Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Bahrain are the countries spending the most on its military.
According to a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
(SIPRI), Saudi Arabia’s military spending increased to $67 billion, making the kingdom the world’s fourth largest military spender after the U.S, China and Russia.
Carina Solmirano, senior researcher at SIPRI’s Military Expenditure Program, says that while countries do have security needs, the specific reasons for maintaining high level military spending vary from country to country.
“Tensions with Iran and fears of an Arab Spring-type revolt were the likely main factors explaining the Saudi increase of 14 percent in 2013, but also the desire to maintain strong and loyal security forces to insure against potential Arab Spring type protests,” said Solmirano, one of the study’s co-authors.
In Bahrain, Solmirano says, internal security in the wake of anti-government protests by the Shi’ite majority is the likely motive for the country’s 26-percent increase, whereas data for 2013 was not available for Iran, Qatar, Syria and the United Arab Emirates.
“Most probably, the real numbers and the increase in military spending in the Middle East could be potentially higher,” she said, adding that the increased spending does not necessarily reflect a new Mideast arms race.
“While Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain have been making large acquisitions of arms recently, they have done so as a part of modernization but also because of a perception of a threat from Iran’s nuclear program, so it is very early to conclude whether it is a real arms race or not,” she said.
The largest regional increase was by Iraq (27 percent), as it continued the rebuilding of its armed forces, whereas Israel maintained relatively constant military expenditures with a slight increase of 0.3 percent at about $10 billion, which is three times Egypt’s military spending and larger than the combined defense expenditures of all its neighbors.
“Israel still maintains a relatively high level of military spending per GDP at about 5.6 percent which is well above the global average of 2.4 percent,” Solimrano said.
According to Michael O’Hanlon, director of research for the Foreign Policy Program at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, Israel's spending is driven by its unique position in the region.
“Israel is a small country surrounded by a lot of potential enemies posing threats from multiple directions, so it is understandable that [it] wants to compensate for its exposed difficult position with technological and military superiority,” he said.
Although Israel did not make SIPRI’s list of the top 15 countries in terms of sheer military expenditures, he said it remains among the top countries in terms of military spending per GDP.
O’Hanlon also says international sanctions on Iran have slowed the arms race dynamic.
“Because the international community has managed to constrain Iran in terms of its conventional military buildup and slow down its nuclear aspirations, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council and others are sort of catching up in terms of what they need to be militarily,” he said, explaining that he believes big military spending in the Middle East is primarily a result of Iran’s ongoing interest in fomenting difficulties for Arab states.
“The rise is also due to the instability climate that can be dated back to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the various Arab Spring developments,” he said.
The report’s authors hope their findings will prompt debate on priorities for Middle East nations.
“The message we would like to convey is that there is a need to decide whether military spending is based on a real need or that resources could be utilized better in other sectors like health and education,” Solimrano said.