Throughout the Middle East, many governments have placed a heavy emphasis on military force as a central tool for pursuing their political agendas and foreign policy aims and for dealing with perceived threats internally and abroad. Many states in the region have used their militaries in violent conflicts that have led to widespread destruction and hampered economic development. Militarization in the region is at a high level, as demonstrated by the fact that several states have steeply increased their arms imports in the past 10 years and that, in 2017, 7 of the 10 countries in the world with the highest military burden were in the Middle East.
This topical backgrounder puts a spotlight on armament developments in Saudi Arabia, the country with the highest levels of military spending and arms imports in the Middle East. It aims to contribute to the efforts by SIPRI to gain a better understanding of the impact of militarization on security, conflict, peace and development in the region.
Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in conflicts in the Middle East
Since the spring of 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of states in a military intervention against rebel forces in Yemen. The intervention has involved airstrikes, ground operations and an aerial and naval blockade of Yemen. Instead of a quick victory or resolution to the conflict, fighting has continued and the warring parties have been accused of violations of international humanitarian law. United Nations bodies and non-governmental organizations have accused Saudi Arabia of widespread and systematic attacks on civilian targets. The conflict in Yemen has caused tens of thousands of casualties and the situation there is currently considered to be the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The fighting—and the blockade in particular—has disrupted imports of food, fuel and medical supplies.
Saudi Arabia is also militarily involved in other conflicts—such as providing support for rebel groups in Syria, attempting to use military assistance to gain influence in Lebanon and fighting Shiite minority groups in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. Although the various conflicts throughout the Middle East are complex, it is widely believed that they can be at least partly explained by regional power struggles (such as those between Saudi Arabia and Iran,