RIYADH: In a region where military threats abound, GCC countries are moving toward strengthening their military Research and Development capabilities, also known as R&D, as part of their strategy to ramp up the domestic manufacturing capacity of weapons and advanced military systems.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are leading the movement, with the massive allocation of funds—a large sum of it will be spent locally.
The Kingdom is investing heavily in its local defense industries as part of the broader diversification plans outlined under Vision 2030. Last year, a senior Saudi military official reiterated that the Kingdom plans to spend over $20 billion for its military industry, with more than half of it will go into R&D over the next decade.
Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al-Ohali, governor of the Kingdom’s General Authority for Military Industries, known as GAMI, said that R&D spending will be increased from 0.2 percent to around 4 percent of armaments expenditure by 2030.
In the UAE, too, the Ministry of Defense is streamlining its domestic military capabilities. Last year, it signed an agreement with Tawazun, delegating the management of defence and security R&D planning and execution.
The defense and security acquisitions authority for the UAE Armed Forces and Abu Dhabi Police, Tawazun, will foster economic growth and the development of the UAE defense and security industry.
“A key dynamic that shapes the current defense market in the GCC is that it is robust in several types of weapons and enabling systems, including aircraft, drones, maritime and littoral systems, and anti-air and anti-munition defense,” said Nick Heras, deputy director, Human Security Unit, at Newsline Institute, in an interview with Arab News.
He added that some of the other emerging technologies include systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, artificial intelligence, munitions, computer systems, and information warfare tools. Led by the UAE and KSA, the regional countries are consolidating their military industry and R&D platforms by initiating various measures off late.
In 2019, for instance, Abu Dhabi placed several state-run companies under a single organization to restructure its defense industry. Around 25 businesses with combined annual revenue of $5 billion were consolidated under a new conglomerate, called EDGE, which will position the country as a global player.
Some of the companies placed under EDGE include the Abu Dhabi Ship Building and the Advanced Military Maintenance Repair and Overhaul Center. The latter is a joint venture with Lockheed Martin Corporation and Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary.
A similar venture was formed in the UAE in 2014 when Mubadala and Tawazun launched Emirates Defense Industries Company, known as EDIC, which consolidated a dozen government-owned companies under one organization. EDIC is now part of EDGE.
“EDGE is at the moment the most advanced conglomerate in the region in the field of defense industry, and it plays the role of a model for the Saudis with SAMI and the Qataris with Barzan Holdings,” said Jean Loup Semaan, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore, in an interview with Arab News.
Some of the major UAE defense firms operate nonetheless in independence of EDGE. These include Aquila Aerospace, which modifies aircraft for spying, and Calidus, a producer of light-attack aircraft, according to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
In Saudi, too, several entities have been created to manage and oversee the budding military industry.
In 2017, the Kingdom established the GAMI, which oversees military research and development and procurement. It is also a regulator and licensor for the military industry in Saudi Arabia.
In the same year, the state-owned Saudi Public Investment Fund, commonly known as PIF, launched the national Saudi Arabian Military Industries, or SAMI, as part of the Kingdom’s 2030 Vision.
“The GCC market is still developing, and there is a lot of room for growth. It is also a competitive market with a diverse array of countries in it, including all three great powers—China, Russia, and the United States, and European states such as Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, and rising powers including Turkey and even India,” said Heras.
Through its partnership with the UAE and Bahrain, Israel is also beginning to grab a share of the market, including potentially in R&D in partnership with the UAE, he added.
Whether EDGE or SAMI, all these regional projects have several goals, including building talent within the UAE and Saudi Arabia, respectively.
EDGE aims to attract “elite industry experts and talent from around the globe, to help on a wide spectrum of modern product development,” the company reportedly said in a press statement during the launch.
EDGE, which has five core specialties—platforms and systems, missiles and weapons, cyber defense, electronic warfare and intelligence, and mission support, employs over 12,000 people.
Whereas Saudi is expected to create around 100,000 jobs for the locals in the military sector as part of Vision 2030.
“There is definitely a strategy both in the UAE and KSA to foster their local defense industry in coordination with the education system,” said Samaan, giving the example of the Mohammed bin Zayed University for Artificial Intelligence.
But he pointed out that R&D is a long process, “so it’s too early to see a significant contribution from the local universities to the development of military technologies.”
In his previous interview with Arab News, Al-Ohali underlined the importance of forming a healthy ecosystem that included academic institutions, research centers, universities, public and private institutions in order to ensure the sustainability of the local military industry.
He added that the vision was to establish partnerships with academic institutions in order to overcome the local skills gap in strategic areas, such as engineering and skilled labor.
Yet, one challenge that GCC countries may face while building their own R&D sector is that military research is often a matter of national security. This makes other international players often hesitant to share their military innovations.
“R&D sharing is one of the tricky subjects in the global arms trade. Companies have to navigate complicated export control laws, and especially for classified type systems, it can be a burdensome process,” said Heras.
He explained that sharing research and development is often a national security decision that is weighed against the potential commercial opportunities.
“China and some countries such as Turkey have an advantage in this regard because the military technology they sell is often tied to the commercial benefit of the state or to companies close to the elites of the governing regime, which balances the national security concerns they might have,” concluded Heras.