October 6, 2022


  • Saudi Arabia and the UAE are investing heavily in new military equipment for Iran.
  • They continued to strengthen even as President Joe Biden tried to convince them of US support.

Iran’s military moves in recent weeks have drawn worldwide attention, raising concerns among rivals in the US and across the Middle East.

On September 1, Iran’s navy briefly seized two US Navy unmanned surface vessels in the Red Sea, succeeding in its second attempt to capture a US drone within a week.

On September 4, the commander of the Iranian Air Force, Brig. General Hamid Vahedi, he said the country had hoped to acquire Russian Su-35 fighter jets, which would be Tehran’s largest fighter purchase since 1990.

The next day, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy he showed himself a new catamaran-style “patrol-combat ship” equipped with vertical launch missiles – a first for any Iranian naval vessel.

The actions come amid a long-term military build-up by Iran’s neighbors, which are seeking to counter Tehran’s asymmetric capabilities by improving their air and naval forces. Their strengthening has continued despite President Joe Biden’s efforts to reassure them of US support and improve relations in the face of increasing geopolitical competition.

Dominant air power

United Arab Emirates F-16 KC-10 tanker

The UAE F-16 is preparing to link up with the US Air Force KC-10 tanker in August 2019.

US Air Force/Staff Sergeant Chris Drzazgowski


The vast oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and the UAE has allowed them to be the two largest defense spenders in the Middle East and North Africa, and their relationships with the US and Europe give them access to the best fighter jets on the market.

The core of the Royal Saudi Air Force strength are its 232 F-15 Eagles, of which at least 84 Variants of the F-15SA designed specifically for Saudi Arabia. The RSAF also operates the 71st Eurofighter Typhoon fighters and 66 Panavia Tornado attack aircraft.

Saudi Arabia is upgrading its F-15s, and in November the US State Department approved the sale of 280 AIM-120C air-to-air missiles to Riyadh for $650 million.

Royal Saudi Air Force F-15

A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 at King Faisal Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia in February 2021.

US Air Force/Staff Sergeant Katherine Walters


Saudi jets continue to play a major role in Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen. Their operations prevented Houthi forces from taking over important territory and prevented Houthi drones and missiles from attacks on Saudi Arabia, but Saudi airstrikes, often carried out with US supportgo ahead kill civilians.

The UAE air fleet is small but powerful, consisting of 78 F-16s and 49 Mirage 2000 it is used for both combat and offensive operations.

Over the past year, the UAE has said would buy 80 French-made Dassault Rafales and 12 Chinese production Hongdu L-15 jet trainers, with an option for another 36. The UAE is also allegedly in negotiations with the Turkish company Baykar for 120 Bayraktar TB2 drones.

Modern fleets

Royal Saudi Navy corvette HMS Badr

Royal Saudi Naval Force corvette HMS Badr in the Persian Gulf in December 2020.

US Navy/MCS3 Louis Thompson Staats IV


The primary combat ships of the Saudi Navy are three Al Riyadh-class frigates, four Al Madinah-class frigates, four Badr-class corvettesand nine Al Siddiq-class patrol ships. The UAE combat fleet consists of smaller vessels: six Baynunah-class and one Abu Dhabi-class corvette and 36 patrol boats.

Both navies plan to expand and modernize.

In 2017, Riyadh signed a contract with Lockheed Martin for four multipurpose surface combatant warships, a variant of the US Navy’s Freedom-class littoral combat ship. So do the Saudis received two out of five Spanish Al Jubail-class corvettes they ordered in 2018. The last three are expected to be delivered by 2024. The Kingdom also ordered 39 HSI32 Interceptor vessels of the French shipbuilder CMN Group.

The UAE, meanwhile, ordered two Gowind 2500-class corvettes from France’s Marine Group in 2019. The first corvette was launched December and second in May.

In addition to securing their own waters, the Saudi and Emirati navies have sent ships in support blockade Yemen.

Threat changes, priorities and acquisitions

United Arab Emirates Baynunah-class corvettes

The first Baynunah-class corvette ordered by the UAE sails for the first time in Cherbourg, France in June 2009.

JEAN-PAUL BARBIER/AFP via Getty Images


Despite showing off its new warships and announcing plans to buy more fighter jets, Tehran has recalibrated its defense structure in recent years.

“Ten years ago, you could see that the Iranians were still thinking in a somewhat conventional way about doing things,” said Michael Knights, an expert on Persian Gulf military and security affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Handicapped by sanctions and a limited industrial base, Iran has largely been unable to build and field advanced military hardware. It has shifted from trying to match the conventional capabilities of its adversaries to focusing on things like developing missiles and drones.

“They skipped over a bunch of things they weren’t good at and focused on the things they’re pretty good at now,” Knights told Insider.

Iranian missile arsenal is the largest in the Middle East and quite capable, as is his a fleet of drones.

Al Asad al-Assad Damage to a base in Iraq after an Iranian missile strike in January 2020.

US soldiers and journalists inspect the damage at the Al Asad base in Iraq after it was hit by Iranian missiles.

AP Photo/Qassim Abdul-Zahra


Since 2015, hundreds of missile and drone attacks using Iranian-made hardware have been launched against Saudi Arabia and the UAE from Yemen and Iran. In January 2020, Iran launched more than ten ballistic missiles at US military bases in Iraq following the US killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani.

Iran supplies drones to Moscow while the Russian army is fighting in Ukraine. In mid-September, Ukraine announced that it had destroyed an Iranian drone used by Russian forces for the first time.

Iran too developed air defense which could probably effectively defend its home territory.

But the advanced weapons now at the disposal of Iran and its neighbors, along with the narrow borders of the Gulf region, mean that any conflict would lead to heavy casualties on both sides.

“The Gulf states and the Iranians could probably do a lot of damage to each other very early in the war. Both sides would lose their navies very quickly,” Knights said.

Accordingly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are placing greater emphasis on the development of anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems. Both are investment in unmanned systems.

The two countries are working on mutual integration and networking of their drones and systems, which the US has supportedand have participated in or hosted multiple military exercises involving drones, including this year’s US-led International Naval Exercise, the greatest exercise of unmanned systems in the world.

unmanned naval vessels in Bahrain

US and Bahraini officials in front of unmanned naval vessels at Naval Support Activity Bahrain in Manama in January.

US Navy/MCS1 Mark Thomas Mahmod


IMX 2022 was too first time Israel and Saudi Arabia, which do not have diplomatic relations, officially participated in the joint exercise.

The Saudis and the UAE have turned to their growing defense industries to build those weapons, but the Biden administration — which froze arms sales to Saudi Arabia after taking office over human rights concerns over the war in Yemen — now appears open to supplementing Saudi Arabia and the Emirates’ arsenals as part of its efforts to improve relations.

Just weeks after his visit to the Middle East in July 2021, Biden approved a $5 billion arms sale that included up to 300 Patriot missile interceptors to Saudi Arabia and two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems with 96 interceptor missiles to the UAE.

Iran is “in a game of mutual assured destruction” with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE, “when it comes to losing critical infrastructure,” Knights said.

“But if trends in anti-missile and counter-drone continue to move in the direction they are now, the GCC may be better prepared to defend itself against the Iranians, and that’s an interesting break in the trend,” he added.



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