FACT CHECK: Do Saudi Arabia And Its Allies Spend 8 Times More Than Iran Militarily?
Republican Sen. Rand Paul said on “Fox News Sunday” that Saudi Arabia and its allies spend eight times more than Iran militarily.
Experts say that Paul is in the ballpark. Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – which includes Saudi Arabia and some of its allies – spend around six to eight times as much as Iran does on defense.
Paul voiced opposition to selling U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia in light of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Saudi state media reported that Khashoggi died after a fight took place at the consulate. Saudi Arabia fired five top officials and arrested 18 people in connection with the incident, but many U.S. lawmakers and pundits suspect that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered his killing.
The Kentucky senator argued that selling arms to Saudi Arabia contributes to a power struggle in the region.
“If you look at military spending right now, the Saudis and the Gulf sheikhdom that are their allies spend eight times more than Iran,” Paul said Sunday. “And so, there is an arms race, but when we supply arms to Saudi Arabia, Iran responds.”
Paul’s office told The Daily Caller News Foundation that he was thinking of Iran’s military spending compared to that of the countries in the GCC, a political and economic alliance between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Exact military spending figures are hard to determine. “One problem you have when you start asking about international statistics is that there’s no real standard definition,” Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told TheDCNF. “The Gulf countries rarely report honestly even when they do report.”
Still, military spending estimates provide a good indication of GCC spending compared to Iran. “You just live with it,” Cordesman said. “You go with what’s there.”
Three highly cited estimates of country-by-country military spending indicate that GCC countries spend about six to eight times as much as Iran.
The information firm IHS Markit provides the smallest ratio for GCC spending compared to Iran. It estimates that the GCC countries spent a combined $100 billion on defense in 2018, almost six times as much as Iran’s estimated $17.4 billion.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) does not have figures available for the UAE and Qatar in its 2017 defense spending report, but its estimates for the other GCC countries total $86.3 billion in 2016 dollars. It estimates that Iran’s military spending is $14.5 billion.
Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher with SIPRI’s arms and military expenditure program, said that it is “very reasonable to make a ballpark estimate” that the UAE and Qatar account for around $30 billion in military spending. That would put spending by GCC countries at about eight times SIPRI’s estimate for Iran.
SIPRI said in its report on world military expenditures that it is “reasonable to assume” that UAE military spending remains at a similar level to its last available estimate from 2014, $24.4 billion.
“In addition, we do know that Qatar is now in the process of expanding its armed forces on a large scale, for such a small country,” Wezeman told TheDCNF in an email. SIPRI’s last military expenditure estimate for Qatar was $2.2 billion in 2010.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) estimated Iran’s 2017 military spending to be $16 billion, but it also does not have 2017 data available for the UAE and Qatar. IISS estimates for the other GCC countries add up to $92.6 billion.
Cordesman provided his own 2017 estimates for the UAE and Qatar – $30 billion and $6.1 billion, respectively – to estimate an IISS total for a CSIS working presentation on comparative military spending in the Gulf region. His figures put the IISS military spending estimate for GCC countries at $128.7 billion, eight times more than Iran.
While the estimates vary slightly and are not exact, experts say that it is fair to say that military spending by GCC countries is around eight times that of Iran. “Ballpark, it rings true,” William Rich, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The DCNF.
Cordesman said that actual GCC military spending could be anywhere from six to nine times that of Iran. “Eight is as good as any other because it really is somewhere in that figure.”
Paul is not the first to make such a claim. “The defense budget of our Gulf partners is more than eight times that of Iran,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor under Obama, said in 2015.
“Although Gulf countries, for example, spend eight times more, at least, combined on defense than Iran’s entire defense budget, they haven’t deployed it in ways that have been as strategically effective,” former President Barack Obama said in a 2015 interview.
Richard Baffa, a senior international/defense policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, said that the GCC alliance would likely not all act together militarily. “The Gulf Arab states are not unified politically and therefore almost certainly wouldn’t all fight as one unified block, absent some huge catalyst such as a direct Iranian assault on the Gulf,” he told TheDCNF in an email. “At present, there is a significant rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand and Qatar on the other.”
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and cut diplomatic ties with the country in 2017.
The question of capability is more important than the exact spending numbers, Baffa said. The GCC states spend a lot more because they buy high-end weapons. Iran, which has been largely embargoed, has “focused on missiles, unconventional warfare (IRGC -Qods Force), and proxies,” Baffa said. “Unlike the Gulf states, Iran has a large population and certainly could generate substantial ground forces.”
Cordesman softened Paul’s warning that Iran “responds” when Saudi Arabia purchases U.S. weapons. “Does it try to respond to the extent that it can? The answer is yes. Is it able to respond? In any adequate sense, no,” he said. “You’ve given the Gulf states a major superiority in airpower, in the quality of their ships and in the quality of their tanks, and it does affect their warfighting capability.”
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