Military spending in the Middle East has fallen over the past year, despite a string of ongoing conflicts across the region, including those in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Forbes reports in its article Middle East Governments Are Cutting Their Military Budgets Even As Wars Rage Around The Region that according to data published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) on February 14, total spending across the region fell to $167bn in 2017, down 4% from $174bn the year before. Measured by a number of other metrics, the fall was even faster. Defence spending on a per capita basis was down 5% to $388 while spending as a percentage of the region’s GDP dropped from 5.73% of GDP in 2016 to 5.4% last year.
These figures don’t capture all the countries in the region – in its Military Balance 2018report, IISS says it has no reliable information for the defence budgets of a number of likely high-spending countries including Qatar and the U.A.E. However, the direction of travel for the region as a whole is fairly clear.
In all, eight countries cut their spending in 2017 compared to 2016, including countries with sizeable military budgets such as Algeria, which spent $10bn in 2017, 2% less than the year before, Israel ($18.5bn, down 7%) and Oman ($8.7bn, down 5%). The most significant drop in monetary terms was in Saudi Arabia which slashed $4.8bn from its budget. However, that still meant it spent $76.7bn on its armed forces last year, which was far higher than any other country in the region and indeed the third largest military budget in the world after the US and China.
The largest fall in percentage terms was in Egypt, which reduced its military spending by almost half, from $5.3bn in 2016 to $2.7bn last year. However, this is explained by the devaluation of the Egyptian pound over the period. In local currency terms, Cairo’s military budget actually rose from E£43.2bn to E£47.1bn.
In broad terms, the cuts to defence budgets are a clear sign of the fiscal pressures that governments in the region are under. Despite the instability in many corners of the region, lower oil prices and slow economic growth mean that the days of free spending are in the past and governments are being forced to trim their ambitions.
While most countries scaled back their spending last year, there were a few notable exceptions. Iran’s budget increased slightly in dollar terms by 1% but more in local currency terms, with a 9% lift to IR544 trillion ($16bn) in 2017. Others to increase their spending included Iraq, where Islamic State forces have now been largely defeated but where the security situation continues to be fragile, and Jordan and Lebanon, which are both dealing with the fallout from the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
There is a chance that the picture will change in the near future and the overall military outlay will start to increase once again, particularly if some of the $110bn worth of deals announced during U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017 go ahead. For now, however, most of these are letters of intent rather than firm orders.
And for all the billions of dollars the region has spent on building up its armed forces over recent years, questions remain over just how effective many of them are as fighting forces. In particular, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and their allies have failed to defeat the Houthi rebel forces in Yemen in almost three years of fighting, although the performance of the U.A.E. forces has on occasion impressed independent analysts.