While Iran has repeatedly threatened to restrict or shut off the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have worked to circumvent the straits by opening pipelines and terminals in the Fujairah emirate, just north of the border with Oman. But Iran's navy—the biggest in the region and with a flotilla of small, fast-moving vessels—is still able to pose a threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf and may force those states to spend even more heavily to protect it and their littoral waters.
Defense investments made by several Persian Gulf states are beginning to bear fruit. The UAE purchased several heavily modified Bombardier DHC-8s to provide a maritime patrol capability, the first of which was delivered in mid-2012. And the UAE navy recently received its first Abu Dhabi-class corvette, built in Italy by Fincantieri. Its first Falaj-2 class patrol boat is being built in Abu Dhabi by Etihad Ship Building, a joint venture between Fincantieri and Al Fattan Ship Industries.
Saudi Arabia's navy is upgrading its Eurocopter Cougars and purchased at least six new AS565MB Panthers for its patrol ships. The country is also interested in acquiring medium-sized warships and a fleet of shipboard helicopters such as the Sikorsky MH-60R, which is also being examined by Qatar. Reports suggest that the Saudis have set aside as much as $23 billion for a navy modernization program. Oman is building up its navy, too, with the purchase of patrol boats from BAE Systems.
Greater cooperation may lie with countries other than the U.S. France now permanently stations fighters in the UAE, and the U.K. is considering similar options. Exercises such as the Advanced Tactical Leadership Course—essentially, a Middle Eastern Red Flag held in the UAE—have allowed the air arms of forces in the region to work more closely with their Western counterparts.
Qatar and the UAE, in particular, have global ambitions, and their involvement in Operation Unified Protector over Libya heightened their status on the world stage. Qatar's deployment of six jet fighters and helicopters may have been small compared to that of other coalition partners, but it represented a large proportion of Qatar's fleet. According to Eyal though, GCC nations would probably struggle without the support of a Western coalition partner if they needed to sustain a major operation, at least at the moment.
“The participation of Qatar and the UAE in the Libya operation was very important, but their involvement was on a very small scale, as many of these countries do not have the logistical backbone as yet for sustained operations on their own,” Eyal says. The countries are rectifying that by procuring Boeing C-17s (Qatar bought four and the UAE six) and Airbus Military A330 Medium Multi-Role Tanker Transports (MRTT). Qatar has also purchased Lockheed Martin C-130Js. But the two countries are still highly dependent on coalition partners; during Operation Unified Protector, the Qatari Mirage 2000 force was embedded with the French air force operation out of Souda Bay in Crete, while the UAE F-16s flew alongside those from other coalition nations at Sigonella, Italy.
But neither the UAE nor Qatar is a stranger to operations overseas. The UAE supported the U.N. mission in Kosovo in 1999-2001 with a detachment of helicopters and, while it usually goes unreported, UAE special forces have been operating in Afghanistan for more than five years. Qatar's quiet diplomacy may also be counteracting Iran's attempts to destabilize relations across the region, and it has been taking on humanitarian missions, flying aid to earthquake-stricken Haiti and Chile in 2010. With this background, it seems likely that both countries will be keen to extend their reach further and work to strengthen their logistical chains to be ready to continue such activities
Saudi Arabian forces, meanwhile, will have to maintain watch on two fronts. Much of its oil refining is on the Persian Gulf coast, just over the water from Iran, and there have been cross-border troubles with Yemen. The Saudis are investing in new equipment such as its multibillion-dollar purchases of F-15 Eagles and Eurofighter Typhoons and the training infrastructure to support them.
Like the UAE and Qatar, Saudi Arabia has acquired A330 MRTTs, C-130J transports and KC-130J tankers. The country is investing in a large new fleet of helicopters and the creation of a national guard to provide homeland security and protect the country's infrastructure. While it continues to rely on old allies such as the U.S. for equipment, the Saudi Arabian government is diversifying its supplier base, procuring hundreds of Leopard 2 main battle tanks, Dingo infantry fighting vehicles and Boxer armored cars from Germany. The Saudis will likely make further investments in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, too.