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Middle East , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

Su-35 for Both Sides; UAE and Qatar Both Look Eastwards to Arm Themselves Amid Worsening Relations

June 20th - 2018

Amid growing tensions in the Persian Gulf two longstanding Western aligned monarchies, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, have recently taken unprecedented steps to arm themselves with Russian weapons. While the two former British colonies have served as loyal Western defence clients for decades, relying almost exclusively on European and American weapons, both Arab countries have increasingly been forced to turn to alternative arms sources. With the Western bloc increasingly limited in the arms it can export to the two Arab states relative to Chinese and Russian suppliers, turning alternative sources appears to be part of a growing trend in the region which has affected the two monarchies. The United Arab Emirates for example, unable to acquire advanced combat drones from the United States due to export controls and with Europe lacking comparable high end technologies, has turned to China to aquire these weapons systems. The Emirati armed forces have imported the Wing Loog II, a platform comparable to the American Predator and Reaper drones in its capabilities but coming at a fraction of the cost. These unmanned aircraft are set to prove an invaluable asset to the country’s ongoing war effort against Ansurallah Coalition forces in Yemen.

With Western suppliers offering only a single ballistic missile platform for export, the U.S. MGM-140 short ranged platform which is only offered to a select few of its clients, the UAE was forced to turn to North Korea to acquire Hwasong-5 ballistic missiles. While they are the least sophisticated ballistic missiles currently fielded by the North Korean military and production was long ago terminated, a far cry from the cutting edge short range platforms such as the solid fuelled Toksa fielded today, they provide the UAE with a limited ballistic missile deterrent at a very low cost. The Qatari military has similarly looked to China to acquire SY-400 short range ballistic missiles as a deterrent against its neighbours amid threats of force being made against it. Qatar has also sought to acquire the Russian S-400 air defence system, following in the footstep of a number of Western clients including Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkey, as Western producers have been unable to manufacture platforms of comparable quality even for their own defence needs.

Ballistic missiles, drones and air defence platforms are but a few examples of the advanced weapons systems that the West’s longstanding Arab clients have increasingly been forced to acquire from non Western sources due to the shortcomings of European and North American suppliers - despite these client states being strongly politically inclined to favour Western sourced weapons. It has recently emerged that both the UAE and Qatar have also shown a significant interest in Russian made fighter jets, as while European and American suppliers have previously sold them combat aircraft they have failed to provide high end air superiority platforms for countries’ defence needs. Of the world’s only producers of advanced air superiority fighters, the United States, Russia and China, the U.S. has banned the export of its fifth generation platform, the F-22, seriously restricted the export of its fourth generation platform the F-15C to just three clients, and has not produced a high end fourth generation heavy fighter which can be termed '4+' or '4++' in its capabilities. With China having shown only a limited willingness to export its own air superiority platforms, only Russia is left a potential supplier of high end fourth generation air superiority fighters such as the Su-30 and Su-35.

Both the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, unable to acquire comparable platforms from any other sources, have shown significant interest in purchasing Russia's Su-35 to enhance their aerial warfare capabilities. Russian Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov, who led the Russian delegation at the IDEX 2017 exhibition, stated in this regard: "Colleagues have expressed interest in the possible supplies of Su-35s, held relevant talks, we will discuss this in more detail.” This came at a time of heightened tensions between the UAE and Qatar, as well as ongoing tensions between the Gulf States and Iran. Despite maintaining one of the world’s highest defence budgets, the Emirati Air Force relies exclusively on European and U.S. made light fighters such as the Mirage 2000 and F-16, which leave it at a significantly disadvantage compared to states fielding specialised heavier platforms such as Saudi Arabian F-15C fleet. The UAE has also entered into a joint fighter program with Russia to develop a fifth generation platform for its Air Force, a result of the United States’ unwillingness to supply its F-22 or F-35 and European producers’ lack of fifth generation platforms altogether. 

Qatar for its part reportedly entered talks with Russia in early 2018 to acquire an unknown number of Su-35 fighters, a platform it desperately needs to match the vast but far older F-15C fleet of neighbouring Saudi Arabia which would give the Qatari Air Force a significant qualitative advantage. Vladimir Kozhin, the Russian President’s aide for cooperation in defence technologies, confirmed that Qatar had indeed shown interest in the fighter. Growing interest from Western clients in Chinese, Russian and Korean arms (both north and south) represents part of a trend towards Western producers increasingly underperforming in a number of fields, and otherwise imposing arbitrary restrictions on the export of their weapons systems which lead to significant losses in market share to Russian and East Asian suppliers. The Middle East is hardly the only example of this, with other examples including Indonesia’s acquisition of Russian air superiority fighters following a brief American arms embargo, the Philippines looking to Russian and South Korean helicopters following excessive arbitrary restrictions placed by Canadian suppliers on their use and Turkey looking to South Korean battle tanks following Germany’s lack of cooperation and strict restrictions on the use of their own tanks - not to mention their gross underperformance in combat. A combination of unwillingness to export high end arms, a lack of competitive technologies and, particularly in the case of European suppliers, poor cost effectiveness is set to see Western suppliers continue to lose market shares in the export of weapons.

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