BEIRUT ― When it comes to achieving military self-reliance in the Middle East, technology transfer and the expansion of local production for international export are common objectives of regional countries. This is especially the case for the armored vehicles market, according to a recent analysis.
A report published by the global consulting firm MarketsandMarkets says the armored vehicles market is expected to reach more than $31 billion by 2021, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 5.6 percent as conflict spreads and acts of violence become more common.
Hence, “the ability to maintain and repair sophisticated, land-based military equipment locally has become a necessity ― not to mention the manufacturing process,” explained military expert Naji Malaeb, who is the editor in chief of sdarabia.com, which is a partner of Defense News.
He specifically mentioned “Saudi Arabia and UAE’s heavy participation in the Yemeni war; Egypt’s large-scale engagement against Islamic militants in the restive northern Sinai; and Jordan’s continuous effort to secure its borders amid fears of Islamic State fighters slipping from Iraq and Syria.”
So where does the Middle East stand today in terms of both critical objectives?
Technology transfer: Make it or break it
“If Western providers of military equipment ― mainly the U.S and Europeans ― want to work with local Arab companies, they will have to transfer their technical knowledge to the ones that are part of a rising indigenous defense sector,” an industry official told Defense News, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official stressed the Gulf’s capability to “turn its back on the U.S. and European suppliers,” noting that “if they [the U.S. and Europe suppliers] don’t help them [Gulf states] with what they need, there will be no other choice but to try to get it somewhere else to protect their security needs.” That alternative could be Russia.
For his part, Abdallah Al Salman, marketing and communication manager at Jordan-based KADDB Investment Group, stressed the country’s pioneer spirit in technology transfer “given the highly qualified human resources in Jordan and the different partnerships over the years with global industry leaders.”
“There is no doubt that some Arab countries are becoming more aware of the importance of technology transfer and are capitalizing on building their local capabilities through manufacturing certain parts locally as part of their purchasing contracts, which is a globally growing trend nowadays,” he said.
However, some analysts are skeptical when it comes to this specific matter; Anshu Vats, a partner and the head of the public sector unit for the Middle East at consulting firm Oliver Wyman, and Mark Serrano, a principal in the same unit expressed a differing view in their report “Military Self-Reliance in the GCC: From Purchasing Power to Industry Powerhouse.” Referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council, the co-authors said “the GCC has lacked the capability to absorb the technology, due to the shortage of nationals in the defense industry and the limited pipeline of [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] graduates.”
“The parts of the value chain that GCC countries currently operate in are labor intensive, and so when there is a transfer of technology, they end up employing expatriate labor to implement the foreign technology,” they explained. “This, therefore, does not serve the objective of localizing the defense industry.”
Going global: International export goals
In the United Arab Emirates, Nimr Automotive was able to hit the international market running and now plans to increase exports of its military-grade vehicles to international markets over the next five years.
The Emirates Defence Industries Company subsidiary delivered its first batch of vehicles outside the Middle East and North Africa region last year to Turkmenistan, with further exports to hit Thailand and Malaysia in 2018. Nimr also added Europe to the list after signing a strategic partnership agreement with the Czech Republic’s VOP CZ at the 2017 International Defence Exhibition and Conference.
And yet Fahad Mohamed Al Absi, commercial director at Nimr, believes “the stage reached by Arab and Gulf countries in the field of military industrialization is well overdue.”
“The military industry in the UAE ― or even in the rest of the Arab countries ― has the capacity and potential for industrialization, but the thing that can truly help improve those opportunities is that the local market supplier shouldn’t be an agent resource,” he said.
“This same resource must be a manufacturer, able to produce and supply the raw materials according to the needs of our market and others in the Middle East. What can limit the possibilities of our progress is our continuous, [heavy reliance] on imports.”
Fahad admits that some Arab manufacturers are indeed making their own products from raw materials and “the sophistication is gradually developing, but still weak.”
The latest numbers on arms imports by Middle Eastern countries show an increase by 103 percent between 2008 and 2012 as well as 2013 and 2017, and it accounted for 32 percent of global arms imports from 2013-2017, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“Widespread violent conflict in the Middle East and concerns about human rights have led to political debate in Western Europe and North America about restricting arms sales,“ said Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. “Yet the USA and European states remain the main arms exporters to the region and supplied over 98 percent of weapons imported by Saudi Arabia.”
Jordan, on the other hand, was able to export some of its local military products to 35 countries in the world ― Arab and non-Arab ― including organizations such as the United Nations that are currently using the Toyota Land Cruiser manufactured in Jordan, according to Al Salman.
“In the last few years, we have proudly managed to develop new products that best suit our targeted markets, such as Al-Washaq, the fourth-generation of Al-Jawad, and Al-Wahsh.”
Al-Jawad’s fourth-generation version comes as continuity to the success of previous generations. It serves as an internal security vehicle and provides high levels of protection standards with CEN level B6 protection. Al-Wahsh, on the other hand, is an armored vehicle designed and developed for modern warfare as well as internal security mission requirements, and to operate in a number of terrains.
For his part, one Saudi industrial official told Defense News on condition of anonymity: “Today’s era is an open one in the face of military industries, but the challenge remains in achieving the ability to work on high-tech knowledge especially in the domain of air defense systems and long-range missiles.
“But for the rest of the military equipment, especially the armored vehicles, Saudi Arabia is considered a front-runner, as it is now working on producing a 100 percent indigenous, brand-new vehicle with a B7 level of protection, which is expected to replace the Hummer vehicles in service today.
“We have attained a high level of production industry that can be comparable with the rest of the world,” the source added, referring to Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s effort to increasingly meet its defense requirements from domestic industry.
“For example, Al Tawiq armored vehicle was able to pass rough tests in comparison with other four international ones and was equated with the rest of the vehicles. As for the Al Tawiq’s structure, it was sent to a company in Belgium that gave the armored vehicle the highest rank [95 out of 100].”