The armed forces of all five countries covered in this article, although they have been significantly enlarged and modernized, remain small and weak, incapable of offering credible deterrence against attack from larger neighbors, let alone great powers outside of the Gulf region. Until 1961 in Kuwait and 1971 in the other states, the British were responsible for external security. Thus the development of modern armed forces began only recently. Their small populations preclude the creation of large land forces; they have largely concentrated investment in naval assets and air power. Their wealth permits acquisition of modern weapons systems which are not manpower-intensive and which hold greatest promise of blunting if not deterring the kinds of threats posed and on several occasions carried out by Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and, of course, by Iraq against Kuwait in August 1990. A brief description of the armed forces of the Gulf Arab states and their incipient attempts at military cooperation follows.


The military forces of Oman, numbering 41,700 (including 6,000 in the Royal Guard of Oman), are a volunteer force and among the most professional and best trained in the Gulf. Their quality reflects the long involvement of seconded and contract military personnel from Great Britain, up to the highest levels, and the experience of combat in two operations against domestic military threats in the Jebel Akhdar campaign of the 1950s and the Dhofar Rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s. The ruler, Sultan Qabus bin Said, is a graduate of Sandhurst and, as supreme commander, takes a very close interest in the armed forces. The Royal Army of Oman (RAO), formerly the Sultan of Oman’s Land Forces (SOLF), accounts for 25,000 of the personnel of the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF). The SAF dates from 1958 when, with British advice and assistance, it was formed from separate security forces.

Throughout the 1980s, British officers held many of the senior positions in the Sultan’s Armed Forces, but by the following decade Omanis had filled them. However, British personnel still play an important role. For example, there remain some 400 British personnel in the Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO), as well as a rather significant number of Pakistanis. Moreover, there continues to be a close association between the Omani and British military forces as reflected in the joint maneuvers called Operation Swift Sword, which in September-October 2001 involved 23,000 military personnel on Omani soil and in the sea off Oman. The Royal Army of Oman remains essentially a light infantry force, which could counter the threat of an immediate neighbor or fight a delaying action against the invasion of a more powerful foe. It is organized in four brigades and 18 battalions and served by 200 tanks and 150 artillery pieces. The RAO is armed mainly with a variety of British and U.S. weapons.

The Royal Navy of Oman (RNO), created in 1975 as the Sultan of Oman’s Navy (SON), is a light but effective patrol force that faced the threat of the Iranian navy in the Strait of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq war. Its personnel has been expanding in recent years, currently numbering 4,000, and its craft include nine combat vessels and 56 patrol craft armed with guns and surface-to-surface missiles. In 2005, the RNO was reportedly about to receive 12 small, high-speed patrol boats from Abu Dhabi and to select the builder of three new state-of-the-art patrol boats in a $600 million deal.

The Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO), formerly the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force (SOAF), was formed in 1959 and numbers about 5,000 men. It has had jet fighter aircraft and helicopters in its inventory since 1969 and currently comprises 30 combat aircraft, over 40 transport aircraft, and 49 helicopters together with air defenses of 58 light surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers. The air force continues to receive the lion’s share of new weaponry, reflecting the primary importance that all the Gulf Arab states accord to air power as their principal line of defense. In 2005, the RAFO began taking delivery of 12 F-16 jet fighters. Together with these advanced aircraft, Oman will receive advanced armaments including Harpoon antiship missiles and JDAM precision-guided munitions in a deal amounting to $850 million. This is the first aircraft order from the United States and reflects a shift away from overwhelming reliance on Great Britain as arms supplier. In addition to the United States, a number of European countries, Canada, and Pakistan also supply weapons to Oman. Jordan and Turkey have provided training along with Britain and the United States. Defense outlays have grown modestly in the past few years, amounting to $2.44 billion in 2003, 11.6 percent of GDP.

Prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Oman had shown a greater willingness than the other Gulf Arab states to cooperate openly with the West in the military sphere. In the late 1970s and early 1980s agreements were reached with the United States to provide for American access to Omani facilities, especially in emergency situations. Supplies were prepositioned at military facilities, several of which the United States undertook to upgrade, most importantly the air base on Masirah Island. By the mid-1980s the Omani government had grown noticeably less enthusiastic toward overt military cooperation with the United States, as was apparent in the strained 1985 negotiations that granted an extension of U.S. access rights.

This reflected in part Oman’s establishment in 1985 of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, which had come to appear less menacing under Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as the normalization of relations with the Soviets’ Arabian Peninsula protégé, South Yemen. It was also presumably occasioned by a more neutral stance vis-à-vis Iran, as Oman attempted to move away from confrontation to a kind of modus vivendi. Nevertheless, together with the other Gulf Arab states, Oman made available its facilities, especially military airfields, to assist Desert Shield/Desert Storm operations following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The principal U.S. defense agreement, made in June 1980, was renegotiated in December 1990. Following the New York/Washington terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Oman made available its facilities for the U.S. and British operations against al-Qa‘eda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The United States declared Oman one of the key nations in the fight against terrorism. Omani-U.S. military relations have become increasingly close and extensive; the United States has access to airfields, storage and prepositioning facilities, a communications center, and naval facilities.


Of all the Gulf Arab states Kuwait has been in the most vulnerable military position, in immediate proximity to two threatening and overwhelmingly more powerful neighbors. Iran menaced Kuwait throughout the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, taking direct action against its territory on more than one occasion. From the beginning of the 20th century, fear of the Ottoman Empire and subsequently of independent Iraq has deeply influenced Kuwait’s defensive posture. Since Kuwait’s independence in 1961, Iraq has several times bluffed military invasions either to redraw disputed borders or to enforce claims to all of Kuwait’s territory, and in August 1990, invaded and occupied its neighbor.

Against the wholly disproportionate forces of either of these two neighbors, Kuwait’s armed forces, totalling 12,000 men, could expect to do little more than cause significant damage to the invader and delay his progress, while awaiting the aid of other GCC states and over-the-horizon U.S. forces. In the event of Iraq’s invasion on August 2, 1990, it did less than that. Despite the massing of Iraqi troops on the border, previous false alarms had persuaded the Kuwaiti leadership that they faced only another bluff. The defense minister downgraded the armed state of alert just before the invasion, and a large part of the Kuwaiti officer corps was permitted to remain on leave. As a result, virtually no organized resistance was offered, with the defense minister joining most of the rest of the ruling family in quickly fleeing to Saudi Arabia. (Fand al-Ahmad, a brother of the ruler, gave his life leading troops against the Iraqi onslaught.)

Kuwait’s modern military dates to 1948. After independence in 1961, the military was reorganized with the air force separated from the civil aviation department, and in 1970 the Kuwait Military Academy graduated its first class. The navy was established in 1973 and in 1976 compulsory military service of two years (one year for university graduates) was decreed for all Kuwaiti males and a military reserve was established. Total active forces number 15,500 men and there are 24,000 reserves. Omanis and other non-nationals serve in the armed forces.

The army comprises 11,000 troops organized in three armored brigades, two of them mechanized, and one each assigned to artillery, border defense, and the Royal Guard. The National Guard, a paramilitary force of 5,000, is assigned guard duties on the border and in the oil fields. While earlier purchases of weapons for the army were heavily influenced by political rationale, attempting to steer a neutralist course between the United States and the Soviet Union, the recent acquisitions have more directly reflected military need. The United States and Great Britain are the leading suppliers; the American Abrams tank accounts for the bulk of the army’s armor.

While the active armed forces personnel have been reduced in the past four years, from 19,500 to 15,500, the navy has been enlarged to 2,000. It serves as a coastal defense force, with 10 combat vessels, some outfitted with Exocet surface-to-surface missiles, and 77 patrol craft.

As in Oman, special emphasis has been placed on the development of the air force, which has 2,500 personnel. It is tied into the Saudi Arabian air defense network so as to be able to utilize information provided by the Saudis’ Air Warning and Control System (AWACS). In 1988, the Reagan administration concluded a deal with Kuwait for the sale of 40 F-18 fighter-bombers and about 600 Maverick missiles for a reported $1.9 billion. The aircraft replaced U.S.-manufactured A-4s that were in Kuwait’s inventory, with deliveries of the F-18s completed in 1994. In addition to the F/A-18C/D advanced multirole combat aircraft now in its inventory, Kuwait is procuring F/A-18E/Fs. Kuwaiti pilots acquitted themselves well during Desert Storm, flying missions from Saudi airfields in the aging A-4s that they had flown out of Kuwait as the Iraqis invaded. The lack of qualified pilots to man the aircraft in its inventory remains a significant problem for the Kuwaiti air force.

As with the other Gulf Arab states, a major weakness of the Kuwaiti armed forces has been their extensive dependence on foreign advisers for daily management and operation. The country’s large arms inventory suffers from its mix of U.S., British, French, and Soviet weaponry with limited interoperability as well as simply the inability to absorb effectively the sheer amount of sophisticated weaponry. To some extent, the U.S.-assisted restructuring of the Kuwaiti military over the past decade has addressed these weaknesses.

In the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion and occupation, a certain ambivalence has marked Kuwaiti thinking on how best to provide for the state’s future security. Some were persuaded that Kuwait must look in large part to enhanced military power of its own to counter future aggressors, and in 1991 Kuwait earmarked some $5 billion to strengthen its armed forces. Its annual defense expenditures are about 11 percent of GDP, $3.81 billion in 2002. However, the prevailing view was that, whatever improvement might be effected in its own military capabilities, Kuwait would be obliged to depend on powerful friends for its essential security. After having previously seen the United States as, at most, a distant over-the-horizon presence, Kuwait had initialed a Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States in September 1991 to stockpile U.S. military equipment and engage in joint training and exercises. In subsequent months, several exercises were carried out with the U.S. Marines as well as with the British Royal Marines. In early 1993 Kuwait signed a defense memorandum with the Russian Federation.

In April 2001, Kuwait and the United States agreed on a 10-year renewal of the 1991 pact permitting U.S. forces to use Kuwaiti facilities and station troops and equipment there. In 2002 and 2003, the American-led coalition’s build-up for the conflict that was initiated with Iraq in March 2003 brought large numbers of military personnel, particularly American and British, to Kuwait (about 24,000 Americans were there in 2005); vast quantities of matériel from the United States have been shipped through Kuwaiti ports. The close cooperation between the two countries during the prosecution of the war and the operations against the drawn-out insurgency that has followed has linked Kuwaiti security still more closely to the United States. This was symbolized on April 1, 2004, when U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Kuwaiti Minister of Defense Jabir Muhammad al-Hamad Al Sabah presided over a ceremony designating Kuwait a major non-NATO ally of the United States.


The Bahrain Defense Force (BDF), established soon after independence in 1971, comprises army, navy, air defense, and Royal Guard units. Its personnel number 11,000, making the BDF the smallest military establishment in the Middle East. Military service is voluntary. Separate from the BDF, the public security forces and coast guard report to the Ministry of the Interior. Bahrain’s defense spending has been fairly steady and substantial, though lower as a percentage of GDP than the other GCC states; in 2003, it was $618.1 million, 7.5 percent of GDP. Like the other Gulf Arab states, Bahrain has focused its defense efforts on its air power, the Royal Bahraini Air Force (RBAF) or Bahrain Amiri Air Force (before the emirate’s designation as a kingdom in 2002). The air force began modestly with two small helicopters in 1977. A 1985 purchase of Northrop F-5s from the United States was Bahrain’s first acquisition of fixed-wing military aircraft. In 1987, 12 F-16s were added to the dozen F-5s already in service. Despite this upgrading of naval and air forces, the BDF remains a largely token military force. In 2000, delivery of a second squadron of F-16s, equipped to carry the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile, commenced. The original F-16s are being upgraded to carry the missile as well, and in early 2003 Bahrain deployed Patriot missile interceptor batteries obtained from the United States. In addition, an academy for pilots was established. These developments have significantly improved the RBAF. The army has also been strengthened, largely with American weapons, including 54 M60A3 tanks. The navy remains modest, an efficient patrol force whose acquisition of attack gunboats and missile boats makes it also a small combat force.

Bahrain inherited good military facilities from the British, for whom the island had been a significant military asset in the Gulf. These included an airfield and naval base. Following the British military withdrawal in 1971, the U.S. Navy’s Middle East Force, which had maintained a small flotilla at Jufair since 1949, was permitted to retain home-porting privileges. Since 1977 a new agreement permitting U.S. warships to call for supplies upon request has essentially extended the earlier agreement with a lower profile. U.S. access to Bahraini facilities in the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 was Bahrain’s most important contribution to Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The United States completed a defense agreement with Bahrain in September 1991. Since then, the United States has provided military technical assistance and training through foreign military sales (FMS), commercial sources, excess defense article sales (EDA), and through the International Military and Education Training (IMET) program. In 2003 and 2004, the U.S. Navy conducted Exercise Neon Response, an annual bilateral “training evolution” with the BDF to “enhance foreign relations and operational techniques” between the two countries. In October 2001, President George W. Bush announced the designation of Bahrain as a “major non-NATO ally,” underscoring the closeness of U.S.-Bahraini military security relations.

In 2004, Bahrain became the first Gulf Arab state to promote women to a senior rank in the military when two female officers achieved the rank of colonel. Each was a medical doctor, one being the head of the military hospital’s radiology department and the other the head of its maternity department.


With its small population of not more than 850,000, the bulk of it non-Qatari, Qatar could not defend itself against any probable aggressor. It has relied for its security primarily upon efforts to promote political stability in the Gulf and upon the protection provided by friends. Like Bahrain, Qatar is covered by the Saudi AWACS umbrella and combat aircraft.

The commander in chief of the armed forces is Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruler since June 1995. In 2002, Qatar and the United States foiled a coup by mid-level Qatari army officers who were opposed to the American military presence in the emirate, as a result of which the ruling family increased its direct supervision over the military. In September 2003, the emir appointed his son, Crown Prince Tamim (who had replaced his older brother, Jassem, as heir apparent in August), to the position of deputy chief of the armed forces. The armed forces number 11,800 personnel, making them the second smallest in the Middle East after Bahrain. Manpower shortages have led to reliance on personnel from other countries, particularly Oman. Military service is compulsory for males who do not graduate from secondary school, and volunteers are accepted from the age of 18.

The ground forces number 8,500 organized in two brigades. The Royal Guard comprises one brigade, while the other incorporates armored, mechanized, and artillery battalions. Weaponry includes 44 tanks, with negotiations under way for purchase of another 80. These, like approximately 80 percent of Qatar’s arms, are French. Air force personnel number 1,500 and the principal combat aircraft are a dozen advanced multirole Mirages. The navy, with 1,800 personnel, has seven combat vessels whose armaments include Exocet surface-to-surface missiles in addition to 17 patrol craft. In June 1992, Qatar signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, which has been progressively expanded. In April 2003, the United States announced that the U.S. Combat Air Operations Center for the Middle East would be moved to Al-Udhaid Air Base in Qatar, a logistics hub for U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, and a key center for those in Iraq. Additionally, Camp Al-Sayliyyah, the largest pre-positioning facility for U.S. equipment in the world, served as the forward command center for CENTCOM personnel during the invasion of Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom. While France continues to be the principal arms supplier, the United States has joined France and Great Britain as the leading sources of military training.

The United Arab Emirates.

Of the five countries covered in this srticle, the UAE has devoted by far the greatest expenditures, overall and per capita, to the development of its armed forces. The UAE’s armed forces evolved from the Trucial Oman Levies (TOL), later known as the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS), created by the British in 1951 to maintain order among the tribes of the then-Trucial States. By 1971 this was a well-trained, British-officered force of 1,600, drawing 40 percent of its recruits locally, 30 percent from Oman, and the balance from Iran, Pakistan, and India. In that year the TOS became the Union Defense Force (UDF), with its headquarters in Sharjah. From the beginning of independence, however, there were separate forces in each emirate, the Abu Dhabi Defense Force, established in the late 1960s, being the largest. Since the emirate rulers’ pledge in 1976 to merge their forces, the country has moved slowly toward effective integration.

The total UAE armed forces manpower is over 72,000, with approximately 60,000 troops headquartered in Abu Dhabi and 12,000 in the Central Command in the emirate of Dubai to whose defense it is primarily committed. The UAE has invested heavily in recent years in strengthening its armed forces. It continues to rely on troop force from other Arab countries, particularly Oman and Pakistan, but the officers are now almost exclusively UAE nationals. Like the other Gulf Arab states, it has emphasized the development of its air force but with its sizable oil revenues has been able to expand its airpower far beyond that of any of the other GCC states excepting Saudi Arabia. Indeed, with the acquisition of 140 advanced strike aircraft, the UAE has become one of the best-equipped air forces in the Middle East. From France, it received the first of 30 Mirage 2000-9 aircraft in late 2004; additionally its current fleet of 33 Mirage 2000-5 aircraft will be upgraded to the standard of the newer version. In 2005, the UAE began to take delivery of 80 F-16E/F Block Desert Falcons acquired in 2000 for $6.4 billion; delivery will be complete in 2007 and the planes are expected to remain in service beyond 2030. These aircraft and their advanced weapons systems will greatly enhance the UAE’s over-the-horizon capabilities and will provide interoperability with U.S. military forces in the region. Emirati pilots are being trained to fly the F-16s both in the UAE and in Arizona. Supplementing these are 33 transport aircraft, 88 training aircraft, and 102 helicopters in service.

The UAE’s ground forces number 59,000 personnel in a total of nine brigades. They reflect the greatest range of arms supply, with 388 French Leclerc battle tanks, delivery of which was completed in May 2004, representing the principal weapon of the three armored brigades. Great Britain, Germany, Russia, South Africa, Jordan, and Turkey are among the other countries that have recently supplied armaments for the ground forces. The UAE’s naval forces have 2,000 personnel and are equipped with 12 combat vessels, some of them built in Abu Dhabi, and 104 patrol craft, as well as 30 additional assault boats ordered in 2004. The navy also has 10 landing craft, with another 15 being delivered. The UAE is committed to building up its navy from a purely coastal defense force to one with blue-water capabilities.

Interestingly, women have begun to play a role in the UAE military. In 1991, following the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, Shaikha Fatima, wife of then UAE president Shaikh Zayid, took the lead in establishing the Khawla bint Al-Azwar Military School which trains women volunteers between the ages of 18 and 28 for military service. Female soldiers serve in secretarial, communications, and training positions. Some have been assigned with their male colleagues to peacekeeping duties in Kosovo. The highest-ranking female in the UAE armed forces is a colonel who heads the dental section of the medical corps.

Although the UAE has drawn on diverse sources of arms and confirmed its close security ties with France, long a leading source of arms, by signing a defense accord with that country in 1995, it has established an intimate security relationship with the United States since signing a bilateral defense pact in 1994. The F-16s acquired in 2000 were then superior to those in the U.S. inventory. They were outfitted with software codes to permit alteration of friend-or-foe designations on their cockpit displays, something never before shared with a non-NATO ally. Moreover, the UAE demanded and received from the United States advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAMs) that had not yet been sold to any Middle Eastern country, including Israel. Its request for approval of delivery of two E-2C Hawkeye 2000 airborne early warning (AEW) platforms went before the U.S. Congress in 2005. In January 2005, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Peter Rodman, led a Pentagon/State Department delegation to the UAE for the first meeting of the Joint Military Commission that formalized the two countries’ growing defense cooperation. Rodman confirmed that a military air flight-training center was now operational in the UAE and that pilots were being trained there and in Arizona to fly the F-16s. He cited “a variety of agreements, informal and formal” that the United States had concluded with the UAE and noted the intention to hold a regular series of bilateral meetings on security issues.

Attempts to integrate the Gulf Armed Forces. In 1981, the Gulf Arab states joined Saudi Arabia in forming the GCC. Their action was largely prompted by security concerns, following the Islamic revolution under Khomeini in Iran and the outbreak of the war between Iran and Iraq. The GCC’s decisions to establish a Gulf Arab arms industry and to coordinate arms purchases have not been realized to any great extent. There has been some progress toward a third goal, creating a rapid deployment force. In 1983 and 1984 exercises involving elements of all the GCC armed forces participated in joint exercises, and a number of bilateral exercises have been held since. “Peninsula Shield Force” is stationed at Hafr al-Batin in northeast Saudi Arabia.

In January 2001, the GCC states signed the region’s first defense pact in which they pledged to come to one another’s aid in the event of an attack against any of them. Agreement was also reached on expanding the force from about 5,000 troops to 20,000. The force, however, is rarely maintained at its full brigade strength. About 6,000 personnel are kept at Hafr al-Batin with the balance on alert in their home countries as reserve units. In February 2003, the GCC agreed at an emergency session to deploy the Peninsula Shield forces in Kuwait as war between the U.S.-led coalition and Iraq loomed. The GCC forces did not participate in the coalition operations against Iraq. After 20 years, efforts to create a significant integrated GCC military have not met with great success and any serious talk of developing a 100,000-man force has effectively ceased. The fact that the smaller GCC states continue to feel some resentment at what they perceive as Saudi hegemonic attitudes tends to militate against creation of more effective integration. However much the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 and the events of the decade and half that followed have increased the sense of shared danger, the Gulf Arab states have continued to pursue weapons systems purchases with limited emphasis on their interoperability. For the foreseeable future, Peninsula Shield will remain essentially a symbol of GCC unity against external threats and as an earnest of future intentions.

The general Gulf Arab states’ concentration on developing air power because of their considerable monetary resources and limited manpower has led them to focus more attention on a unified air defense than on ground forces integration. A start was made, as noted, with the extension of the Saudi AWACS coverage to Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. Some progress has been made recently toward developing a regional air defense. The GCC is implementing a project called Hizam al-Ta‘awun (Band of Cooperation), which is a program to establish a telecommunications network linking the military headquarters of the GCC states and then their radar systems. This provides secure communications between the various national command and control centers but does not really integrate the GCC state air defenses. Progress toward true air defense integration lags, and the practice of purchasing weapons systems that are not interoperable between the Gulf states and even within them continues to be an obstacle. Despite significant political tensions in U.S. relations with the Gulf Arab states, they continue to see little alternative to reliance on American power for their essential security, as reflected in their bilateral security pacts and intensified military cooperation with the United States. Cooperation extends well beyond agreements for American use of facilities and positioning of forces to interactive cooperation. Since 1999, Cooperative Defense Initiative programs have brought together senior U.S. and GCC military leaders to promote greater awareness of the regional security environment and foster cooperative efforts in the CDI. The recently established Air Warfare Center for military air flight training at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the UAE was established not simply to train Emirate pilots on advanced U.S. aircraft but to serve air force pilots from throughout the GCC.

Recently, the Gulf Arab states have begun to focus seriously on an air defense system that would extend to missile defense. Major-General Khaled Al Bu-Ainain, commander of the UAE Air Force and Air Defense, has urged achievement of complete transparency among the GCC command and control networks to meet the threats of attacks by aircraft and missiles. In 2004, he and other GCC military planners urged revival of plans for a regional missile defense system aimed not only against a potential Iranian threat but possible threats from nations farther east, including India and China. Clearly, U.S. technology and operational expertise will be required if such a system is to be constructed.

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