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by Bob Nugent

The Persian Gulf is a region of critical geopolitical importance, continuing to serve as a vital channel for energy and other trade flows in the Indian Ocean and beyond. At the same time, enduring bilateral and regional frictions, active armed conflicts such as those in Yemen, and other security challenges such as terrorism and infrastructure security also beset the region. The security issues prevalent in the Gulf region are influenced by the region’s distinctly maritime characteristics, where the Persian Gulf itself provides both opportunities and threats for strategic planners in all eight countries having sea access.

These elements have driven substantial investments in naval capabilities across the region, and will continue to shape the balance of naval power. This article examines that balance, focusing on data and trends in naval ship acquisitions in the region over the next 20 years. It further assesses patterns in naval acquisitions by types of ships and craft, concluding with some observations about patterns and possible disruptions in the Gulf naval balance by 2040.

AMI tracks Persian Gulf naval acquisitions as part of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The summary forecast in the MENA region, made up of 17 countries, is a naval market of some 264 ships and craft, representing a market value (acquisition cost) of US$39.5BN. This represents a relatively small portion of the world naval market; in the order of 4%. Within the MENA area, the eight countries AMI tracks in the Persian Gulf make up more than half of the region’s new naval platform purchases. The US$23.6BN in forecasted spending on new ships and craft is 60% of the MENA total, while the 184 new platforms is 70% of MENA projected acquisitions by hull count.

Regional Balance by Country
Looking at the region as a whole, it is marked by a distinct split between “major” and “minor” naval forces. Historically, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman were numbered among the latter, based on constrained geography, small populations, and limited budgets. The turmoil in Iraq over the past two decades has sharply limited that country’s naval growth as well, although some recovery is noted in the past half-decade.

One of the more notable developments in the regional naval balance is Qatar’s emergence as a robust naval force in the Gulf, dating from the original DIMDEX naval exhibition in 2008. Qatar is also nearing Iran and the UAE in terms of forecasted spending on new naval platforms, with US$3.1BN compared to US$4.8BN for Iran and US$4.0BN for the UAE.

Saudi Arabia continues to lead the Gulf region in both new ship numbers and new ship budgets. This image shows two AL JUBAIL class corvettes under construction by Spain’s Navantia in mid-2020. Photo: Navantia

As has been the case for the past two decades, Saudi Arabia continues to lead the region in both new ship numbers and new ship budgets. The country’s planned acquisition of 75 new hulls represents 41% of the regional forecast, while the US$9.7BN in planned spending represents an identical 41% of the regional total.

One measure of the seriousness of a nation’s naval ambitions is how many planned programmes advance to contract award and construction. By this measure Saudi Arabia is also the clear leader in realising its naval plans among Gulf countries, with some 92% of programmes in progress.

Similarly, Qatar and Oman also show high percentages of active programmes (80% and 70% respectively), while UAE trails at just 40% of programmes currently building. Of note, Iran’s oft-announced intentions to field more robust and capable ships is not reflected in their progress in actually moving programmes to construction, with only 14% of forecasted hulls currently in the construction phase.

Regional Balance by Ship Type
Destroyer/Frigate: Saudi Arabia and Iran lead in new programmes for these ship types among Gulf countries. Iran’s 6,000 ton NEGIN class represents the largest design and, should it be built, would represent the largest surface combatant among Gulf navies. More typical are frigate/corvette designs of 2,000-4,000 tons, represented by the Saudi Arabian Multi-Mission Surface Combatant, a modified Lockheed Martin littoral combat ship design), Qatar’s DOHA class (based on the Fincantieri 107m Corvette design), and the UAE GOWIND.

Corvette: With many of the Gulf corvette programmes classified as frigates by think tank AMI International, the smaller corvette type is something of an outlier.

The Saudi Arabian Multi-Mission Surface Combatant is typical of the frigate/corvette designs being built for Gulf region. Photo: Lockheed Martin.

Submarine: Previous analysis indicated a Saudi Arabian interest in submarine procurement. However, the latest market intelligence assesses that only Iran and UAE have active submarine acquisition plans in the region. In Iran, the Gulf’s only navy with submarine operating experience, the 1,000 ton FATEH class is in the course of construction, while the larger 1,500 ton BESAT class is expected to begin building by mid-decade. In the UAE, a smaller 1,000 ton submarine is said to be in the planning stages but not expected to advance to contract award for at least another 4-5 years.

Fast Attack Craft (FAC): The FAC (typically equipped with anti-ship missiles) remains a relevant part of many Gulf nations’ fleet structures, despite the move towards building larger corvettes and frigates. The 18 FACs forecasted are part of programmes in Iran, Iraq, and Qatar. They represent 10% of regional naval acquisitions by hull count and over 6% by value.

Patrol: Patrol ships and craft remain a core element in all Gulf navy fleets, and the principal component of smaller navies such as Kuwait and Bahrain. Separate Coast Guard organisations in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman are in the course of executing several new patrol boat acquisitions, while Bahrain and Kuwait are also buying new patrol vessels. Designs vary from 2 tons to 600 tonnes, with seven of 10 new patrol ship programmes in the region acquiring ships of 100 tons or larger.

Amphibious: Amphibious ships and craft serve a wide variety of missions in Gulf navies, most related to transport and logistics. That said, the scope of future amphibious-capable acquisition is currently limited to Qatar and Oman. The Qatari programme is noteworthy as being an 8,000 ton landing platform dock (LPD) based on the Fincantieri Enhanced SAN GIUSTO class LPD in service with the Algerian National Navy. The addition of this ship will significantly expand Qatari capabilities across the spectrum of maritime lift and transport, amphibious assault, sea-based helicopter and naval command and control operations.

Mine Warfare: The history and prevalence of the mine threat to naval and commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf ensures that almost all navies maintain effective mine counter-measures vessels. Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE all have active mine countermeasures vessel (MCMV) acquisitions planned, with contract awards expected between 2022-2024. As a ship type, MCMVs represent about 8% of the region’s total forecasted acquisition by hull count and almost 6% by value.

Auxiliary/Support: Originating as littoral forces intended for coastal defence, most Gulf navies did not require or acquire significant logistic and support vessels for most of their histories. However, that pattern has changed over the last two decades. Looking ahead, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar all have large (2,000-12,000 ton) training and logistics resupply and transport ships in their acquisition plans. Of these, Qatar’s two 90m cadet training ships are building now in the Anadolu (ADIK) Shipyard of Turkey and are expected to be delivered to Qatar by the end of 2022.

Looking at the balance of future regional naval power in the Gulf through the lens of ship types shows a split in the region similar to that seen in the country-by-country look. The littoral and constrained geography of the Gulf, and a mission set focused on near shore maritime security, explains the large numbers of smaller patrol craft and ships in future acquisitions, accounting for 58% of new platforms region-wide. However, since the average per hull acquisition cost of smaller and less robustly equipped patrol ships and craft is US$20M, the total regional investment represented by patrol designs is less than 9% of the more than US$23BN in future spending projected for new platforms across the Gulf.

The Qatari Navy’s programme for a new LPD similar to the Algerian KALAT BENI ABBES pictured here will significantly increase the country’s power projection capabilities. Photo: US Navy.

At the other end of the platform spectrum are the destroyer, frigate and corvette programmes underway or projected. Here, some 24 new ships (13% of the regional total) account for 57% of the region’s new construction market. This reflects the large size and more expensive sensor, weapon, command and control and hull, mechanical and electrical systems that equip these types of ships. The same concentration is also seen when measured by tonnage, with the 67,060 tons of new destroyers, frigates and corvettes representing 44% of all new ships and craft to be acquired by Gulf nations through to 2040.

The issue of new submarine acquisitions by Gulf countries also raises questions. AMI assesses that both Iran and the UAE (but not Saudi Arabia) plan to acquire new submarines in the next two decades. The scope of these future acquisitions is substantial: 10 new hulls representing US$3.8BN in acquisition expenditure (over 16% of the Gulf total and ranking second to the destroyer/frigate type). However, as indicated in Table 5, only three of these 10 new boats (the 1,000 ton Iranian FATEH class) have advanced to contract award and construction. This suggests some skepticism is in order regarding the prospects for new submarines upsetting the balance of naval power in the Gulf over the coming two decades.