A great deal is being made of the fact that the Gulf Arab states with the most to fear from ISIL are loath to contribute their militaries to president Barack Obama’s global coalition against the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. Although the Gulf countries are nominally members of the coalition, they have pledged only to provide military “assistance,” rather than aircraft to strike against ISIL targets, much less troops to fight the terrorists.
But, how useful would Gulf Arab contributions be? In purely military terms, not very.
For the most part, the Gulf states use their military to protect the ruling elite and menace civilians who dare challenge their authority. Their utility against a lethal force like ISIL is, at best, questionable.
How do Gulf Arab militaries compare with those of other nations? To rank 106 countries by their military strength, the website Global Firepower uses over 50 factors, not including nuclear weapons. By their reckoning, the highest-ranking Gulf Arab military belongs to Saudi Arabia, which is 25th. That’s in part because the quality of the military hardware at its disposal: the best that petrodollars can buy. (For instance, it ranks 13th in the number of attack aircraft and 9th in the number of armored fighting vehicles.)
Even so, Saudi Arabia ranks just one place higher than Syria overall. And, as we’ve seen, Bashar al-Assad’s forces, despite overwhelmingly superior arms, have lost vast swathes of the country to ISIL. It’s far from clear that the Saudis would fare much better.
The other Gulf states rank much farther down the list: the UAE is 42nd, Yemen 45th, Oman 69th, Kuwait 74th, Bahrain 81st and Qatar 82nd.
How can this be? After all, Gulf Arab states spend vast amounts of their oil revenues on shiny military gear, most of it from the US and Europe. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is the world’s fourth-largest military spender—the second-largest, as a proportion of its annual budget.
But, like most other Gulf militaries, the Saudis have little actual combat experience. They barely contribute to the UN’s peacekeeping forces. Although Qatar and the UAE contributed aircraft to the coalition that imposed a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, the heavy lifting was done by US and European air forces. (More recently, UAE planes have bombed Islamist militants in Tripoli.)
Ironically, the Gulf military that has the most fighting experience comes from the poorest state in the region: Yemen, where a Houthi insurgency in the north and an al-Qaeda franchise in the east keep the military constantly busy.
Looking beyond the Gulf states, Egypt’s military is ranked 13th, which is impressive until you consider how much it has struggled to contain militant groups much smaller than ISIS and lacking serious weaponry in the Sinai Peninsula. (Jordan, another Arab nation that is part of the coalition, is ranked 67th.)
Outside the Arab world, Turkey is ranked 8th. The Turkish military has experience dealing with Kurdish separatists as well as a homegrown Islamist terror threat, so its absence from the coalition will hurt. The other major power in the region is not invited: Iran is ranked 22nd.
Untried and untested though they may be, Gen. John Allen, brought out of retirement by the Obama administration to herd the military cats of the coalition, will still be hoping he can get Arab air forces in the mix. That’s because the optics are important, even if their presence in any actual fighting is mostly optional.