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Securing the Seas: Examining Changing Saudi & Emirati Naval Capabilities

Over the past decade, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have significantly expanded their navies through increased investments and prioritization by national leaders. This transformation marks a noteworthy departure from the Gulf navies’ previously low-profile status. The increased focus on the maritime domain demonstrated by the GCC states reflects the realization that secure sea lines of communication—the primary channel for oil and gas exports—are essential to their economic survival. However, these waterways have come under increasing threat due to disruptions from around the region, and particularly from Iran, the Houthis, and from piracy around the Horn of Africa. Since 2021, for example, Iran has harassed, attacked, or seized about 20 merchant vessels—a significant increase from previous years, while the Houthis have launched dozens of attacks on international shipping with antiship missiles and various types of unmanned systems, highlight the need for the GCC states to develop versatile, adaptable maritime strategies and improve their naval force posture in the Gulf.

The following report seeks to provide an assessment of the naval capabilities of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) and the UAE Navy (UAEN). These two countries have been chosen because they are arguably the two most influential Arab Gulf states and have the largest defense budgets within the GCC. This report will also seek to show how varying strategic needs and structural limitations have compelled these two nations to follow distinct paths in the development of their naval capabilities. 

The first section of this report examines the case of Saudi Arabia, beginning with an assessment of the Kingdom’s strategic interests in the maritime domain and the specific constraints that limit the policy options available to its leaders. Among its most important interests are the protection of offshore oil and gas facilities and port infrastructure, the maintenance of a secure environment in the Red Sea to facilitate numerous developmental projects, the deterrence of Iranian aggression, and the assertion of regional leadership. Manpower is less of a constraint for the Kingdom than its smaller neighbors; instead, Riyadh’s primary challenge stems from a relatively lower availability of expertise, training opportunities, and technical know-how among its sailors, and insufficient shipbuilding infrastructure. Consequently, Saudi leaders have found it easier to augment its navy with additional vessels, rather than focusing on other qualitative factors underpinning naval capability. Following an exploration of how Riyadh has responded to the evolving regional dynamics by prioritizing mass and numerical strength, the report highlights four qualitative factors that have received less attention. These consist of two technological force multipliers: modern vessels and expertise in unmanned systems; and two key enablers of naval capability: shipbuilding capacity and the availability of training opportunities, which are necessary for the cultivation of highly skilled naval personnel.

After exploring the Saudi case, the report will turn to the UAE. Following the same structure, it first highlights the UAE’s relevant strategic interests and the structural constraints which shaped the development of the UAEN. The UAE’s position as a world-class logistics hub, its vulnerability to Iranian threats, its pursuit of strategic autonomy, and its regional foreign policy ambitions all shape the UAEN’s course of development. The report then examines how the federation responded to such challenges by prioritizing four major qualitative factors, given its limited manpower reserves. Abu Dhabi has invested significant sums of money and energy into modernizing its vessels, and the UAE has developed a significant domestic shipbuilding capacity, which provides it with a unique sovereign capability. Moreover, several Emirati companies and startups have been developing Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs), and the country now boasts at least three training institutions for the navy and a dozen commercial academies, seven of which provide courses that encompass military or security components. The expertise necessary to develop a domestic shipbuilding industry and to establish such training institutions has been more readily available in the UAE due to its centrality as a maritime hub, a key difference with its Saudi counterpart. On the other hand, however, manpower constraints have curtailed the UAEN’s ability to field a greater number of larger naval platforms, limiting its raw strength. 

The report concludes by highlighting how Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s differing priorities and structural constraints have shaped their naval strategies. While Saudi Arabia has strengthened its naval capability primarily through the acquisition of larger and more numerous vessels, the UAE’s smaller size but better access to key expertise has necessitated a greater emphasis on the peripheral factors that also underpin a country’s naval capabilities. The report will also reflect on the ways that future geopolitical developments may reshape these fluid national maritime strategies. 

Recommendations:

Do Not Ignore Other Measures of Naval Capability: It is imperative not to overlook the multifaceted factors that contribute to a nation’s naval capabilities. Beyond the readily quantifiable metrics such as tonnage, platform count, and personnel, less obvious yet equally vital factors— including platform age, domestic shipbuilding capacity, technological expertise, and training opportunities—also underpin naval effectiveness.

Consider Interests and Constraints: A comprehensive understanding of a country’s naval development requires an examination of its strategic interests, including factors like security threats and regional aspirations. Equally important are a country’s structural constraints, including the availability of manpower, requisite expertise, and geographical considerations, which significantly shape the trajectory of naval forces.

Develop Domestic Shipbuilding and Ship Maintenance Capabilities: Establishing a robust domestic shipbuilding industry is an expensive endeavor, but it may also provide numerous advantages. These include a reduced reliance on foreign suppliers and the potential to become a security provider by exporting or donating vessels. While it may be unfeasible to establish shipyards capable of building major surface combatants, a focus on patrol craft, offshore patrol vessels, USVs, and offering MRO services seems much more realistic and could be tremendously useful. Partnering with international shipbuilding companies could help accelerate this process.

Prioritize Investments in Training and Modernization: Saudi Arabia should prioritize investment in maritime and naval training institutions, and should continue to phase out older vessels to ensure a modern, capable, and effective naval force.

Embrace Unmanned Technology: While both the UAE and Saudi Arabia stand to gain from embracing these technologies, the UAE, owing to its relatively limited human resources, has more reasons to focus its energy in this domain. Unmanned surface vessels offer significant advantages in terms of increased operational capabilities, reduced manpower requirements, and improved efficiency. This may be facilitated by the continued investment in R&D centers focused on such technologies, as well as by strengthening Abu Dhabi’s partnership with NAVCENT’s Task Force 59.  

Read the full report HERE.

Issue: Defense & Security
Country: KSA, UAE

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Albert Vidal Ribe is a Research Analyst for Defence and Military Analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Prior to joining the IISS in September 2023, Albert was a Research Associate at the Gulf International Forum in Washington DC. He has published in the Arab Gulf States Institute, the Gulf International Forum, the Gulf States Newsletter, and the Center for Maritime Strategy, among others. Albert earned an MA in Arab Studies at Georgetown University as a  Fulbright Scholar. He was selected as Spain’s best International Relations graduate in 2021 by the Spanish Society of Academic Excellence. He was also selected by the Nova 111 Student List, which brings together the top 111 Spanish talents under 25.


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