The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have requested sizable quantities of interceptor missiles to replenish their stockpiles. The dual requests come amidst increased talk in recent months about the so-called Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD) between Israel and a number of Arab countries to jointly defend against drones and missiles used by Iran and its various militia proxies throughout the region.
According to the U.S. State Department, the UAE requested 96 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles as part of a proposed $2.245 billion deal. Saudi Arabia requested 300 MIM-104E Patriot Guidance Enhanced Missile-Tactical Ballistic Missiles (GEM-T) as part of a $3.05 billion deal.
The requests and their timing make a lot of sense.
Last January, the THAAD was fired in combat for the first time by the UAE against ballistic missiles launched by the Houthis in Yemen at the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi. That same month a U.S. official warned that Saudi Arabia could run out of Patriot missiles within “months”. Riyadh’s stockpiles of those interceptor missiles had run dangerously low since they were regularly fired in defense against repeated Houthi missile and drone attacks.
Since then, a truce has paused the fighting in Yemen. Whether it’s the first step toward ending that conflict has yet to be seen. In the meantime, it’s not surprising that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are replenishing their respective missile stockpiles.
The proposed arms deals also come amidst talk of the MEAD the U.S. wants to see Israel and friendly Arab states establish. U.S. officials hope that Israeli systems could potentially replace U.S. systems previously deployed in the region that are now needed elsewhere.
Several analysts and observers have already pointed out the numerous obstacles, from lack of trust and an unwillingness among many Arab countries to share sensitive intelligence, in the way of an effective and successful MEAD. Then there is the salient fact that, unlike the UAE, Saudi Arabia has not yet normalized relations with Israel, making extensive and overt Saudi-Israeli defense ties unlikely for the foreseeable future.
While Abu Dhabi may remain content with its existing high-end U.S. systems for now, as the deal for more THAAD missiles suggests, it may seek Israeli technology to complement its American systems and further diversify its procurement sources.
Israeli systems could add more layers to the existing Emirati air and missile defenses and plug any exploitable gaps.
“When it comes to the type of systems the UAE may be requesting from Israel, I believe the most logical speculation goes in the direction of anti-ballistic missile systems,” said Sim Tack, Chief Military Analyst at Force Analysis. “I think the Iron Dome system, for example, has limited applicability in the case of the UAE under its current threat environment.”
“Given a threat emanating primarily from ballistic missiles as well as cruise missiles and drones (more akin to the concept of loitering munitions in this case), we could see the UAE interested in a system like the Barak 8 (and possibly the new ER variant),” he said. “Such a system would reinforce a potential gap left by the THAAD and Patriot missile defense systems.”
Then there is Israel’s Arrow 3, a rough Israeli equivalent to the THAAD, designed to intercept ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), outside the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s unclear if the UAE is interested in this system or if Israel would be willing to sell it.
“While it is not impossible that the UAE could have an interest in the Arrow 3, a decision to acquire this system would signal more of a diversification of its existing capabilities than an addition to it,” Tack said.
“The UAE could, of course, also be looking at multiple systems, and possibly not even focused entirely on interceptor capabilities but also perhaps systems in the surveillance (radars) or electronic warfare (with a potential to jam drones, for example) segments of air defense,” he added.
Tack doubts that any such acquisitions would have significant political ramifications. And while building up such capabilities is primarily aimed at limiting Iran’s ways of directly and indirectly threatening the UAE, the Israeli-Emirati defense relationship is not new.
“Instead, such an acquisition should probably be seen more as a result of the political normalization between the UAE and Israel, which now allows these kinds of acquisitions without the controversy,” he said.
“The overt defense relationship between the two countries will quite possibly continue to deepen and could include the acquisition of Israeli UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), or any other type of weaponry for that matter, as the UAE has a long tradition of diversifying its arms acquisitions to avoid dependence (both logistical and political) on a single provider.”