Arab News

What the Gulf Can Learn from the War in Ukraine

Senior Fellow, Center on Europe and Eurasia
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman at Al Salam Palace in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2022. (Kay Nietfeld/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman at Al Salam Palace in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2022. (Kay Nietfeld/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

The war in Ukraine has forced Europeans to take security and defense more seriously. Policies are in place now that would have been unthinkable a year ago. For example, this time last year the heated debate inside NATO was on whether to send Ukraine mere anti-tank missiles. Now Germany, Spain, Poland, the UK and the US, among others, will be sending some of the world's most advanced tanks to Ukraine. A lot can change in a year.

Russia’s invasion has also finally focused the minds of Europe’s finance ministers, many of whom for years have been reluctant to spend more money on defense. After years of underinvestment, it finally appears Europe is getting serious about improving its defense capabilities.

Some tough lessons have been learned in recent months. Even though Europeans are now spending more on defense, they are still playing catch-up after years of chronic underinvestment.  During the early days of the invasion, some European countries were scrambling to find weapons and military equipment that had been maintained properly so it could be sent to Ukraine. Many were discovering that the stocks of equipment in their inventories were expired, obsolete, or unfit for combat due to years of budget cuts. Stockpiles of key munitions across Europe, and even in the US, are running dangerously low after supplying Ukraine. Policymakers are only now discovering that the defense industrial base lacks the ability to ramp up production quickly to close the gap.

Also, some debates across Europe on what military hardware to provide Ukraine are concerning. Some countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, have been hesitant to approve the transfer of equipment to Ukraine that was manufactured by them. The most recent examples were Berlin’s initial refusal to allow German-made tanks to be re-exported to Ukraine, and Switzerland blocking Swiss manufactured ammunition from being sent there. While Europe looks united on the surface, there are still significant areas of disagreement.

So as Europe arranges its security and defense policies to deal with an emerging threat from Russia, what can the Gulf states learn from this that relates to security concerns with Iran?

The most important lesson is to properly invest in the armed forces. When the bullets start flying, it is too late to start increasing defense budgets. Investments in the military, particularly in modern equipment and training, need to be made over the long term. As seen across Europe, the impact of the penny pinching over the years was never felt until a war broke out. The countries in the Gulf should not find themselves in this position.

Another lesson to be learned from Europe’s experience over the past year is the importance of maintaining sufficient stockpiles of equipment and munitions. It is also important to maintain a robust defense industrial base for any military hardware that is not being imported — or at least access to reliable markets to purchase equipment. As witnessed over the past year, defense manufacturers cannot simply ramp up production overnight.

It is also important to consider where military hardware is being purchased from. Germany may produce good tanks, but if Berlin places restrictions on how they may be used, what good are they? Not only did Berlin delay delivering German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine, but Turkey faced similar problems when it wanted to use Leopard tanks in Syria in 2018.

Also, quite a few countries in the Middle East still use Russian-built military hardware that is turning out to be junk in the face of modern Western weapons. Policymakers in the region should be looking at their inventory closely to see what new equipment is needed and what old equipment needs to be phased out.

Finally, the situation in Ukraine is a reminder of the importance of alliances, partners, and relationships. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and does not enjoy the alliance’s joint security guarantee, but close cooperation between Kyiv and many NATO members over the years has been a tremendous help for today. The lesson from Ukraine is that in the face of regional aggression, the Gulf states need to redouble their efforts to work more closely together on security and military issues. In this regard, expanding the Abraham Accords and rethinking the possibility of a Middle East Strategic Alliance with the US should be considered too.

While the war in Ukraine may be thousands of kilometers away, the lessons apply locally. The Iranian threat is not going away. The more prepared the region is, the safer the future will be.

Read in Arab News.