Saudi Arabia was the top buyer of defense products in the world until it was replaced by India in 2017. Other gulf countries also buy a lot of defense products.

To me, recent Saudi-Russia defense deal was totally unnecessary, as:

  1. Purchase of S-400 is superfluous : they have US Patriots deployed in their territory for a long time. They are also in talks to buy THAAD.
  2. Rest of the purchase is trivial : for instance, this link suggests that other products include ATGM, MRLS, Grenade Launcher, Assault rifles, etc which do not have any significant tactical value over Western products.

Qatar signed $6bn contract to buy US made F-15s. This contract was signed just after Saudis imposed sanctions on Qatar.

Oman's defense deal with UK also came under heavy criticism.

Bahrain's and Kuwait's defense deals also looks extravagant considering their tiny sizes.

Do gulf countries buy weapons only to influence the seller's foreign policy, or are there real security needs involved?

  • Saudi Arabia was the top buyer of defense products in the world You mean importer rather than buyer. – user189035 Apr 11 '18 at 20:30

Not only. They have three reasons to buy weapons.

  1. "Influencing" / bribing sellers. Yes, that's quite true for some of their purchases (the most expensive of them).

  2. Actual security reasons. Note that (1) and (2) can go together at the same time, as for aforementioned S-400, Saudi Arabia really wanted both "to influence" Russia, and to strengthen own air-defence, because Patriots failed miserably against Yemeni rockets. Although the latter could also be due to the low qualification of Saudi soldiers which S-400 would not have changed anyway.

  3. Ongoing wars and support of the world terrorism. Saudi Arabia is the founder and the main sponsor of Al-Qaeda, so they need weapons for them. Qatar was until recent time the main sponsor of ISIS. Jihadists need more ATGMs in Syria, Saudi coalition needs jets to bomb Yemen, etc.

  • Qatar was until recent time the main sponsor of ISIS. -> citation needed – Evargalo Apr 11 '18 at 12:48
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    @Evargalo The accusations of Qatar in sponsoring terrorism are too numerous. Especially, after summer 2017 and the row between Saudis and co. and Qatar. There's even wiki article dedicated on that matter, where you can find the better source of citations than I can provide myself. And if to ignore some bs about Al-Qaeda/An-Nusra (who are wahhabis sponsored by other wahhabis, i.e. KSA), the rest is quite true: both ISIS and Muslim Brotherhood are (were) sponsored by Qatar. – Matt Apr 11 '18 at 13:23
  • in that case, the link to that wiki article will do. – Evargalo Apr 11 '18 at 13:25
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    @Evargalo Qatar and state-sponsored terrorism – Matt Apr 11 '18 at 14:14
  • This whole answer needs citations – user4012 Apr 11 '18 at 15:44

On top of the answer by Matt, it seems to me there is one additional reason: Money laundering.

It's an open secret that a lot of these arms trade use very opaque pricing and payment scheme. Lots of room for paying off cronies (both abroad and local) and 'renting' influence.

Even in very dysfunctional countries like those in the gulf the ruling tribe does not rule alone. The Power structure typically involves various groups with competing second order interests. The ruling clique can often not simply siphon money out of the state coffers to buy off/reward support from one group too openly because of the risk of antagonizing the other competing groups in the power pyramid.

A certain level of opacity also keeps everyone guessing about the actual reward to loyalty, puts the ruling Prince in better control of the bribing rate and gives him plausible (relatively speaking) denial-ability.

A lot of these arms firms are also large multinationals with intermediaries in various countries (including banking safe heaven) with legitimate and large cash transfer between them. The ruling clique in effects rents out these infrastructure to launder money in a way that would be much less traceable than a simple bank transfer from state coffers to a swiss bank account. This reduces the risk of having the money clawed back come the next coup/round of economic sanctions, a very valuable advantage indeed.

It's a bit dated now, but you can find examples of how this was done in a more naive era in the more publicly disclosed aspects of the infamous Al-Yamamah deal.

This explanation also accounts for other non-arms opaque purchases favored in the region (big construction projects, big ticket items with opaque pricing like civilian airliners, ect...). A predatory state has to do what a predatory state has to do, I guess.

These deals are typically large and involve western politicians and protected/connected industries (like the defense industry) from the onset. This shields them from public inquiry in the west.

Of course, it's a two way street and securing these deals require some impressive feats of cultural flexibility from western politicians, captains of industry and bureaucracies (from the wikipedia above):

Also, the role of Sir Dick Evans, the BAE chairman at the time, in winning the Al-Yamamah arms deal should not be underestimated. It is believed by some that he managed to secure the deal by his ability to swallow sheep's eyeballs as though they were cocktail canapes at banquets, thus impressing his Middle East clients.

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