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Why do the oil-rich GCC countries purchase arms from the big powers rather than developing their own defense industry?

Why do GCC countries have so much money but don't have any meaningful defense industry like Turkey has?

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Manufacturing requires one to have a workforce with engineers, manufacturing plant managers, and manufacturing workers who have affordable wages, generally in a complex of related firms that buy and sell intermediate parts to each other, and there are immense economies of scale.

Oil rich countries only have the technology and skilled workers in their workforces to exploit their own oil resources because the have immense numbers of expatriate workers and contracts with foreign oil firms to exploit those resources.

While many GCC countries have recently implemented mass public education with their oil wealth, a lot of that at the higher education level, goes into college level and graduate level educations in fields like Islamic theology that aren't very useful to the manufacturing industry.

They are also, individually, and collectively, small in population, especially if one excludes imported foreign workers from the total. Why import workers to build defense goods when you can simply import the finished product with less disruption to your society and without imposing as much of a burden on scarce water resources?

So, they lack of means to do so. And, given the choice between doing what they want in terms of consumption with oil wealth (which also drives up the wages at which rank and file workers are willing to work), and investing it in developing a manufacturing economy at home, they have not chosen to do so.

In contrast, Turkey has a greater population (84 million people, roughly the same as the population of Germany, which is a country with a strong manufacturing economy which Turkey has close ties due to modern waves of immigration from Turkey to Germany) than all of the GCC countries combined, has had mass public education longer (due to Ataturk's emulation of the Western world), lacks oil wealth to provide an easier path of least resistance relative to its population size, has fairly low hourly wages for rank and file workers, and as a result of ongoing military action against a Kurdish insurgency, has had a home grown demand to drive the development of a military industry that subsequently was expanded to the export sector.

Some of the other leading small countries with outsized defense industries relative to the size of their economies, such as Iran, Israel, and South Africa, developed defense industries because they felt that they needed military equipment to fight insurgencies or imminent threats of attack from neighboring countries, and had difficulty purchasing weapons system suited to their needs in international markets (or feared having such difficulty in the future), in part, due to full or partial international trade sanctions or threatened trade sanctions.

The GCC countries, for the most part, in contrast, have not faced significant insurgencies, haven't faced imminent invasion from their neighbors, and haven't had to be concerned with trade sanctions that would impair their ability to buy the military equipment that they desire. They can afford to, and are able to, purchase foreign military equipment, so they don't need to have a home grown defense industry that is less efficient and less cutting edge technologically.

They also figure, reasonably, that countries that engage in actual conflicts with their military equipment originally designed for use by their own military forces, are likely to be better than those designed by countries at peace, including their own countries.

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    "especially if one excludes imported foreign workers from the total" ... key point!
    – Pete W
    Feb 4 at 20:25
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    In short: they don't have any meaningful industry, period, so how can they possibly have a meaningful defense industry (which cross-cuts pretty much every industry from heavy industry, steel, aluminum, vehicles, ships, aircraft, robotics, software, logistics, services, … you name it; if it exists, it is somehow linked to defense)? They used to live purely off oil. When they realized they need another source of income, they looked towards tourism, not industry. Feb 5 at 10:49
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    There's a quite detailed Wikipedia article Defense industry of Turkey. It says western military aid and access to western technology when it joined Nato slowed development of its defence industry post WWII, but it was stimulated by an arms embargo over its 1974 invasion of northern Cyrpus.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 6 at 12:12
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Specificities of the Gulf countries aside, the list of countries which have tried to nurture defense industries and mostly ended up serving up some pork to well-connected industrials is quite the long one.

Purchasing ready made gear makes more sense in many cases and Turkey's success should be considered the exception rather than the rule. (I also wonder about how much the perception of Turkey's success is specifically linked to those sexy combat drones of theirs - something happening in a pretty new field of weaponry with a really gifted designer).

For an example of dysfunction look no further than Canada's new arctic vessels @ $400M each, compared to the Norvegian base model at a fraction of the price (Canada insisted on building it in Canadian shipyards). Far as I can tell comparing across currencies and time Norway got theirs (more heavily armed, btw) at 100-150M$ a piece.

Consider that a successful military system (not an industry), like a tank or jet fighter, is best built and deployed at scale. You need to amortize the R&D over many tanks or jets to make it worthwhile. (That's what made the Zumwalt class and its gun such as disaster, once it got cut to 3 ships).

So, not everyone can have their own industry across all weapon platforms, economies of scale would not follow. There would be some scope for rationalization if a group countries agreed to split across platforms (X gets tanks, Y gets fighters, Z gets missiles). But even that level of coordination gets difficult when domestic defense contractors each lobby their government. Europe probably has too many tank manufacturers, aircraft manufacturers, missile manufacturers. Competition is a good thing, but not so much when the domestic supplier always gets the order.

One alternative is to share production - a fighter for example gets built in 3 countries, according to 3 different specs. Systems like the Tornado are somewhat of a cautionary tale there (so is the F35 due to its jack of all trades requirements).

These problems get magnified in small countries with the GCC's characteristics, as ohwilleke correctly states.

Judging from their adventures in Yemen, the Gulf Countries (and Saudi Arabia) have many issues with their military but the lack of an indigenous defense industry is likely not one of them.

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  • "I also wonder about how much the perception of Turkey's success is specifically linked to those sexy combat drones of theirs" FWIW, Turkey's defense industry is much broader than that. They are making armored personnel carriers, anti-tank missiles, military logistics vehicles, artillery grade medium range missiles and launchers, small arms, and so on. They are not top of the line in warplanes and warships, but pretty much anything an army soldier needs, they make.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 4 at 22:45
  • @ohwilleke point taken. I'll look it up. Feb 5 at 0:27

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