All over the world, countries are rearming – and this is especially true in the Middle East and North Africa. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the region has imported more military equipment over the past decade than all but one (Asia and Oceania). But countries in the Middle East and North Africa are not just enthusiastic arms importers. They are also increasingly aiming to build indigenous defense capabilities and become exporters themselves. Their goals are to make inroads into the lucrative defense sector, reduce pressure on their own budgets by being able to buy domestically, and support their allies in the region with military hardware. This trend will have consequences not only for security in the region but also for Europe and the way it deals with states that do not have the same ethical standards as European countries.
Turkey has led the way in these efforts, setting an example that states in the Middle East and North Africa are now emulating. Ankara has reaped geopolitical benefits from the production and sale of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones), particularly in terms of security and deterrence capabilities. For example, Turkey has used drones to protect its foreign policy interests in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean – and to expand its influence beyond the region, such as through support for Azerbaijan, who helped the latter win its 2020 conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey was able to play this role because it spent years developing a strong technological expertise and industrial base. Other countries are now following suit. For example, the United Arab Emirates is also developing its own drone industry and has deployed drones to support allies and proxies in Libya, Yemen and Ethiopia.
Local companies are now investing heavily in unmanned systems, particularly unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), as well as floating munitions (expendable missiles capable of staying in the air for a period of time until they identify a target and attack). These systems have worked remarkably well in war zones such as Libya and Syria. Turkish companies Baykar and Israel Aerospace Industries have risen through the ranks of global drone manufacturers. They have expanded their market presence with innovative and relatively inexpensive systems such as the TB-2 UCAV and the Harpy stray ammunition family, which have already seen widespread combat use, including in Ukraine. The power consumption, affordability and efficiency of the Turkish TB-2 made it the best-selling drone in history. At least ten countries are already using the system. And just as many are negotiating its acquisition, paving the way for Turkey’s rise as a global drone power.
The region is on its way to becoming one of the largest drone hubs in the world. Without the legal limitations and ethical constraints associated with the use of US-made and other Western systems, states in the region will capitalize on indigenous drones and munitions to reduce their dependence on Western products. Benefits for them include mitigating the risk of supply chain disruptions, increasing their leeway when diplomacy fails, and building beneficial security partnerships with like-minded actors. Floating ammunition is attracting more and more attention as it is a more cost effective medium and long range precision strike systems.
For countries in the region, greater indigenous production can help ease the tax burden on national treasuries by reducing the need for costly imports and can support national economies by creating a highly skilled workforce. And states are supporting this effort: in the past year alone, the region has hosted four prestigious defense exhibitions, including the largest in the world, which recently concluded in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia aims to increase its capacity to meet its own defense procurement needs from just 2% in 2018 to 50% by 2030. The UAE has already developed a manufacturing capacity of arms locally, primarily through its state-owned defense conglomerate, EDGE Group, which is now ranked 23rd in SIPRI’s list of the world’s top 100 military and defense equipment manufacturers, with arms sales d worth an estimated $4.8 billion in 2020. The United Arab Emirates has become the world’s 18th largest arms exporter, ahead of South Africa and Brazil, primarily by selling arms to customers such as the Egypt, Jordan and Algeria.
Smaller-scale indigenization attempts have also boosted the defense industries of Egypt and Qatar. At the Egypt Defense Expo 2021, Cairo showcased the Noot tactical drone and the upcoming Thebes-30, a combat drone designed by local company Industrial Complex Engineering Robots. The same company also produces the EJune-30, a licensed copy of the Emirates-designed Yabhon Flash 20, underscoring the close relationship between Cairo and Abu Dhabi in defense cooperation. In Qatar, the local military technology incubator, Barzan Holdings, is work on several unmanned systems, including a high-altitude, long-endurance drone and unmanned ground vehicles – the latter of which is in progress product in a joint venture with German defense giant Rheinmetall.
Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the Middle Eastern states most active in bolstering their own drone fleets with locally made platforms. EDGE Group recently developed the Hunter-2 series of handheld tactical drones and stray munitions. These are easily deployable, can operate in swarms and will complement the group’s drone portfolio – which includes the Reach-S combat model. EDGE Group is the first Arab company to develop swarm drones with artificial intelligence capabilities. Similarly, Saudi conglomerate INTRA Defense Technologies has unveiled its newest UCAV, the Samoom, which could be a promising solution for the Saudi military and addition to the country’s indigenous Saker UAV family. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have so far relied on Chinese drones such as the Wing Loong I and II, but they could gradually switch to national systems that are easier to maintain and integrate into their command and control structures.
Like Turkey and Israel, Iran is positioning itself as a major drone power in the region. Yet Iran’s approach to drone development is remarkably different from that of its neighbors. The country has built its vast drone fleet over many years, mostly out of necessity, to compensate for its old and decaying air force, which has been battered by decades of sanctions. Through reverse engineering and smuggling of components, Iran is now able to deploy several types of combat drones and roving munitions, some of which have beyond-line-of-sight communications and capabilities. long-range strike. These include the new Gaza UCAV, which is a reverse-engineered copy of the US-made MQ-9 Reaper. However, Iranian drones have remained largely on the sidelines of the global defense market. For example, Iran exported an undisclosed number of Mohajer-6s to Ethiopia and delivered other systems to regional allies such as the Syrian government, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Indeed, for Tehran, the commercial dimension of drones is of secondary importance compared to their role in strengthening national security and supporting the regime’s propaganda for both domestic consumption and external deterrence.
Meanwhile, Algeria and Morocco are also hotspots for drone proliferation. Fueled by their longstanding geopolitical rivalry, the two countries have in recent years significantly boosted their drone capabilities by acquiring foreign systems. These include Rabat’s purchase of the TB-2 and the Wing Loong I, as well as Algeria’s acquisition of several models from the Chinese CH family. Attempts to indigenize Algeria and Morocco have been on a smaller scale than those of many other countries in the region. But Morocco remains ambitious in this area: it recently signed a major aeronautical contract with Israel Aerospace Industries which should cover drone technology.
The proliferation of UCAVs in the Middle East and North Africa has not been accompanied by effective regulation of their use; their growth has resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties and violations of international humanitarian law in all conflicts in the region. This comes at a time when overall arms imports from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar have increased by 27%, 227% and 73% respectively. These facts should prompt the international community, including the Europeans, to take a leading role in ensuring that the use of drones meets internationally recognized standards of oversight, transparency and accountability. The European Union has a fundamental interest in developing its own drone technology and in preserving and expanding Member States’ defense partnerships. However, the EU should also invest its political and diplomatic capital in designing a drone shared liability regime designed to limit civilian casualties and make the misuse of these systems intolerably costly.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of their individual authors only.