Zoltan Barany on the Ineffectiveness of the Gulf Militaries

Zoltan Barany
Zoltan Barany Photo credit: Catherine Barany

Zoltan Barany is the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Armies of Arabia: Military Politics and Effectiveness in the Gulf

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The last time, and luckily this hasn’t really happened since 1990, there was minimal resistance from the Kuwaiti and the Saudi forces. So, this obviously is 30 years ago, but there is little reason to believe that in spite of the hundreds of billions of dollars that is spent on armaments, this state of affairs has changed. Let me just put it this way. Nobody in Tehran is losing any sleep over the prowess of any of the Gulf militaries.

Zoltan Barany

Key Highlights

  • What should be expected of the militaries of the Gulf countries?
  • Would the Gulf countries be threatened without the American security guarantee?
  • What types of military investments do the Gulf countries make?
  • What has the Yemeni War taught us about armies of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries?
  • How does the leadership of MBS differ from MBZ?

Podcast Transcript

A few weeks ago, we discussed a concept called institutional weakness. I believe it’s an idea that will help a lot of listeners understand this week’s episode. Because this week we will discuss a very specific institution, the military, in a very specific region, the Gulf. The countries of the Gulf or the Arabian Peninsula spend enormous sums on their militaries, but their armed forces do not reflect the fiscal investment their nations make. Zoltan Barany has done extensive research to understand this phenomenon. The culmination of that research was published earlier this year in a book called Armies of Arabia: Military Politics and Effectiveness in the Gulf. 

Zoltan Barany is the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He has studied militaries in many parts of the world. I’ve read many of his articles on the events in Burma and even quoted him on the episode on Myanmar. So, I was excited to hear about his new book and am excited to bring him onto the podcast. 

Now, before we get started I do want to mention for anyone new to the podcast, a full transcript is available at democracyparadox.com. I’m also available for questions or ideas about the podcast by email at jkempf@democracyparadox.com. But for now… this is my conversation with Zoltan Barany…


Zoltan Barany, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Zoltan Barany

Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.


Well, Zoltan, I really truly enjoyed your book Armies of Arabia. But it actually begins with a premise that caught me off guard. You write in the book, “Perhaps the most important and conspicuous attribute that all Arab armies in republics and monarchies share is their remarkable ineffectiveness on the battlefield.” Now, most of the listeners are likely unfamiliar with military affairs in the Gulf. So, I’d like to start with a very basic question. What are the state of the militaries like and what should we be expecting from them?

Zoltan Barany

So, Arab militaries, unless they fight each other, they tend to lose wars. And so, for instance, we had several military regimes in the Arab world. I call Egypt a military regime because since its independence, it has never been ruled by a person who was not a general. And with the very important exception, of course, of Mohamed Morsi who was democratically elected, the first and only one really between 2012 and 2013. So, he is the sole exception, but the military has been permeating there economically, politically, socially that country and they have yet to win a war. And so, it’s kind of an interesting question. Very similar actually, Pakistan, also similar in many ways of political and economic domination of the military. And yet, in spite of having provoked India several times into wars, never won a single war.

So, why is it this way? And so, I think that a lot of it has to do with politics and as we know there’s not a single democratic state in the Arab world with the one hopeful and partial exception of Tunisia. We’re still holding our fingers crossed. There are other things in the structure of these states. There are things that are socio-cultural, but the fact is that they have not been effective on the battlefield. There are several books about this.

But I hasten to add that I’m not saying that Arabs are bad soldiers. That’s not the case at all. They are very good in terms of insurgencies. And, of course, we all remember Lawrence of Arabia talking about the fantastic successes of the Arab insurgents, but also, if you look at the insurgents ISIS, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen. So, it’s not that they are not good soldiers. They are just bad counter-insurgents. Once you superimpose the state over a fighting force, they seem to not do very well.


So, you mentioned that the reason why we know their militaries perform poorly is that they haven’t won a war. I don’t know that we’re asking them to go out and conquer other territories. I mean, that’s not our expectation or our goal. What do we really expect from a military in a country like Saudi Arabia or a country like Kuwait? What should we be expecting from their militaries?

Zoltan Barany

So, for the armies on the Arabian Peninsula, we, I guess the United States, would like them to be able to defend themselves or protect themselves at least to some level, to be more effective in reaching basic military goals. Meaning, this is your objective and with the resources at your disposal, reach these objectives at the most efficient way possible. So, they don’t do that. On the other hand, this is why it’s a loaded question, we, the United States and the west, are actually putting obstacles to them in very sort of counterintuitive ways to reach their goals.


Now, obviously like if a superpower came in like China or even Russia, I don’t think that we would expect the Gulf countries to hold their own. But I do imagine that if a neighboring country like Iran or in the past, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and posed a challenge, posed a threat to Saudi Arabia, that we’d expect them to defend against their neighboring countries. Is that kind of the expectation that they can hold their own against the countries in that specific region?

Zoltan Barany

Well, it is and it isn’t. Again, it’s very complex, because the United States would like them to put up some defense, but the last time and luckily this hasn’t really happened since 1990, there was minimal resistance from the Kuwaiti and the Saudi forces. So, this obviously is 30 years ago, but there is little reason to believe that in spite of the hundreds of billions of dollars that is spent on armaments, this, state of affairs has changed. Let me just put it this way. Nobody in Tehran is losing any sleep over the prowess of any of the Gulf militaries, not even the military of the UAE, which is somewhat better than the rest.


So, you write in the book, “American and/or British forces are the real defenders or true primary security providers of the monarchies of Arabia.” That makes an argument that they need some form of military protection. If the United States, Britain, other European countries completely pulled out and said, ‘You’re on your own.’ Do you think that these countries are threatened, that their neighbors or another country would come in and forcefully occupy them?

Zoltan Barany

So, this is a good question. And, well, obviously we are talking about one of the richest regions in the world and richest in many ways. Rich in commodities and natural resources that are extremely important still for the rest of the world. And, obviously, I’m talking about oil and gas and I think I cite Lindsey Graham, Senator Lindsey Graham, in the book who said that, ‘If the United States pulled out of Saudi Arabia, if this defense guarantee would not be there, then the Saudis would be speaking Farsi within a few months.’ Well, when he said that he was a little bit upset about the, assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and, obviously, this is an overstatement, but it’s not that far off reality.

The nemesis of the Gulf is Iran and the Iranian military is head and shoulders above these other armies and across the Persian Gulf. So, yes. I think it’s fair to say that if the US withdrew its security guarantees, then the threat to the Gulf countries would escalate.


So, I’m asking you some big picture questions, but in the book, Armies of Arabia, you have two key premises. The first one we’ve kind of tackled, which is that the militaries in the Gulf countries are ineffective. In fact, even just Arab countries are ineffective. But the second premise is that despite their vast material resources and their investment in the military, they’re still ineffective. Can you talk a little bit about the financial commitments that the Gulf countries continue to make to defense and help us paint a picture so we can understand why maybe it’s a poor use of their resources?

Zoltan Barany

Yeah, sure. So, this is obviously one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world. The six countries, they spend enormous amounts of resources on their armed forces. So, if you look at 2018 on a GDP level, Bahrain spent almost 4% of its GDP on military expenditure, Kuwait four and a half, Oman, which is the poorest of the GCC 6, 11%, Saudi Arabia nearly 11%. And just remember that, for instance, the NATO expectation is that all NATO members spend 2%. Only four NATO members of the 30 spend 2%. And, of course, remember also the GDP of these countries is enormous. So, they are spending, certainly in the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, tens of billions of dollars.

So, it’s not that they’re not spending enough. The question is what are they spending their money on and why? So they are spending on glittery, expensive, sophisticated weapons, extra sophisticated weapons. So, for instance, the UAE has been campaigning and lobbying the United States to sell it F-35 fighters which is by far the world’s most sophisticated fighter jet that only the United States has and Israel and the UAE also wants it. Most of these sophisticated weapons cannot be used by the Gulf military personnel, because they are extremely hard to operate, hard to maintain, very sophisticated, And, at the same time, we saw in the Yemen war that the Saudis don’t have basic night vision equipment that would have really helped them and doesn’t cost a ton of money. They don’t have effective air defense capabilities.

So, they are spending a lot of money and spending it on the wrong things. So, there are two reasons for this. First of all, these are absolute monarchies and I actually cite Louis XIV ‘L’état, c’est moi’. I am the state. These are family states where the monarchs and their families rule the state.


There’s actually a brilliant line in the book where you write, “Gulf armies are not national armies, but the armies of the ruling families.” I just love that line.

Zoltan Barany

Yeah, and it’s, yeah, it’s absolutely… I’m glad you liked it. It’s absolutely true. So, which also means that in a very real way, the military’s most important role is the defense of the monarchical regime. So, it’s important that the key military positions are in the hands of the ruling family and maybe their tribal allies. So, I’m not suggesting that they are all incompetent hacks. That’s not the case. Some of them are to be sure, but a lot of them are not. And, of course, it is in the interest of these families to have competent people in, key leading defense positions. But that’s not always the case, which is, shown by the fact that the defense minister of the most important case is Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

So, the point is that on the one hand, these people, because of institutional and personal vanity want to buy the biggest, glittering things. As my colleague at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, ‘Toys for the boys. The more glitter, the better, even though we don’t use it. Even though we buy it, we put it away somewhere. We open it up. It’s not maintained. It’s not used. It’s useless.” But the key thing to remember is that these weapon acquisition, these purchases are essentially the premium that the Gulf monarchies are paying on the insurance policy to the United States and to a lesser extent Britain. So, when the opportunity or the necessity arises such as in 1990, 1991, they will be there and they will be there quickly and spiritedly and take care of business.

So, I actually had a college student in Kuwait tell me when I asked a group of Kuwaiti men, young men, what they thought about the military and military service and so on. And he told me jokingly, ‘That we tested the United States military in 1991. And they passed this test with flying colors.’ I think that says more than a single encounter.


Okay. Now you just described the weapons acquisitions as the premium that Gulf governments are paying for American defense. In other words, it’s kind of an unspoken quid pro quo that they buy these weapons systems, but really the Americans, and to a lesser extent, the British step in as the real defense for their countries. But you also mentioned that the UAE is actively lobbying for some of these fighter jets, the F-35s. Are the Gulf countries buying these weapons, because of pressure from the United States or because of their own ambitions?

Zoltan Barany

So, yeah. Very, very good question. I think it’s a little bit of both, but far more the Gulf countries ambitions. So, we have, remember, these billionaires who come, who has had very close relations with the US defense industrial complex and say, ‘This is what we want.’ We have many extremely, astute and well-informed American military and civilian officials who tell them, ‘No, this is not what you need. What you need is air defense systems. And what you need is, you know, night vision equipment. And what you need is to train your own people, to do your maintenance.’ But these are not sexy things. These are not glittering things.

And so, it’s really interesting. For instance, fighter jets, that’s the biggest thing for most of the Gulf monarchies. It is really amazing that if you look at the Gulf militaries in general, their navies are totally underdeveloped. And, you know, you look at the map and these are seafaring countries. This is what they were prior to the British appearing in the early 19th century. They have an existential stake in making sure that what they produce reaches markets elsewhere and yet, they have very little investment in ships and when you ask them, they say, ‘Well, obviously, one is the glitter factor. It is not that easy to show them off.’

But the other factor is that the United States is already there. Britain actually just built two new naval bases for the first time since they left the region in 1961. So, they are back. And so, the fact that there is such a huge Naval presence, as you know our fifth fleet is in Bahrain, that this huge Western naval presence retards the growth of their naval development. And there may be something to that.


So, when we talk about military acquisitions, when we talk about purchases of military equipment, it’s become a hot button issue recently in the United States because of the war in Yemen. The purchases that Saudi Arabia has made for its military have been used in the civil conflict in Yemen and resulted in disaster. There’s famine. There’s lots of issues. We don’t have time to delve into all of the factors in the war in Yemen, but I’d like to use that situation to help us understand a little bit about the capacity of Saudi Arabia’s military, what it tells about how they approach the military, how they approach the use of their weapons. And on top of that, the ineffectiveness that they’ve demonstrated through this actual armed conflict.

Zoltan Barany

Yes. Very good question. And as you say, we could be here far longer than the attention span of the average listener. So, let me start from the top. So, the Saudi crown prince, even before he was the crown prince, he was appointed as defense minister by King Salman. He was the youngest and the most inexperienced defense minister in the world at that time. And he has in terms of foreign and military policy, made horrible decisions. That simply because of this despotism, because it’s virtually impossible or at least very difficult to oppose him, Saudi Arabia embarked on this war and this was on many levels a disaster.

It was as several of my colleagues in the United States and in Arabia, although in Arabia not openly said that, ‘It’s his war. It’s his decision.’ There was nobody who else was seriously consulted. He decided to basically interfere in this war in Yemen, even though in 2009 and 10, that is five years before, Saudi Arabia all ready was involved in Yemen in a short war and was humiliated by the very same Houthi forces. So, in March of 2015, Saudi Arabia enters this war again. It did not make the necessary preparations. It did not have a clear objective of what it wanted or when the war would be over. What would be the objectives? And once they were achieved, what would be the withdrawal plan?

And it even announced allies who had supposedly agreed to participate who did not, causing diplomatic incidents between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, one of their long-term allies. Also, some other countries that Saudi Arabia has supported with literally many tens of billions of dollars since 2013, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt basically refused to participate or participated in a proforma or very symbolic force. By the way, both the UK and the United States leadership, both civilian and military suggested to the crown prince that this was a big mistake. That his army was in no way up to this challenge, this kind of insurgency in a very difficult terrain that they were unfamiliar with against a force that was extremely intimately familiar with all the wadis and the canyons and this in general mountainous difficult terrain of Northern Yemen.

So, the Saudis hoped that air power would be the answer to that. And as very smart military people have said many times over and over, ‘No insurgency has ever been defeated by air power alone.’ So, what you refer to of course is that they were dropping their bombs on all kinds of areas after many warnings that were civilian areas causing tremendous tragedies on an individual per attack basis, but also more generally. So, for instance, the Red Cross paints massive red cross signs on top of their hospitals, acted in the first three, four years of the war as magnets for Saudi fighters to drop their bombs.

One of the problems is pilot incompetence and I actually write quite extensively in the book about pilot training. Saudi pilots are, well, they are not competent to fight this war. And so, for instance, they are flying at much higher altitudes than they should be flying in order to be accurate in their bombing campaigns. And what happens is not only are they as a result, bombing the wrong target, but also the payload often ends up in the hands of the enemy. So, they are also trying to supply their allies, tribal allies and mercenaries underground and so on. But the payload ends up in the wrong hands. So, it has really been a disaster going on for, you know, almost seven years now with no end certainly in sight right now.


So, let me clarify something. When Saudi Arabia is bombing these hospitals, bombing these civilian sites, this isn’t just simply the casualties of a war, the inevitable casualties of a war. This is the casualties produced by an ineffective and unprofessional army in a military conflict. Am I reading that right?

Zoltan Barany

Absolutely. Yeah, that’s very, very clearly… You stated it clearer than I did. Absolutely. It’s an ineffective military and a big part of this reason is the poor training and the poor preparation of Saudi pilots.


But we give them lots of training. Like Americans literally come in and train them. We bring back people from the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, to the United States to do military training. Why are they still so poorly trained?

Zoltan Barany

Yeah. So, it’s another complex question. So, what you said is absolutely true. That’s the end result. We are bringing them here. We are doing our best. They are training in California and Arizona in the desert. Virtually all Gulf pilots from all the other countries too have, exposure to American training. So, this book that I wrote, Armies of Arabia, is based on over 150 interviews on the ground, mostly with local Gulf military people, but also American trainers and British trainers including the trainers of fighter pilots. So, this is where the cultural issues come in. It is very difficult to train these people without pointing out lessons and criticism, actual criticism.

So, I talk in the book about how, for instance, when mishaps happen and, of course, during training mishaps often happen because this is how you acquire your expertise. And how this works in, let’s say, in the Israeli military and how it works in the US or UK or top militaries in the world and how it works in the Gulf. And so, it is very bad form to directly criticize somebody, because criticism is tantamount to humiliation and shaming. Therefore, the lessons from poor performance are very often difficult to learn. So, in the armed forces the stigma essentially guarantees that mistakes are repeated.

So, that’s one of the things. The second is that there is training, but they don’t train as much as the top militaries of the world train. And what makes the Israeli army or the US army or the UK army so great, they really are the greatest fighting forces in our contemporary world, that they train a lot. They train in foul weather. They train in unanticipated circumstances and they do it a lot. And it’s not fun often. And obviously, we’re talking about pilots now, but it goes the same for ground forces. What happens in the Gulf armies, they do not go out. For instance, in the Gulf, navies do not go out in foul weather. They do not go out at night. As if the circumstances of war could be anticipated to take place in lovely sunny weather. So, this is one of the problems.

Another major problem for why aren’t they any better is really the lack of critical thinking. There is actually this aversion to critical thinking and independent initiatives. And there are actually all kinds of inducements to not think critically. So, how does this work if you’re a fighter pilot? As many instructors told me the same story. So, you tell a pilot to go and fly to place X, release the payload, come back. Yeah, they can do that now. However, when anything happens that’s unanticipated that maybe, you know, a thunderstorm or maybe, you know, they throw some wrench into the equation, then all of a sudden, it’s much more difficult for them to complete the mission because they are not used to personal initiative. They don’t perform well in settings that require critical thinking or any kind of unanticipated situations.

 And also, the last point I want to make briefly is that the sexiest branch of the military for all of the Gulf armies is the Air Force and not just the Air Force, but being a pilot in the Air Force. So, it is full of the young men of the ruling families. So, it is very difficult to weed these people out if they are ineffective. So, for instance, if you start pilot training in Israel, after many different levels of tests and aptitude, at the end only, I think, 6 or 7% of the initial candidates would make it even in the last week or last two weeks of a two-year training course. There could be an Air Force psychologist and say, ‘There is something not quite right with this person.’ They are out.

This would be unimaginable in the Gulf where almost 40 or 50% make it which is an unheard of ratio. This is why they have such a low effectiveness rate. But basically, as I have heard on a number of occasions, if you’re a member of the Royal family, again, they are very large, you will fly something. Maybe it won’t be a fighter jet, but you will fly a military cargo plane or something else, because, remember, if you are weeded out, it’s a tremendous humiliation which is very difficult culturally to handle.


So, Let’s talk a little bit about what we’re describing as culture. Because it’s kind of a catch all term that we use to include a lot of different aspects of society. And it’s a little bit unfair to refer to it as culture for Arab people, because if we look at people in different situations, different circumstances, they behave very differently. A great example would be, I don’t think that the Houthis complain about fighting at night or fighting in adverse conditions. I don’t admire or support the people in ISIS, but I doubt that they’re complaining about their circumstances in the army the same way that you’re describing that some of these other people are complaining.

We can even look at it even deeper into the type of positions that these people look to accept. My understanding is that for all these sophisticated fighter jets, particularly in Saudi Arabia, they require Americans to actually do the maintenance and the repairs on these fighter jets, because they can’t recruit people from their own country to be able to handle those. What is different about their militaries and the culture within the institution itself that creates these very different character traits that we don’t necessarily see among Arab peoples in different situations?

Zoltan Barany

It’s a very good question. And the discussion of culture is a very sensitive subject and it should be. So, when I talk about the book in socio-cultural variables, I make it very clear that most of these traits are not unique to Arab culture. Most of these traits are unique to societies that are authoritarian and, absolute monarchies are, you know, it would be hard to imagine more of a dictatorship with fewer rights as a citizen. So, these are very well to do societies where the ruling families actually trade great wealth relatively speaking for citizenship rights. So, let me say how this works. So, I’m saying that there’s a great deal of societal preference for conformity and obedience in the Gulf societies. Absolutely true and this would be hard to deny.

However, if you look at the societies of authoritarian states in, let’s say, the socialist period. There was conformity and obedience in Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria under Communist rule or the Soviet Union or we can look at Nazi Germany. There were few more conformist people even though it was a relatively short period of time, Nazi rule 12 years. So, it’s not necessarily an Arab trait. It’s a trait of this preference for conformity and obedience of authoritarian states. From this follows the educational system. Educational systems of military regimes or socialist regimes or authoritarian states in general do not prize independent thinking. It worked the same in the Soviet Union. It works the same under military rule in Burma. And it does in Arab countries at the same time. So, it’s very, very similar.

Also, when we were talking about maintenance issues and the lackadaisical, let’s say, work morale of Gulf soldiers. But this is not because they don’t want to work. It’s an incentive issue. When by virtue of being born a Kuwaiti or Qatari or Emirati citizen are very well to do because the state takes care of you, it is very hard, not just in the Emirates and not just in Qatar, but also places that happened to be very rich to get people to become nightwatchman or mechanics and so on and so forth. This is why Western Europe after the 1950s and 1960s imported tens of millions of foreign workers from anywhere from Turkey and Sicily, so on and so forth, because the locals didn’t want to do the work.

So, it’s not that Arabs are lazy. If you are a person who has basically a million-dollar trust fund from the state, it’s very hard to get these people to go and become night watchmen and who can blame them. And another thing is religion, but it’s not necessarily the religion of the Arab Gulf countries, which tend to be Sunni Islam, but any deeply religious person would allow more of an agency to a higher being than maybe he or she would have.

And so, the whole point is that the belief that conclusions are already predestined by a higher being and one’s power to shape outcomes is more limited than it actually is causes subpar performance. But it would do the same thing for Orthodox Jews and very devout Catholics the same way. So, it’s not the culture of the Gulf or let alone of Arabs. It’s the culture of an authoritarian society that is very conformist that is heavily religious and very rich.


Yeah, let’s dig deeper into this sense of the authoritarianism that hinders their military capacity. Because for me, that’s actually counterintuitive. I think of military institutions as being inherently authoritarian. They’re very top down. You follow chain of command. In your book, Armies of Arabia, though you write, “Gulf militaries are hampered by despotism, meaning that a single person often makes key decisions unfettered by elite involvement let alone representative institutions.” You’re making the case that authoritarianism, despotism, hinders the effectiveness of militaries and that democracies actually have better military capacity. Am I right making that conclusion? And why would a democracy be better at military effectiveness than an authoritarian regime?

Zoltan Barany

Yes, I think that you got it exactly right. And just imagine a system in which Secretary of Defense Austin would make all the decisions. All of them, or most of them. So, basically this is one of the political structural issues of the monarchical state. So, these are issues that are rooted in the autocratic political systems of the Gulf. So, let’s just look a little more closely. So, when one person makes decisions, things are hyper centralized. So, that is the decisions are made at a much higher level than they should be made. This also means people are not trusted.

One of my colleagues and now friends is a former Colonel who worked for the Emirati military. Again, one of the better ones in the region and asked to have a new computer and this as he told me in the US military a Sergeant would have sorted this out in 20 seconds. ‘Yeah. We need a new computer.’ In the Emirates, it took a full colonel to make this decision, because they don’t dare to make mistakes and so it’s a lot easier to kick the can upstairs and to have others make the decision. Another example that comes to mind, in Bahrain the US Naval base asked one of the Bahraini admirals who was a member of the Royal family to come to some social event. He had to ask the defense minister for permission so as not to make a mistake.

So, hyper centralization, this is one of the issues which people actually face on a daily, hourly level. Another is that they have a number of rival institutions. Remember that these are the armies of the royal families, the ruling families, and their primary objective, their primary role, is to prevent coups that would overthrow the regime. So, they have been actually remarkably successful. There were some coups in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s and I think the last one in 1977, but not once since then. It’s an important issue because we haven’t heard of military coups or coups in these monarchies. But if you dig into history a little bit, virtually all of these monarchical families came to power as a result of fratricide or killing members of the Royal family and so on and so forth.

So, what happens here is that they became wise to this issue and they started to create rival military institutions. So, the military is compartmentalized and there is not just the regular army, but the royal guard. There is the special forces and so on. And so, there would be, even in a relatively small country like Bahrain with the military force of only 8,200 people, there would be five or six rival institutions. Not only are they rival institutions, but they are heavily compartmentalized.

So, one institution doesn’t know what the other is doing and this is by design. This is in order to compete for resources, compete for attention, compete for influence. And this all comes from this essentially despotic nature of the set-up of these monarchical states. And, of course, it’s very important that they are compartmentalized. And in terms of military issues, it is really a key point, because it is very harmful. This kind of compartmentalization is very harmful to developing a key aspect of modern warfare, which is joint operations.


So, you mentioned that joint operations are very important. And you also mentioned that the UAE is one of the better militaries. I don’t want to overstate the fact. You already gave a great example of how the UAE has its own issues, but I’d like to hear you explain why the United Arab Emirates are different from some of the other militaries in the region. Why do we think of them differently in terms of their military effectiveness and capacity?

Zoltan Barany

So, I think once again, the root of the question lies in the despotic nature of the Gulf monarchies. And that is one person makes a huge difference. And so, actually on the cover of my book, Armies of Arabia, there are the two key current Gulf leaders, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed bin Zayed, who is the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and which is the politically and economically most important Emirate in the United Arab Emirates. So, why the UAE is so much better, and it is in terms of its military than others in the Gulf, we can thank or the Emiratis thank Mohammed bin Zayed for this.

So, first of all, he is unlike Mohammad bin Salman. He is a very serious military man. By the way, many of these ruling monarchies have male members and now increasingly a few female members are the graduates of some of the best military educational institutions in the world. So, Mohammad bin Zayed is a member of the graduating class of Sandhurst. He was a general in the UAE Air Force, but also, and more importantly, he realized early on, and I mean like 30 years ago, that the Emirates would need to do have regional ambitions.

And in order to have regional ambitions, they need a decent military. In order to have a decent military, he speculated correctly that the Emiratis would need to train with the best militaries in the world. So, obviously, at that point, their relationship with Israel was more or less non-existent. So, what remained was the US and the UK. So, from early on from like 1995, the Emiratis sent for peacekeeping operations and also, later for battle operations from starting with Kosovo to various places which included a long service in Afghanistan where the special forces actually did very well. So, they are spending a lot of money. They are far more attentive to decent training and they are also more open to foreign influences.

What I mean by this is that the presidential guard which is the most important and best fighting force within the UAE, but also you could say in the entire peninsula, has been commanded by a retired Australian general. It is full of American and British trainers. And also, full of contract soldiers, third army nationals, I think the US military calls them, which is the politically correct term. The politically incorrect term is mercenaries. And so, these are mercenaries or contract soldiers from essentially all over the world. But many of them are coming from Pakistan, from Colombia where they have been battle-hardened in guerrilla wars in the jungle and so on.

So, these people are really quite well-trained. What is important is not to overstate how much better they are than they really are, because the presidential guard itself is, a force of five different components and some components of it like special forces is far better than others.


So, you mentioned that in addition to MBZ on the cover of your book, Armies of Arabia, you also have a picture of Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) and I really want to take an opportunity to be able to talk about him, because MBS really has changed governance in Saudi Arabia and not for the better. Can you take a moment and just kind of explain from your perspective, how MBS has really changed governance there and how he has, in your opinion, really harmed the prospects and the trajectory for Saudi Arabia going forward?

Zoltan Barany

I’m glad you didn’t say the prospect of democracy, because there is no prospect of democracy in any place in the Gulf. They are very heavily entrenched authoritarian states. So, MBS, in some ways a controversial figure, is not all evil. So, he has some ideas, Vision 2030. So, all of these countries have had various visions for economic development and it’s basically to diversify their economies away from the reliance on oil. And he has made some important inroads in terms of proposing and actually supporting some ideas of how the economies could be diversified. Obviously, most people know that he allowed women to drive. Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where women were not permitted to drive. He opened some of the movie theaters. He took some of the power of the religious police away.

So, these are all very positive things, obviously. And if you ask a young Saudi, especially, they couldn’t be happier about this. However, what is really important to see is after the six women, who were campaigning for women to drive, and the permission had been given, these women were tortured and put into jail. And why is that? It’s so counterintuitive, because MBS – but he’s representing his family – they wanted to make sure that the people understood that this was not the result of a successful political campaign. It was not a right. It was a privilege that the royal family conferred on to Saudi women. And so, this is a really important distinction that I think we should remember.

He also made some important advances, I think, against corruption. And so, we all know about him getting several hundreds of, many of his family members into the Ritz Carlton and basically shaking them off. So, the idea of an anti-corruption campaign is certainly a defensible one. The way it’s been done certainly raises concern. This is why I’m so glad that Oxford University Press found this picture that you could contrast MBZ with MBS. And in the Emirates, there is also this anti-corruption program, but it is done far more in an institutional level, rather than a sort of personalized revenge on some of the richest members of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

But in terms of foreign policy, he has been exceptionally harmful for not just Saudi Arabia, but for the Gulf. And so, I already mentioned the Yemen war and I should also mention the isolation of Qatar from, 2017 to 2021. Early this year it was finally lifted. The isolation, the blockade over Qatar, the key beneficiaries of both were Iran, the nemesis of the entire Gulf. So, when you look at the isolation of Qatar, just one aspect of this. So, Qatari airplanes were not allowed to use Saudi air space anymore and had to fly through Iran, for which for several years, it had to pay the Iranians to the tune of $400 to $500 million. So, because Qatar shares the largest and most lucrative gas field between Qatar and Iran.

So, Qatar is not in position to constantly badger and be antagonistic towards Iran. It has to find a way of compromise. They are reliant on essentially the same gas field. So, it was simply irrational to expect Qatar to all of a sudden be more belligerent with Iran. Iran is also by far the beneficiary of the Yemen war, because in the Houthis it has a force that is reliant on them, of a Shia Muslim religion, and the most important aspect of this, from not just the strategic and the political, but also the economic one. The Yemen war has cost the Saudis to the tune of $4 or $5 billion a month. For the Iranians, the support of the Houthis, maybe a few hundred million dollars altogether in the last seven years.

So, from the perspective of Tehran, MBS has been a godsend. It has been an incredible boon to them on the economic level and on a political level too, because MBS has been a very divisive influence within the Gulf itself.


So, as we’re talking about MBS, I think one of the big things that he did before he even became the crown prince, when he was just a defense minister, was to turn the narrative from the idea that these Gulf countries were purchasing weapons that would never be used by entering into the war in Yemen. He showed that some of these countries really would use the weapons that they were purchasing. I’m stating this because your book is a lot about the reasons why these militaries are ineffective. But there’s a normative question that we didn’t really ask or didn’t really walk through which is would stronger armies in the Gulf region really be for the better of the region or even the world? Would stronger armies in the Gulf region destabilize the area?

Zoltan Barany

Well, this is a very good question. I think stronger armies would have in some ways a stabilizing effect and the reason is the stronger armies would be more predictable. They would be more effective, more efficient. And I think that what happens here is that the Saudis and the rest of the Gulf must understand that even after the United States is gone, Iran will still be on the other side of the Persian Gulf. And this is why their recognition that improving their relationship with Israel would be a very good idea. And this sort of dawned on them after a long time. But basically, what was needed is that realizing that the archenemy of all of them, so both Israel and the Gulf countries was Iran.

So, they shared this. The second is that in US foreign policy, starting with the Obama administration, the importance of the Gulf has definitely diminished. And this continued under Donald Trump and his presidency. And thirdly, is the realization that in Israel, they have the only innovation economy in the region and it was not just spy satellites and surveillance equipment and so on that they could gain from Israel. And not just military equipment or military training, which eventually will happen, but perhaps more importantly economic benefits. Israel has a tremendous record in agricultural innovation that obviously countries in the Gulf could use. So, I think, the rapprochement between the Gulf and Israel is a major development that I think is going to continue. And, of course, it has many, many different reasons.

One of the reasons it wasn’t taking place was because of the Gulf country support of the Palestinian cause. But as a new generation of Gulf leaders emerges the Palestinian issue is losing its salience snd there is a realization that after many billions of dollars of help that the Gulf provided to the Palestinians, their situation has not really improved. And the governance itself in Palestine hasn’t improved as a result of all these wrong-headed policies and the unwillingness to reach compromises and so on and so forth.


Well, thanks so much for joining me. I can’t recommend your book enough, Armies of Arabia. It’s really a necessary read for anybody who wants a better understanding of the Arab world, specifically the Gulf region. So, thanks so much for joining me. And thanks so much for taking the time.

Zoltan Barany

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