The Military Transformation of GCC: Opportunities for the Republic of Korea

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

Seong Jae SHIN

As the sixth world's largest arms exporting country, the Republic of Korea (ROK) needs to acknowledge the arms sales potential in the Middle East and establish a strategic policy to improve its defense market in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. From 2009 to 2016, the Middle East has accounted for 24% of ROK’s defense exports, becoming one of the top three defense markets (Jang et al. 2018). Contemporarily, the Arab monarchies in the Gulf are demonstrating unprecedented efforts in their military forces. Unlike the past, when they were heavily dependent on military assistance of the United States, they began to implement their combat forces to achieve political objectives within the region. Through various cases of US neglecting its long-term allies, such as Iraq invasion, Mubarak of Egypt, Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, and current Yemen conflict, the Gulf monarchies recognized the need for strategic transformation and to improve their military. Thus, the GCC, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Oman as the members, began equipping itself with advanced military equipment.

Over the last ten years, the defense expenditure of the GCC has increased by about USD 40 billion dollars, from $60 billion to $100 billion (Brookings 2018). Since the national interests of ROK are economic survival in East Asia and military development, it is crucial for Korea to successfully access into the arms industry of GCC. Therefore, the ROK is recommended to undertake joint research and design projects to develop military equipment with the two most influential GCC countries, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.

The primary security and defense concerns of the GCC monarchies are the regional

conflicts with the indigenous population supported by Iran and increased terrorist activities. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the country with the most significant military expenditure amongst the GCC members, its national interest is to become the dominant regional power. However, Iran, a nation hostile to KSA, is interfering the Saudi from reaching its political objective. The imminent domestic threats to Riyadh, even with the most advanced military weapons, are its failure to secure the southern border and win the war against the Houthis in Yemen. To overcome these challenges, KSA is constantly purchasing arms from the US, which demonstrates its desire for weapons. Also, KSA is currently going through a military transformation under Mohammed bin Salman and desires the domestic production of weaponry. This is an opportunity for ROK to suggest joint R&D projects to improve KSA’s defense industry. Another influential GCC country is the UAE. Although it was successful in securing Aden against Houthis and proved its military capabilities, it is also faced with challenges such as terrorism and Iran. The long-term domestic objective of UAE is to establish a solid counter-terrorism plan. Furthermore, its political objective is to become the regional power that can confront Iran. Instead of continuously buying weapons, it is in UAE's best interest to develop its arms.

To expand defense exports to the Gulf, ROK needs to offer joint R&D projects for

military equipment to Saudi Arabia and UAE. Moreover, these proposals should focus on

meeting the needs of each country. It is important to note that the US, in the 1990s, has

developed F-35 fighters through joint R&D projects and benefited by reaching beyond the anticipated level by over 37% (1,418 aircraft) (Jang et al. 2018) In the case of UAE, it presents a high demand to improve the aging weapon system, which can be achieved through the joint Product Improvement Program (PIP) project between the two countries. For example, one of the possible options is the PIP project to advance the old self-propelled gun (SPG) from South Africa. In addition, it is also analyzed that the PIP project for Russia’s BMP-3 armored vehicles is another potential alternative. Since they are buying automatically guided weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, and destroyers from ROK, these can be the new possible areas for joint development. As for Saudi Arabia, it is currently purchasing armed vehicle technology, automatically guided weapons, fighters, and helicopters from ROK. However, due to Saudization, these ROK’s exports may soon be terminated. Thus, for ROK to economically benefit in the future, ROK needs to assist KSA with the Saudization through joint R&D projects in its arms industry. For example, because KSA’s naval power is underpowered (Roberts 2018), ROK can offer Saudi Arabia with joint R&D project to produce battleships. Other possible programs should be applied to help KSA develop some of the current exporting arms. As a result, ROK can expect a domino effect from other GCC monarchies due to their reliance on Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Key Conclusions:

  • The Republic of Korea is recommended to undertake joint research and design projects to develop military equipments with the two most influential GCC countries, Saudi Arabia and UAE;

  • Between 2009-2016, the Middle East has accounted for 24% of ROK’s defense exports;

  • For UAE, offer product Improvement Program (PIP) project to advance the old self-propelled gun (SPG) from South Africa and Russia’s BMP-3 armored vehicles are another alternative;

  • For Saudi Arabia, offer KSA with joint R&D project to produce battleships;

  • Expect a domino effect from other GCC members due to their reliance on Saudi Arabia.



- Brookings. 2018. “GCC News Roundup: Gulf States’ Foreign Ministers Meet with Pompeo, GCC Military Budget to Reach $100 Billion (September 1-30).” Brookings (blog). October 1, 2018.

- Jang, Won Jun, Jae Pil Song, Mi Jung Kim, and Eun Ji Bang. 2018. “Analysis of Defense Export Major Indicators and Strategy for Developing Defense Market in the Middle East.” Journal of Advances in Military Studies 1 (1): 69–86.

- Roberts, David B. 2018. The Gulf Monarchies’ Armed Forces at the Crossroads. Institut français des relations internationales.


Seong Jae SHIN is Co-Founder and Head of Consulting Team of APRA.

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