RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is expanding its military arsenal to counter what it sees as Iran’s growing influence in a region convulsed by violence.
Analysts and diplomats say Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon after Syrian and Iranian-backed Hizbollah guerrillas kidnapped two soldiers has added to predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia’s alarm at Shi’ite powerhouse Iran’s policies in the Middle East.
“There is now an understanding that Iran has to be countered,” a Saudi adviser told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There is going to be a huge strategic spending on defence, based on a new defence doctrine.”
Over the past year Saudi officials have spoken publicly against Iranian influence in Shi’ite governed Iraq and the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
After Israel bombarded Lebanon, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia blamed Shi’ite Hizbollah for the blitz that has so far killed more than 300 people and ravaged the infrastructure.
“Iran has been a lot more aggressive (over last year) … it was made the Saudis sit up in a way they haven’t for a good 10 years,” said a Western diplomat in Riyadh. “Who in the long term is their main strategic threat? They see it as Iran.”
Saudi Arabia wields global political clout partly because it is the world’s top oil exporter, and over the past week it has spent billions of dollars on military equipment.
Washington said on Thursday it had approved the sale of 24 UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters, radios, armoured vehicles and other military equipment worth more than $6 billion.
France and Saudi Arabia also signed a defence cooperation agreement on Friday, with a French government source saying a deal was close on helicopters and tanker aircraft.
And Riyadh is set to buy up to 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets in a deal with Britain that could cost more than $10 billion.
According to Jane’s Information Group, tight public finances held up military expansion plans in the 1990s. But a spectacular rise in world oil prices has since turned Saudi fortunes around.
“The relatively small Royal Saudi Land Forces are thinly spread to cope with potential threats on a number of fronts. Saudi Arabia has far smaller ground forces than those of Iran,” Jane’s said in a report last month, estimating the army at 70,000 men and elite National Guard at 77,000.
The government wants to raise total troop numbers by some 25 percent, and the National Guard is to acquire its own air force, the adviser said. No conscription is planned.
Saudi Arabia relied on U.S. military protection from the 1990-1 Gulf crisis until 2003, when the troops left because American backing was seen as no longer politically acceptable.
Analysts say the U.S. presence near sites in Mecca and Medina was a key element in spawning an al Qaeda campaign in the same year to topple the monarchy.
Iran has emerged as a major Saudi concern since nationalist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office last year.
“Iran is invading the Arab world and burning everything in its path,” columnist Mshari Al-Zaydi wrote in Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat this week. “With the Arabs standing idly by, Iran seeks to impose its control over the region.”
In Lebanon, Riyadh is seeing its own money going up in smoke. Saudi Arabia has been a major political and economic sponsor of Lebanon’s post-civil war order, which was laid down by an 1989 agreement made in the Saudi city of Taif.
“The viable, stable structure that took us two decades to build they have managed to bring down in the space of a week,” the Saudi adviser said of Hizbollah, rueing Iran’s huge influence for what he said was limited spending on the group.
But the Saudi stance has been controversial in the Arab world, where popular support for Hizbollah is strong. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have been depicted by many as cheering Israel’s attempt to destroy the guerrillas from the sidelines.
“It is difficult for them because public opinion is so supportive of Hizbollah,” the diplomat said.
Most Arabs see Israel, which does not want to return all of the Arab territories it seized in a 1967 Middle East war, as more of a threat than Iran, whose help is welcomed. The Saudi official said Israel has no imperial ambitions, Iran does.
U.S.-allied Arab governments have been worrying about Iran since 2003 when Iraqi Shi’ites began to rise to power. Jordan’s King Abdallah talked of a “Shi’ite crescent” reaching Lebanon.
A U.S.-based Saudi analyst said the fears were overplayed. “It seems that the Saudis will likely continue to spend on the most modern weaponry, regardless of whether this Iranian-led Shi’ite crescent is real or not,” he said, requesting anonymity.