Riyadh: No shortage of arms suppliers despite Swede decision

Riyadh: No shortage of arms suppliers despite Swede decision
8 min read
15 March, 2015
Analysis: Sweden may have ended it arms deals with Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh is not short of sellers, with weapons imported from across the globe.
Saudi Arabia has the world's fourth largest military budget (Getty)

The announcement last week that the Swedish government was not going to renew an arms deal with Saudi Arabia led to calls for other countries to follow suit.

But there seems little chance of that. IHS Jane's also reported last week that Saudi Arabia was the world's biggest importer of arms, the main reason it is doubtful any country will be following Sweden's lead any time soon. 

Here is a brief break-down of those many deals.


Only one arms deal has been signed since the year 2000 between Austria and Saudi Arabia, which saw 37 M-12 mortars delivered to Saudi Arabia in 2010.


In 2011, Saudi Arabia accounted for 29 percent of Belgium’s total arms exports, totaling €253.4 million. Since 2000, the Saudis have had a particular taste for Belgian AV turrets, with three deals concluded in 2000, 2006 and 2009.

The fact that Saudi Arabia is Belgium’s second-largest market for small-arms is slightly problematic for the European kingdom – Belgian law dictates that Brussels cannot export arms to countries that do not obey non re-export contractual clauses. The haziness that surrounds possible Saudi arming of rebels in Syria means that the Belgians might not want to ask too many questions.


The North American country has signed numerous arms deals with the Saudis since 2000. Saudi Arabia has paid for hundreds of armoured personnel carriers, taking a particular liking to the Piranha model produced by the Canadian firm General Dynamics. The APCs predominantly go to the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which serves a dual role in protecting the kingdom from external attack and as a security force inside the borders.

Despite the billions of dollars these deals have brought Canada (the latest was worth $10 billion), there has been some controversy. The Canadian government has refused to provide assurances that the Saudis would not use the APCs to put down internal dissent, something that it is required to do if the country arms being exported to has a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens". Instead, the Canadian government chose to emphasise the thousands of jobs that would be created over the 14-year length of the deal.


A deal to sell Chinese-made 54 (two battalions) PLZ-45 self-propelled howitzers to Saudi Arabia was signed in 2007, and they were delivered to Riyadh between 2008 and 2009.

Saudi Arabia is also said to have a limited ballistic missile arsenal made up of Chinese missiles, and Newsweek reported in 2014 that Saudi Arabia had purchased more ballistic missiles from the Chinese in 2007, but this has not been confirmed by either side. If true, it would be the first time China has exported ballistic missiles since a 1992 deal with Pakistan.


The Scandinavian country is not a major arms exporter, but it still managed to squeeze in a deal to sell the Saudis 36 NEMO 120mm mortar systems to Saudi Arabia in 2011. The deal, with the primarily state-owned Patria Weapons Systems, was estimated to be the third largest Finnish weapons exports deal of the 2000s.


Saudi Arabia is a key arms buyer from France, accounting for some of the biggest arms deals in French history. The Sawari-2 deal, signed in 1994 and worth $3.4 billion, saw three La Fayette-class frigates delivered to Saudi Arabia between 2002 and 2004.

Other deals signed in the 1990s saw anti-ship missiles, Cougar helicopters, surface-to-air missiles and torpedoes delivered to Saudi Arabia in the 2000s. In 2006, political framework agreements between the French and Saudi governments provided a great boost to the French arms industry, as the single biggest arms export deal signed by the French saw dozens of helicopters sold to the Saudis. The deal was reportedly worth $8.8 billion.

The Saudis have also been charitable enough to pay the French for weapons for the Lebanese army; with a $35 million deal in 2013 arming a Lebanese army wary of the ongoing conflict next door in Syria.


Germany appears to be the Saudi go-to for engines, with several deals engineered between 1998 and 2012, mostly for use in armoured personnel carriers. The Saudis have also purchased 1,400 IRIS-T missiles from Germany in 2009 and 10 Luna drones in 2010.

In 2013, the German government approved weapons deals with Saudi Arabia worth $400 million, and it was also revealed that the government approved 43 of 52 weapons deals put in front of it, allowing machine guns, ammunition and spare parts to be sold to Saudi Arabia.

The weapons deals have caused some consternation in Germany, which is the third largest arms exporter in the world, and reports in late January appeared to indicate that the country’s government would stop exports to Saudi Arabia, because the region was “too unstable”. The reports, carried in Germany’s Bild newspaper, were not confirmed nor denied by the government.


Saudi Arabia has complimented its French-made frigates with Super Rapid 76mm Naval Guns from Italy. A $150 million deal in 2001 also saw Saudi Arabia supplied with 16 Bell-412 helicopters. The Saudis also purchased Falco drones, made by the Italian firm Selex ES, in 2011.

The Netherlands

In 2008, the Dutch government said it had “a restrictive arms export policy toward Saudi Arabia, resulting from concerns regarding the human rights situation in that country”. Yet this has not stopped deals being signed, although Saudi Arabia has never been considered among the Netherlands’ most important arms export destinations.

Between 2001 and 2010 arms exports to Saudi Arabia were valued at €39 million. This included parts for armoured vehicles and a €21 2002 order for patrol boats, which was the biggest Saudi export order of the 2000s.


A $34 million deal in 2003 sent 20 MFI-17 trainer planes to Saudi Arabia, and since then there have been rumours that the Saudis would be purchasing JF-17 Thunder jets, jointly made by the Pakistanis and the Chinese, following a $1.5 billion grant made to Pakistan by Saudi Arabia in early 2014.

Possibly the most important arms deal, if it is true, is nuclear. The BBC reported in 2013 that Saudi Arabia had invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and that, if the time came, it could obtain nuclear bombs from Pakistan "at will".

South Africa

Saudi Arabia has purchased South African armoured vehicles and personnel carriers, with deals for the RG-32  Scout APV and the Mamba APC made in 2005 and 2010 respectively. The Saudis and the South Africans also jointly worked on producing the Al Kaser armoured personnel carrier. In 2011, Saudi Arabia was one of the top 10 importers of South African weapons.


The apparent refusal of Sweden to renew the memorandum of understanding between the country and Saudi Arabia means that it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will be receiving any more Saab-2000 AEW’s. Two of the planes had been bought for $670 million in 2010 and 2013, although the buyer was initially unknown.

In a related deal, the Swedes also sold Saab’s Erieye radar system to Saudi Arabia in 2010. Needless to say, Saab are not too happy about the cancellation of the Saudi-Swedish deal, and have said that they will continue to export radar equipment and sensors to Saudi Arabia, which a Saab spokesman said they are “allowed to do by law”.

The current crisis is not the first time that Swedish arms deals with Saudi Arabia have hit the headlines. Reports in 2012 that Sweden was helping Saudi Arabia to plan an advanced arms plant led to the resignation of the Swedish defence minister. All in all, the arms trade between Sweden and Saudi Arabia had brought the Swedes $550 million between 2011 and 2014.


Saudi Arabia purchased 98 Cobra armoured personnel vehicles from Turkey in 2003, as well as 10 ACV-S armoured personnel carriers in 2006. Under a deal signed between the two countries in 2007 worth $200 million, the Turks modernized Saudi armoured vehicles.


Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest arms market, and the Saudis have been buying British arms since the 1960s. The most lucrative, and controversial deal, between the British and the Saudis has been the al-Yamamah deal, signed in the mid-1980s. Al-Yamamah has generated a staggering £43 billion in revenue for BAE Systems. The Al-Yamamah deal saw advanced planes sold to Saudi Arabia, but it has been tainted by corruption – a Serious Fraud Office investigation was called off after an intervention by then Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2006.

The following year a deal to sell Typhoon jets to Saudi Arabia, in a deal eventually worth £4.4 billion, was agreed. This is part of a wider deal called Salam, which could eventually be worth £20 billion. The size of the UK-Saudi arms trade is evident in the around 240 British civil servants who work in Saudi Arabia in support of the contracts, paid for by the Saudis. All of this is despite the British Foreign Office describing Saudi Arabia as a “country of concern” because of human rights violations.


The total value of US arms deals with Saudi Arabia exceeds all the other countries in this list combined. In 2011 a $60 billion deal was signed, the largest in US history, that will include 84 F-15 fighter jets and 70 Apache helicopters. Despite the billions the deal is brining to the US economy, it was still subject to Israeli approval, according to a US government official who said that Israel did not “object” to the sale at the time of negotiations.

One of the most recent deals includes a 2014 deal for Patriot missiles, valued at $1.75 billion. The Americans have provided Saudi Arabia everything from armoured personnel carriers, anti-tank missiles, tanks, helicopters, transport planes and bombs, keeping the Saudis armed to the teeth. The Saudis may also be a conduit for US weapons to Syrian rebels, with a 2013 deal that saw Saudi Arabia purchase 15,000 anti-tank missiles raising eyebrows.