The Middle East's game of drones

Analysis - Drone proliferation MENA
10 min read
04 July, 2022

While Middle Eastern countries have traditionally been among the world’s greatest importers of weapons, many are now increasingly developing their own indigenous military industries.

This has been especially noticeable in the field of drone production, which within just a few years has fundamentally changed the geopolitical landscape while also reengineering dynamics on regional battlefields.

Many powers in the region have realised that low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may be the most effective response to both accumulated security challenges and economic constraints.

Non-state actors have also discovered the huge destabilising potential of drones, which has enabled them to narrow the qualitative and quantitative gap against the nation-states they are fighting.

Israel and Turkey have emerged as undisputed regional leaders in domestic drone production.

"Many powers in the region have realised that low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may be the most effective response to both accumulated security challenges and economic constraints"

According to Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Israel has been one of the top ten global arms exporters since the 1980s and remains a leader in uncrewed systems, whether UAVs, suicide drones, or precision-guided missiles.  

“Other states may not openly say that they consider Israel as an example in this regard, but I suspect that behind closed doors they do,” he told The New Arab.

Turkey has been another successful state in terms of domestic drone capabilities, with many countries in the region and beyond trying to emulate Ankara’s success. The Bayraktar TB2 has become the best-selling drone in history and has been successfully used on a large scale in Syria and Libya, as well as by Azerbaijan and Ukraine.

Many countries in the region are therefore trying to create their own defence sectors and reduce the pressure on budgets by being able to produce domestic equipment and support allies across the region.

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For nearly four decades, Iran has been manufacturing its own drones and has been exporting them or their replicas to its proxies across the region. This includes Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq comprised of largely Shia militias.

Hampered by international sanctions, Iran's air force has been crippled for decades, but the development of drone production has given it a much-needed boost in catching up with its regional rivals.

Two major IRGC-affiliated companies- Quds Aerospace Industries and Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries (HESA) - have been developing a series of drones, such as the Mohajer.

Tehran claims that its latest model, Mohajer-6, has a range of up to 200km and a 12-hour flight time, and is equipped with electro-optical detectors and laser-guided missiles that can track, intercept, and destroy targets.

Moreover, the IRGC's arsenal includes a large fleet of advanced drones, including the "suicide drone", or Shahed-136, with a purported range of 2,500 km. The Waeed drone, which is similar to the Shahed-136, has reportedly been used by the Houthis, as well as replicas of other Iranian drones.

Iran has also expanded its drone production abroad by opening a factory in Tajikistan’s Dushanbe in May. According to reports, the facility will produce Iran’s HESA Ababil-2, which can function as a surveillance drone or a loitering munition, also known as a kamikaze or “suicide” drone.

Variants of the Ababil-2, the Qasef-1 and Qasef-2K, have been widely used by the Houthis in Yemen, in attacks against Saudi Arabia.

However, according to Wezeman, while Iran “claims that it has a substantial UAV industry, it does not seem that the Iranian UAVs are very advanced.” 

Due to global arms export restrictions and sanctions, Iran has limited options in terms of who they could sell their drones to, with Ethiopia a notable exception, according to Wim Zwijnenburg, the Humanitarian Disarmament Project Leader for the Dutch peace organisation PAX.

Israel and Turkey have emerged as undisputed regional leaders in domestic drone production. [Getty]

Arab states

High tensions and geographic proximity to Iran have forced Gulf countries, primarily the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to respond by developing their own military capabilities.

Wezeman observes that both have invested heavily in acquiring technology and expertise from abroad to establish their own arms industries, in which precision-guided weapons and different types of UAVs play an important role.

The UAE is known to have acquired such technology from South Africa (in particular also relying on exports from South Africa), while Saudi Arabia has relied on technology from China and Turkey.

However, the Abraham Accords and the normalisation of Abu Dhabi’s relations with Tel Aviv have opened a new window of opportunity for the UAE.  In the past few years, the UAE and Israel have established fruitful cooperation resulting in collaboration between the UAE's Edge and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) on the development of a completely autonomous counter-UAV system.

"Non-state actors have also discovered the huge destabilising potential of drones, which has enabled them to narrow the qualitative and quantitative gap against the nation-states they are fighting"

In 2020, the UAE presented its first locally-made drone, the Garmousha, at the Umex exhibition. This vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drone, designed by Adasi, a subsidiary of Edge, can carry payloads of up to 100 kilograms with a range of six hours of flight time and 150 kilometres. 

Although the UAE has produced a small number of military UAVs which have been used in Libya, it seems that its goal is to take on a larger role in the future drone market. 

Saudi Arabia has similar ambitions, especially after Iranian drone attacks on the Saudi Aramco oil processing facility at Abqaiq in 2019 and a series of attacks undertaken by Yemen’s Houthis. The attacks forced Riyadh to take immediate measures to develop its drone and anti-drone capabilities.  

Although Saudi Arabia (as well as the UAE) has long relied on Chinese drones such as the Wing Loong I and II, in recent years Riyadh has rapidly developed its own domestic capabilities. As a result, Saudi conglomerate INTRA Defence Technologies recently unveiled its newest UCAV, the Samoom.   

Moreover, despite years of cold relations between Ankara and Riyadh the two countries have recently improved their relations, resulting in the announcement that Saudi Arabia is interested in acquiring Turkish armed drones.

Saudi Arabia’s two manufacturers, Intra Defense Technologies and Advanced Electronics Company, have secured the license from the Turkish Vestel Savunma and have already started co-production of the Turkish-made long-endurance Karayel-SU drone.

Smaller-scale attempts at indigenisation have also been noticeable in Egypt, which last year presented the Noot tactical UAV and the Thebes-30, a combat drone designed by the local firm Industrial Complex Engineering Robots. The same company already produces the EJune-30, a licensed copy of the Emirati-designed Yabhon Flash 20.

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The Middle East as a future drone production hub?

With the rise in domestic drone production, it could seem that the Middle East is on track to become a major global producer in the future.

“There are few serious technological barriers to other Middle Eastern states setting up their own UAV development and manufacturing industries, but the global market may not have a huge amount of space for additional competitors,” Justin Bronk, a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and editor of RUSI Defence Systems, told The New Arab.

“Between China, the US (for those allowed to purchase US-made armed UAVs), Israel and Turkey, there is already a fairly crowded market space with existing manufacturers and product lines.”

Even if Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel become or remain significant suppliers of UAVs, the actual value of UAVs is not that high. 

“Key Turkish UAV producer Baykar reported that in 2020 it exported $360 million in UCAV systems and that in in 2021 it earned more than 80% of its revenues from exports,” Wezeman said.

“Based on that we can assume that the companies’ total revenue is probably around $500 million in 2021 and possibly could increase in 2022.”

So, while the technological edge for combat drones is still very much on the side of the US and other major producers, the growing industrial capacities and rapid proliferation of parts, components, and expertise from various Middle Eastern countries are creating fierce competition with the US.

The use of military drones has already lowered the threshold for the use of lethal force. [Getty]

Consequences of rapid drone proliferation

The rapid proliferation of drones will bring additional challenges to security in the region. Military drones, both combat and loitering munitions, have provided states and non-state actors with improved precision strike capabilities.

This has resulted, according to Zwijnenburg, in the increase of extrajudicial killings in the case of the US, Israel, and Turkey against alleged militant groups, the targeting of critical infrastructure (such as the Houthis and Iran are doing in Saudi Arabia), or the use of kamikaze drones to target US bases in Iraq, as seen by various Iran-backed militias.

Other non-state actors are also using commercial drones armed with explosives to strike military targets - the PKK in Turkey or Syrian rebels against the Hmeimem base in Latakia – while an assassination attempt against the Iraqi prime minister was carried out with commercial drones. 

With the widespread availability of drones, Zwijnenburg says that states and non-state actors can now precisely hit targets that are normally protected with a security perimeter on the ground. Drones are often low-cost and high-impact and are a valuable asset.

“Relatively simple drones have provided certain armed groups with the possibility to attack targets deep in the territory of their opponents, as best illustrated with the use of drones by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Wezeman told The New Arab.

However, the rapid spread of drones brings a whole new plethora of risks. The use of military drones has already lowered the threshold for the use of lethal force and provided states with a persistent presence in the sky and the ability to strike suspected militants in areas where they had limited access before.

“This resulted in an uptick of targeted killings in particular in Syria and Iraq, without any legal justification, and risks undermining international legal principles guiding the use of lethal force outside armed conflicts,” Zwijnenburg told The New Arab. “Such strikes also have resulted in civilian casualties, without any accountability and reparation provided to victims.”

The rapid spread of drone technology also makes it easier for states and non-state armed groups to assemble military-grade drones and use them against sensitive targets, including individuals and critical civilian infrastructure.

"Relatively simple drones have provided certain armed groups with the possibility to attack targets deep in the territory of their opponents"

Boosting local industries

Despite many uncertainties resulting from the uncontrolled proliferation of drones in the region, some analysts claim that local production can have some positive effects. Setting up indigenous production in Middle Eastern states may reduce their dependence on Western products and employ a highly-skilled workforce while creating a whole new sector of the industry.

Zwijnenburg thinks that the boost in defence spending on drones will bring more employment to countries in the region if they are able to develop education systems that train engineers, hence the drive by states to corner a part of the global UAV market. The options are limited, however, with only Israel and Turkey being able to offer cutting-edge drones that have proved their effectiveness.

In a similar vein, Wezeman observes that while regional states may indeed become somewhat less dependent on arms imports, drones by themselves are not considered anywhere near to being the core element of military capability.

Actual revenues of drone sales are “very unlikely to at any time constitute a significant share of GDP or total import revenues for countries like the UAE or Saudi Arabia,” he said.

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Countries may use the development of a drone industry to keep military spending at home and thus support the creation of a more advanced indigenous industry. “It remains questionable if such investments are a sensible approach to diversify the economy or if there are other tech sectors, such as renewable energy, that could give a higher return on investment,” Wezeman said. 

There are also political and economic costs related to indigenous drone production and states could face reputational damage if their drones are involved in military operations that kill civilians, as was the case during Ethiopia’s Tigray war where Turkish drones were involved in strikes against refugee camps.

It could also backfire in terms of escalatory consequences where states can also become a target. Israel has assassinated drone experts from Iran and bombed Iranian drone factories, for example.

Lastly, the growing drone market and the rise in demand need to be monitored by an international process on developing proper standards for the export and subsequent use of military drones, to ensure they don’t end up in the wrong hands.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence.