Which Country Spends Most Per Person On Defense? It Might Not Be The One You Think
For the defense industry, there are few better customers than Middle East states. Many of them have deep pockets and even those that don’t are still willing to spend heavily. For their governments, buying military equipment is both a way to gain advantage over regional opponents and, just as importantly, lock in the support of global powers who like to see their own defense firms win big contracts.
Military spending by governments in the Middle East and North Africa fell slightly last year, however. Among the 14 countries for which there are reliable data, expenditure was down 4.4% to $175 billion, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think-tank which included the data in its latest Military Balance report, released on 14 February. That bucked the global trend of defense spending rising 4%.
Even so, by some measures Middle East governments continue to lead the world. Across the region, countries spend more than 5% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on troops and armaments, far more than the next highest spending region, North America (where it is just over 3%).
One, often-overlooked country stands out in particular.
Oman, which recently saw power change hands for the first time in 50 years with the appointment of Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al Said as ruler, spends more per capita on its military than any other country, at just over $2,500 per person. It also spends more as a percentage of GDP than any other country, at almost 12%.
Oman is a fairly quiet country in a tricky corner of the region. It shares a border with Yemen, which has been beset by war for years. Just across the waters of the Gulf of Oman lies Iran, which remains locked in dispute with the U.S. and others. Its border with the UAE was only finalized in the early years of this century through a number of deals and concerns remain about the strategic intentions of both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh towards the sultanate.
But Muscat has worked hard to ensure it is not drawn into regional disputes. Under the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, it carved out a role for itself as a mediator. Among the most notable successes was the contacts it facilitated between the U.S. and Iran in the last decade which ultimately led to the 2015 nuclear deal. President Donald Trump may have subsequently torn up that deal, but senior Omani officials continue to regularly meet their Iranian counterparts and have not given up on the idea that Iran and the U.S. might start talking to each other once again.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, Oman’s minister responsible for foreign affairs Yousef bin Alawi bin Abdullah said “We keep contacts with the United States and Iran as part of our relations with the two countries. We feel that it is possible for the two to engage in dialogue.”
Oman has also had unusually public contacts with Israel. While many Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have been edging closer to Israel in recent years – having found a common cause in their dislike and fear of Iran – only Oman has hosted a visit by Israel’s Prime Minister, with Benjamin Netanyahu calling in to Muscat in 2018.
Oman is also well placed to help foster peace in Yemen. It has hosted some Houthi rebel leaders for many years in Muscat and used the contacts it has with the group to secure the release of some foreigners they held. Oman also has a strategic bond with the other main combatant, Saudi Arabia, with both being members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The new sultan is expected to continue to position Oman as a friend to all, enemy to none. If defense spending is any indicator, another guiding philosophy for the authorities in Muscat is to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Over the past decade the Omani government has signed defense deals worth more than $6.5 billion, covering the acquisition of a dozen F-16 fighter jets and the same number of Eurofighter Typhoon jets, as well as Hercules transport aircraft, maritime patrol aircraft, short-range surface-to-air missiles and offshore patrol boats.
For a small country, with an economy equivalent in size to that of West Virginia, these are significant purchases, particularly given the relatively small size of its armed forces – Oman has some 42,600 active personnel according to IISS. Many of them are drawn from the Baluchistan region of Pakistan, due to historical links between the two.
According to IISS, Oman’s heavy spending per capita on defense has given it “small but capable armed forces” with “modern but modest equipment.” It has close security ties with the U.S. and even closer ones with the UK. In 2018, Muscat and London signed a deal to set up a new joint training base in Oman and a joint defense agreement was signed in February 2019. Analysts in London view Oman as the UK’s closest military ally in the region.
Many of Oman’s neighbors also spend heavily on defense. Saudi Arabia devotes a little over 10% of GDP to defense. Overall, seven of the top ten countries worldwide, when measured by military spending as a proportion of GDP, are from the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraq, Algeria, Israel, Kuwait and Jordan.
And the top four countries worldwide in terms of defense spending per capita are from the region, with Oman followed in the table by Saudi Arabia, Israel and Kuwait. The U.S. is fifth overall, spending $2,063 per person.
These figures may in fact understate the case for the Middle East, as data is missing for several countries such as Qatar and the UAE which have small populations but large military budgets – the IISS says the last year there were reliable estimates for the UAE’s defense spending was 2014.
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