The Middle East is experiencing a seismic shift in its geopolitics: the dawn of the era of drones. From Syria to Libya and from Yemen to Iraq, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have altered the dynamics on the battlefield. Turkey and Iran expanded low-cost, domestic UAV production, allowing Ankara and Tehran to advance their foreign policy agenda despite economic constraints. In response, Arab nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are rapidly developing their own UAV fleets. Non-state actors are another big winner in the drone revolution, as they gain the capability to deploy new tactics and strategies against nation-states. Agile and affordable, drones aren't just a menace to remote conflict zones, but also to states far removed from theaters of war.
The drone revolution
In the 2010s, UAVs emerged as cheap weapons with enormous destabilizing potential. For many non-Western state and non-state actors, drones made the cost of influencing geopolitics dramatically less expensive. State actors combine drones with advanced intelligence; surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR); and electronic warfare capabilities to overwhelm the air defense systems of their enemies. For instance, Azerbaijan successfully used its Turkish- and Israeli-made drone arsenal to break the stalemate in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, gaining an advantage over Armenia. Non-state actors, such as the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, utilize drone technology to advance their political agendas and battlefield strategies. For example, the Houthis launched a drone attack deep inside the UAE in January 2022 in retaliation for advances by UAE-backed forces against Houthi-held territory in Yemen. While the Houthi drone attack caused limited physical damage, it underscored the Houthis’ prowess in asymmetrical warfare and undermined the UAE's reputation as an oasis of stability in a volatile region. Perceptions of Emirati vulnerability will ultimately impact the country’s economy and status as a trade hub.
Drones and changing regional dynamics
UAVs are not new to the Middle East. Israel first developed its drone capabilities in the 1970s, while Egypt acquired its drone fleet from Washington in the 1980s. Israel used drones in the 1982 Lebanon war, and the United States deployed them in the first and second Gulf wars, although the technology has improved considerably since then. The recent proliferation of drones, however, came as a direct consequence of the Arab Spring, as Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq became proxy battlefields for international and regional rivals. Simply put, drone warfare and the concomitant arms race have resulted in changes to decades-old military power dynamics. The Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) estimated that Middle Eastern powers (excluding Israel) spent at least $1.5 billion on military drones over the last five years.
The rise of Turkey as a drone superpower
Turkey is perhaps the most successful country in the Middle East when it comes to employing drones, integrating them into its military operations on a large scale to advance its ambitions across a range of strategic theaters from Syria and Libya to Azerbaijan. Because of its economic troubles, Turkey has preferred relatively cost-efficient, domestically produced UAVs over a conventional military footprint to pursue the strategic objectives of its active foreign policy. The Turkish Armed Forces mastered air warfare operations in Libya, Syria, and Azerbaijan by deploying its flagship UAVs, the Bayraktar TB2 and TAI Anka-S, in conjunction with the KORAL long-range electronic warfare systems (EWS). The TB2 can stay aloft for 24 hours and has a ceiling altitude of about 25,000 feet. Weather permitting, a remote pilot can fly the drone from as far away as 185 miles away. Turkey’s strategy neutralized air defense systems, such as the Russian Pantsir, allowing the drones to gain air superiority, as seen most dramatically in Libya and Syria. In Ukraine, Kyiv began receiving shipments of the Turkish-made drones in 2019 and has been using their high-powered cameras to view the battlefield and laser-correct artillery strikes. The Ukrainian Air Force has confirmed that its forces have made several successful strikes against convoys of Russian military vehicles using Turkish-made drones.
The drones from Tehran
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Tehran has focused on building up its military capabilities, and drones are no exception. Because Tehran has been consistently hampered by international sanctions and lacked a modern air force in the years following the revolution, drones have provided a critical boost to Iran’s air power and that of its regional proxies, such as Hezbollah and the Houthis. Over the decades, Iran ramped up UAV production for both surveillance and offensive operations. The expansion of Iran’s drone capabilities coincided with their integration into Tehran’s military strategy across the Middle East. Iran also equipped its regional proxies such as Hezbollah, the Houthis, and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) with Iranian-made drones in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Iranian drone designs offered the requisite know-how for Tehran's proxies to construct their own drone capabilities, which integrated Iranian designs, Chinese wiring, and commercial cameras, sensors, and engines from international manufacturers.
The response from Arab powers
With Turkish and Iranian UAV fleets undermining the strategic posture of the Arab states, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have all been developing their own UAV fleets and anti-drone capabilities.
The UAE: A drone success story
Because of the UAE’s geographic location in the Arabian Gulf facing Iran, its battle against the Houthis in Yemen, and its involvement in Libya, Abu Dhabi has focused on building robust, dynamic military capabilities. Drawing on technological knowledge, strong finances, and growing military and security partnerships, the UAE built a vigorous drone industry that provides Abu Dhabi with regional strategic depth. In this effort, the UAE has looked to China as a reliable supplier of drone technology. For instance, in 2011, the UAE bought five Wing Loong I drones from Beijing and procured the Wing Loong II in 2017. Abu Dhabi also purchased 500 Blue Arrow-7 missiles to arm the Wing Loong II drones, which appeared on battlefields in Libya and Yemen.
The UAE’s status as a tech hub allowed the Emirates to develop commercial drone systems that eventually fed into the UAE’s military drone buildup. The UAE prioritizes drone technology and has launched several non-military initiatives to aid its development, such as the UAE Drones for Good Award, which has attracted over 1,800 participants from around the world.
The Abraham Accords have opened new horizons for the UAE tech industry, especially when it comes to drones. Israel helped Abu Dhabi close the drone gap with Turkey. With a robust homegrown sector, Israel has been at the forefront of the drone industry since the 1980s, becoming the world's largest exporter of this technology, and securing agreements with global and regional powers such as Azerbaijan, the U.K., France, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Spain, and India. Fearful of Turkish and Iranian drones, the UAE and Israel have worked jointly to develop UAV fleets. UAE's Edge and Israel Aerospace Industries have committed to collaborating on the development of a completely autonomous counter-UAV system "supported by 3D radar, communications intelligence technology, and electro-optics integrated into a unified command-and-control system."
Following the signing of the Abraham Accords, the UAE and Israel are now building a tech coalition that will utilize their respective comparative advantages: Israel's leadership in drone and anti-drone technology and the UAE's financial heft and competence in scaling tech capabilities.
Saudi Arabia: Vision 2030 and geopolitics meet drones
The recent Saudi penetration into the drone industry stems from Vision 2030 and the geopolitical threats to the kingdom. Technology is central to Vision 2030's objectives of economic growth and diversification. The kingdom has prioritized investment in tech and the development of commercial drones, which will help Riyadh compete with the UAE and position itself as a rising tech hub. Specifically, Saudi Arabia's Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) is working on heavy-lift drone design, production, and operation. The kingdom intends to assist international transport operators as well as shape the industry's regulatory structures.
The Iranian drone attacks on the Saudi Aramco oil processing facility at Abqaiq in 2019 alerted Riyadh to the danger of drones and the immediate need to develop drone and anti-drone capabilities. Following years of geopolitical tensions with Turkey, Ankara announced that Riyadh wanted to buy Turkish armed UAVs, which had previously contributed to military victories in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Under license from Turkey's Vestel Savunma, two Saudi manufacturers, Intra Defense Technologies and Advanced Electronics Company, have begun co-producing a Turkish-made, medium-altitude, long-endurance Karayel-SU drone. The move is part of a Saudi drive to establish a local drone industry by leveraging Turkish drone capabilities. Two Saudi companies have struck deals to co-produce and further develop the Sky Guard drone for operational deployment. Riyadh’s financial clout and alliances will help it achieve its goal of developing home-grown drones.
Egypt: Indigenous capabilities in the making
Following the transition in power in 2013, Cairo rebuilt its military capabilities, with a focus on increasing the readiness of the armed forces. Even though Cairo lacks the Gulf states’ financial capabilities, Egypt has dedicated considerable resources to acquiring much-needed military equipment. For instance, Cairo bought two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships — originally built for Moscow — from France and is rumored to have procured Sukhoi Su-35s from Russia.
Egypt took notice of the Turkish intervention in Libya, where Ankara flexed its muscles through the use of drones to the benefit of the Tripoli-based government. Under threat from Turkish drones stationed close to Egyptian soil, Cairo realized that its UAV capabilities have evolved slower than those of other Middle Eastern powers. Egypt is well-positioned to improve its drone capabilities through a hybrid approach: acquiring the needed UAVs from different producers while finding partners prepared to furnish Cairo with existing designs to support Egyptian drone manufacture.
Egypt, for example, expanded its drone capabilities by purchasing Chinese drones like the ASN-209 reconnaissance UAV in addition to U.S.-made reconnaissance drones. Beijing also sold Cairo Wing Loong I unmanned combat aerial vehicles. Egypt and China collaborated on adapting the Wing Loong I to Cairo's counter-terrorism strategy in Sinai, equipping it to detect and track moving vehicles as well as improvised explosive devices and roadside mines. Egypt also benefited from the UAE’s drone success story, as the Egyptian Navy has purchased the UAE-built al-Saber UAV.
To keep up with the emerging regional drone powers, mainly Turkey, Cairo decided to produce its own drone fleet domestically. Cairo secured manufacturing licenses for reconnaissance and combat drones from partners and allies. For example, Egypt secured designs from Belarus and was in talks with Italy. At the 2021 Egypt Defence Expo, Cairo revealed its first locally manufactured reconnaissance drone. Named “ Nut” after the ancient Egyptian goddess of the sky, the drone is the result of Emirati-Egyptian co-production. Cairo also revealed the June-30 SW, which is likely adapted from the UAE-produced Yabhon United 40 and thus indicates a growing strategic partnership between Cairo and Abu Dhabi in UAV production. Egypt is developing a third indigenous drone, the Thebes-30 UAV, for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.
In the meantime, Cairo will maintain its focus on developing a robust drone industry that could make Egypt a drone power capable, like Iran and Turkey, of projecting power in various strategic theaters in the Middle East.
Regional proliferation of drones
Regional powers are increasingly employing drone technology. Military strategies are adapting and are likely to involve a mix of state-of-the-art, foreign-made UAVs and locally produced UAV fleets. In an interview with the Middle East Institute on Feb. 8, 2021, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie cautioned against the spread of low-cost unmanned aerial systems by state and non-state actors. Drones, however, are here to stay and will continue to affect military dynamics and strategic hierarchies in the Middle East and elsewhere. In many cases, non-state actors have now gained drone capabilities that are strong enough to impose strategic decisions on state actors. The Houthi attacks on the UAE are a prime example of these new dynamics. Nation-states in the region should establish a governance regime that sets standards for the use of drones and the transfer of drone technology to non-state actors that aim to destabilize the region.
Mohammed Soliman is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI's Cyber and Egypt programs and a Senior Associate at McLarty Associates’ Middle East and North Africa Practice. His work focuses on the intersection of technology, geopolitics, and business in MENA. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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