It’s becoming clear that Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have stepped up their defense spending in recent years. Uncertainty creates perceptions of risk, and perceptions of risk lead to responses aimed at reducing that risk. That’s why arms spending is an incomplete but very concrete way of tracking a state’s real assessment of threats and priorities. Iraq is no longer a missile/WMD threat, but Iran’s ballistic missiles are another matter. They may be based on North Korean designs that lack accuracy, but the prospect of nuclear payloads is producing reactions.
Gulf states recognize that even a lucky conventional missile could wreak havoc if it hit key oil-related infrastructure, or damaged the larger and more nebulous target of business confidence. The spread of nuclear weapons would change the calculus completely. A 2007 US National Intelligence Assessment [redacted NIE summary, PDF] believed that Iran’s nuclear program had stopped, but others, including the United Nations and Israel, were more skeptical. By 2010, that skepticism had spread to US intelligence, which repudiated an assessment that seems set to join the infamous 1962 NIE of no Soviet missiles in Cuba .
The Gulf states’ response to these developments covers a range of equipment, but anti-ballistic missile capabilities appear to be rising to the top of the priority list.