How Strong Is Saudi Arabia's Military?

With the best-equipped armed forces in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia is a major player in Middle Eastern affairs. But just how strong is its military?

Saudi Arabia has a defense budget of $76.7 billion—giving the oil-rich nation a significant advantage over its regional rivals Israel and Iran, which have respective budgets of $18.5 billion and $8 billion.

The kingdom has invested heavily in recent years and in 2014 was the world's biggest importer of defense equipment. The majority of weapons come from U.S. companies, with the U.K. and Spain in second and third place.

A 2017 arms deal with President Donald Trump saw Riyadh commit to purchasing $350 billion worth of U.S. weapons over the next 10 years.

The country has an estimated 688,000 active personnel, with 227,000 troops, 600 heavy tanks, 780 light armored vehicles and 1,423 armored troop carriers.

Saudi Arabia's navy is far less developed. The country has 55 naval assets, including seven frigates. However, with its lack of aircraft carriers or destroyers, the country's reach is limited at sea.

Its air force boasts 313 fighter jets, including American F-15 Eagles, Tornados and Eurofighter Typhoons. Saudi Arabia also has started delivering its own model of the Eagle, the F-15SA.

Pro-government Yemeni forces advance toward the port area from the eastern outskirts of Hodeida. KHALED ZIAD/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is not known to have a nuclear weapons program, with the kingdom publicly opposing nuclear weapons in the Middle East. However, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has set out plans for the nation to develop nuclear weapons if the Iran nuclear deal collapses and the Saudis' fierce rival resumes its atomic weapons program.

Saudi Arabia is conducting a proxy war with Iran in war-torn Yemen, where Riyadh is supporting the regime with airstrikes against the Tehran-backed Houthi rebels. The civil war has been raging since 2015, killing nearly 6,000 civilians and putting 22.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

Saudi Arabia's difficulties in quashing the guerrilla fighters show the nation is struggling when it comes to asymmetrical warfare. Despite such difficulties, Riyadh has been reluctant to deploy ground troops.

In response, the country has recently started shaking up its military leadership, under the crown prince's instruction. The overhaul in the ultraconservative kingdom has seen a number of changes, with women given military positions for the first time. The hope is that such measures will transform Saudi Arabia's military into a more effective fighting force and help the nation better project its power.

Even so, it is questionable if the Saudis will be able to continue their extravagant military spending in the long run, with the Gulf kingdom hoping to shift its economy away from a reliance on oil. Selling oil and buying weapons had underpinned Saudi Arabia's strong diplomatic relations with the West. If those were to falter, the kingdom could find itself struggling to exert influence in the Middle East.