Arabian Arms

According to the popular press, Saudi Arabia is a country run by a royal family who murder reporters, flog drinkers and adulterers and bribe UK defence contractors.

A more measured tone reveals that Saudi Arabia is an oil-rich, middle-eastern country, one-fifth the size of the US. Bordered by Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

Its population of 33.4 million are young with an average age just under 30 years and approximately one-third of the population are foreign nationals, principally guest workers.  85 per cent of its citizens are estimated to be Sunni and the balance Shiite.

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy and was established in 1932 by King Abd-al-Aziz whose sons followed him as rulers.  King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ascended the throne four years ago, following the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah. Saudi’s economy is dominated by oil.  The country is estimated to hold 22 per cent of the world’s reserves, second largest reserves in the world after the Venezuela. However while their proven reserves are smaller than those of Venezuela, all of Saudi’s oil is conventionally accessible within large oil fields.

This has created a GDP of some $500 billion. Power and wealth is concentrated in Saudi Arabia; King Salman has a net worth estimated at $17 billion. The net worth of the entire royal family has been estimated at well over $1.4 trillion and the richest single individual, a member of the royal family, is thought to be Prince Al-Waleed who had a net worth of $20.4 billion in 2014.

From the 1960s, funded by the country’s huge oil revenues, the Saudi economy boomed until the 1990s. Unemployment was almost non-existent, guest workers proliferated and income per capita was among the highest in the world. However, oil price stagnation in 1990s and large investments in education, healthcare and infrastructure and a booming birth rate created a fall in real terms in income per capita.

Today, Saudi Arabia still is dealing with volatile and much lower world oil prices and its recent budget looks to continue, what many would consider, an unsuccessful attempt to diversify its economy with a seven per cent increase in state spending. Historically, the country’s climate and shortage of water has surely contributed to its inability to attract large scale manufacturing.

Some would submit that the country’s endemic addiction to patronage and nepotism has been a larger factor in stifling the economy and the country’s inability to diversify. For many years, visas have required a letter of invitation. Also, travel can be restricted and certainly, Mecca and Medina are off limits for non-believers.

My own experience in travelling in Saudi Arabia is that once ‘outside’ the auspice of a powerful wealthy companion, bureaucracy increases and roadblocks can appear in the simplest of circumstances. It becomes a difficult place to do business. From the perspective of the gun trade, private ownership of firearms place Saudi Arabia in 17th place in the world rankings.

The estimated total number of guns held illegally and with licences by civilians in Saudi Arabia, was estimated at nearly 5.5 million, some 500,000 less than ten years ago.  While are there are background checks and legal procedures required in order to own firearms in Saudi Arabia, handguns can be possessed and can be carried in public. Automatic weapons can be owned by civilians as can rifles and shotguns.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s second largest importer of arms and is Great Britain’s largest arms customer.  It is estimated that since the beginning of the Yemen conflict, the UK has exported some £4.6 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia.  However, the murder of the US reporter, Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey at the Saudi Arabian embassy, is changing the climate for continued sales of arms to the country.

A non-binding resolution was passed in the European Parliament on 25 October 2018 urging EU countries to impose an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. Germany suspended a future arms deal with the kingdom after Angela Merkel stated that “arms exports can’t take place in the current circumstances.” The political climate and the need to find a ‘sponsor’ to help in export sales of field sports equipment, make Saudi Arabia, a difficult nut to crack.

Its close relationship with Pakistan and its much reported financing of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, does mean that a lot of care needs to be exercised when trying to find your partner and sponsor.

The best path is undoubtedly following the trade exhibition route. However, it is interesting to think that perhaps the country’s poor international image currently; its desire to expand its manufacturing base; its familiarity with guns and love of field sports; all indicate that a proposal to enter manufacturing of sporting guns could find fertile soil in Saudi Arabia, if you could identify the right partner.

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