Global Policy Forum

US Escalates ME Arms Race


By Dominic Moran

International Security Network
July 31, 2007

A US military package for allied Middle East states is designed to create a de facto Sunni Arab front against Iran as the region slips deeper into crisis.

A high-level US delegation will hold talks with foreign ministers from allied Arab states in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday on a planned military package for allied Middle East states.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is being joined for two legs of her Middle East tour by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, told reporters that the proffered package was a continuation of pre-existing relationships and was designed to bolster US allies in the Persian Gulf. From Sharm, Gates and Rice fly to Jeddah for talks with Saudi officials on the package. Saudi forces are expected to receive the bulk of the arms package with subsidized purchases, projected to top US$20 billion. Egypt is also expected to receive US$13 billion over the next decade. Despite Rice's efforts to paint the intended arms sales as a bid to maintain a "balance" of forces in the region, it is clear that the US grant is intended to bolster the US arms industry.

US companies already enjoy a dominant market position, with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reporting that "40 US firms accounted for 63 percent of the combined Top 100 arms sales of $290 billion in 2005." The oil-rich Gulf is a particular focus for major arms exporters at present due to the perceived need for a rapid military expansion on the part of Gulf states, in light of the purported threat posed by Iran.

One of the primary intended beneficiaries of the package, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) exemplifies the challenges facing the US arms industry in the region. While an established relationship exists through deals such as the 1999 agreement for the purchase of 80 F-16s, the UAE has moved to build a significant domestic arms industry and diversify its supplier base, making significant arms purchases from the UK, France and Russia since the mid-1990s. In February, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) announced the Emirati purchase of three A330 MRTT air-to-air refueling aircraft in a clear sign that the UAE Air Force is looking to build the capacity to project force into the northern Gulf and, if necessary, over Iraq. The current US offer appears to include promises of advanced weapons systems that would be a strong incentive for the UAE to premise future arms buys on US weapons platforms. The UAE has stronger diplomatic, cultural and economic ties with Iran than other Gulf states, and the US would also likely see the weapons offer as a means to draw the Emiratis away from this association.

The Bush administration's cash injection into allied Gulf state militaries, which is likely accompanied by strong behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure, can also be seen as an effort to curb growing Russian and Chinese influence in the regional conventional arms trade, civilian infrastructure development and nuclear plans. The US package has been accepted as a fait accompli by the Israeli government in a fundamental reversal of past Israeli foreign policy. Israeli acquiescence was bought with a 25 percent boost in the annual US military aid grant to US$3 billion, and constitutes an Israeli recognition of a shift in US regional priorities away from the Israel-Palestinian crisis to protecting its strategic interests in the Gulf following the eventual withdrawal of troops from Iraq. While this is not stated publicly, Israel and US-allied Arab states have been drawn together by the perceived mutual threat of the growth of Iranian influence and by the efflorescence of Sunni militant groups, and related strengthening of political Islam in Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert allegedly held talks with prominent Saudi diplomat Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud in Sharm el-Sheikh in October. Bandar is a former Saudi ambassador to the US and is thought to be a close ally of Bush, endorsing his presidential candidacy in 2004. He is understood to be one of the leaders of the strongly anti-compromise line in the kingdom's dealings with Iran. The prince heads the influential National Security Council and was involved in the 1985 "al-Yamamah" deal in which British Aerospace allegedly paid agreed to pay over US$2 billion into embassy accounts controlled by the prince in return for an US$80 billion arms deal.

There are growing concerns in the US regarding the close strategic relationship with the Saudis. In a Monday interview with CNN, former US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad sought to play down remarks he made the day before accusing Saudi Arabia of playing a destabilizing role in Iraq while noting that "In terms of Iraq [.] the region would benefit from a more enhanced Saudi cooperation toward stabilizing the situation." Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, who will introduce a resolution to block the package, told the Washington Post that "despite the fact that the administration has done everything to portray them [Saudi Arabia] as part of the moderate Arab world, members of Congress of both parties are increasingly skeptical."

While muted, US criticism of the weapons and monetary offer raises the fundamental issue of whether the deal and the significant rise in large-scale military aid for Egypt and Israel contributes to the escalation of tensions in the Gulf and wider region. It is clear that these tensions have a major impact on the global economy, with crude prices spiking in recent months on supply concerns, and that an escalation in tensions in the Gulf, where US-led and Iranian naval forces are already locked in a tense standoff, is not in the interests of US regional allies.

It is also becoming apparent that the linkage previously made, if sporadically, by the Bush administration between democratic and civil reform and the provision of military aid has been largely forgotten. A June congressional decision to withhold US$200 million in annual military grants to Egypt over the suppression of the political opposition is effectively reversed by the intended rise in the military stipend. Ultimately, the planned military package will serve to undermine the authority of recipient Arab governments, which are already seen as US toadies by significant sections of their citizenry, while encouraging the increased involvement of neighboring states in the Iraq civil war and the bleeding of these tensions into the Gulf.

Despite the adamant opposition of recipient governments, it is clear that the military package is designed to create a de facto Sunni Arab front against Iran as the region slips deeper into crisis.

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