Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Gulf arms buying: old wine in new bottles

The Daily Star
Tuesday September 27 2010
By Michael Glackin

Head for the caves. It appears that an “unprecedented arms race” is under way in the Middle East as oil-rich Gulf states embark on what The Financial Times has called “one of the largest re-armament exercises in peacetime history.” Apparently, Gulf states, alarmed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, are stumping up more than $120 billion over the next four years in a move that will also “generate fear in Israel.”

The catalyst for the doom laden headlines was the news that the United States is selling $67 billion worth of aircraft and military hardware to Saudi Arabia. In what is the largest US arms sale of its kind, Saudi Arabia has agreed to pay $30 billion up front for fighter jets and helicopters, with the balance following at an undisclosed date. Meanwhile the United Arab Emirates is set to splash out $35 billion on mainly US made military hardware, closely followed by Oman, which is poised to spend $12 billion and Kuwait which is spending $7 billion.

Back in 1975, the late US senator, Edward Kennedy, warned of a “major arms race in the Persian Gulf,” and called for a moratorium on US military sales to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. At that time those three nations accounted for more than 75 percent of America’s total arms sales of $8 billion. Washington was accused of trying to buy influence with Iran and Saudi Arabia to combat the sharp increase in oil prices as OPEC’s Arab members used the “oil weapon” in the aftermath of October War, precipitating the mid-70s energy crisis in the West.

There was also a sharp increase in Middle East arms sales in 1991, in the wake of the first Gulf War and periodic arms build ups ever since.

Why is this arms race any different?

Well in reality it isn’t. Most observers have highlighted the threat posed to the region by Iran, but that threat has been present for many years. In reality the latest round of purchases stem from an internal shake out of military capacity as cash-rich Gulf states update their hardware for a new era that includes not only the problem posed by Iran’s growing strength, but the increasing threat of domestic terrorist attacks.

Respected defense expert Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told me last week that this kind of arms build up is cyclical. “Everyone keeps talking about the ‘arms deal of the century’ but it never is. Iran is not a new threat; it has been the driving force behind Saudi planning since 1981. The current purchases will have a deterrent impact on Iran but remember that as part of these purchases Saudi Arabia is getting the mobility to deal with complex tactical environments such as the Yemeni border, or a terrorist attack on one of its energy facilities. The Red Sea area and the Indian Ocean are also becoming more unstable. There is no one driving factor in all this.”

It is worth pointing out that the deals, which still have to be approved by the US Congress, represent a coup for the administration of President Barack Obama. The Saudi deal alone will protect the jobs of around 80,000 American defense industry workers as Obama heads into crucial mid-term Congressional elections. From seeking to buy influence to keep oil prices low in the 1970s, America now wants recycled petrodollars to support its beleaguered blue collar workers.

That said, it is also impossible to ignore the concerns with Tehran’s increasing bellicosity. While no one would ever go overboard in stressing cooperation between the Gulf states, regional arms sales have accelerated in unison since Iran embarked on a series of high-profile missile tests in recent years. A large chunk of the money being spent over the next four years is for missile defense systems.

And apart from guaranteeing American jobs, the deals also underline Washington’s determination to support its regional allies against both Iran – after Obama’s ill fated “back passage” strategy yielded little – and the continuing threat posed by a myriad fundamentalist terror groups. To this end, Washington is arguably looking to provide the kind of cover to the Middle East or, more accurately, to friendly Gulf states and of course Israel, that it provided to Western Europe during the Cold War – only this time at something akin to a cash profit.

It is also worth pointing out that the military hardware finding its way to Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, though vastly superior to Iran’s current arsenal, remains short of the sophistication and power that the US is sending to Israel. Cordesman points out that Washington has not offered Saudi Arabia the systems that enable advanced long-range weapons to be attached to the F-15 fighters it is buying. Israel is also set to buy a number of F-35s, a much more advanced fighter jet.

Such imbalances make a nonsense of talks of “an arms race.” But more importantly the current spending spree does nothing to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Right now the real problem facing the Middle East is the increasing likelihood that Israel will do to Iran what it did in 1981 to Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor – before Tehran’s nuclear facilities are active enough for an attack to cause radiation leakage that might cause widespread harm to civilians. Time is fast running out in this race.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star

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