Dubai 2007: Striking the balance

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Washington is aiming to be even-handed when selling arms to Israel and Arab states. But not everybody in Congress is happy with the administration’s plans

The USA set an aggressive tone for future arms sales in the region in July with the unveiling of a 10-year arms proposal worth more than $63 billion in sales and grants.

The proposal balances the delicately bi-polar nature of US interests in the region with funds distributed roughly evenly between Israel and the Arab states. Israel would have access to $30 billion to buy US-made weapons over the next decade, while Egypt would be the beneficiary of another $13 billion in direct aid.

Most reports have described the remainder as a $20 billion arms sales package for Saudi Arabia, but the public language of Bush administration officials has been more opaque.

Significantly, the arms package for the Arab states except Egypt involve sales only rather than grants or direct aid. The non-Egyptian Arab states must buy the US-made equipment through the foreign military sales process.

In public statements, this proposed $20 billion package would be spread across the Gulf Cooperation Council states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is widely assumed that Saudi Arabia as the region’s primary arms buyer would be the largest target, but, notably, that point has not been clarified by the Bush administration.

Officially, the deals would vary from country to country and are still in negotiation.

If the package overcomes strongly dissenting voices in the US Congress, the Middle East would see an influx of up to $6.3 billion a year in US arms.
That amount will certainly be augmented by additional weapons spending.

Israel is unique in the region in sourcing weapons purchases almost exclusively between its indigenous industry and US manufacturers. Arab states generally divide contracts between US and European manufacturers.

In this fashion, the two most advanced Arab state air forces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE operate US-made and UK- or French-made fighter jets, respectively. The UAE also has initiated limited contacts with Russia, procuring, for example, a used Russian Antonov An-124 for the military transport mission in recent years.

The USA has strategic regions to elevate the balance of military power across the region as a common counterpoint to a strengthening Iranian military force and increasingly bolder and more effective militant groups such as Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.

“While neither the type, [nor the] amount of weapons, nor the timeframe for their delivery has yet been finalised, the list will likely include air-to-air guided missiles, Joint Direct Attack Munitions [JDAM], upgrades for fighter aircraft and new naval vessels – all weapons and systems desired by many countries around the world,” Rachel Stohl, an arms trade analyst for the Center for Defense Information, wrote in a 6 August article for Foreign Policy in Focus.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice describes the purpose of the $63 billion package as a means to “bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran”. Iran says: “America has always considered one policy in this region … creating fear and concerns in the countries of the region and trying to harm good relations.”


For different reasons, US lawmakers have been slow to embrace the Bush administration’s arms package, which is significant because Congress has the final authority on approving or rejecting foreign military sales deals and direct military aid to foreign countries.


A key issue is a reported proposal to sell the Boeing JDAM to Saudi Arabia.


That concern is focused on the threat of regime change in Saudi Arabia, and fears that a more militant, hard-line regime may use the weapon on Israel, a key US ally with deep support in Congress.


“If it falls into the wrong hands, JDAM technology could significantly harm US forces in the region and undercut Israel’s qualitative military edge,”
says a letter reportedly circulated on Capitol Hill by Representatives Mark Kirk and Christopher Carney.


Potential compromises, such as making Saudi Arabia base the JDAMs far from Israel’s borders, have apparently not placated opponents. A total of 114 lawmakers out of 535 have signed a letter to President Bush opposing the sale of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia.


The State Department has yet to deliver the specific package of arms deals to Congress for approval. But an election year is looming and opposition to the deal may weaken as Democrats seek to solidify national security credentials for the forthcoming national election.