US takes calculated risks with Arab arms deals in volatile Persian Gulf | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 19.10.2010
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US takes calculated risks with Arab arms deals in volatile Persian Gulf

With the threat of Iran looming large over the region, the US is boosting the military capabilities of friendly Arab states in deals worth billions of dollars. But the arms sales carry huge risks as well as huge profits.

The sun rises on the Arabian Gulf

The US aims to rearm its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf

The largest procurement of arms by the Persian Gulf's Arab states in living memory could destabilize the region, boost the ailing United States' military-industrial complex and set off new rivalries in the highly competitive world of weapons sales, according to Middle East and security experts.

The deals struck between the US, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Kuwait, estimated at $122.88 billion (88.4 billion euros) over the next four years, will be among the largest rearmament exercises the Persian Gulf has ever seen - if and when it is approved by US Congress.

The largest component of the proposed Gulf deal is the $67 billion agreement struck with the Saudis which will see Boeing restock the oil-rich Gulf state's air force with 85 new F-15 jet fighters while refurbishing 70 existing planes; Lockheed Martin will provide upgraded radar and missile defense systems and the US defense industry will pump some $30 billion into the Saudis' eastern naval fleet.

In addition, the UAE will spend up to $40 billion on Lockheed Martin's THAAD high-altitude missile defense system and join Kuwait in upgrading its existing Patriot missile batteries.

Kuwait will also replace and upgrade its warplanes and command and control systems to the tune of $7 billion while Oman will spend $12 billion to do the same with 18 new F-16 jet fighters and upgrades for another 12 thrown in for good measure.

New security structure designed to reinvigorate arms industry

By rearming its allies in the Gulf, the US is laying the groundwork for a new security structure in the region which it hopes will provide benefits not just in the short term but for the foreseeable future.

US F-16 fighters

The US has been pumping billions into military missions

Initially, the deals will give the US arms industry the huge shot in the arm it currently needs, replenishing the coffers which have been drained by the global economic crisis and the spiralling costs of supplying US-led military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the long term, by boosting the Gulf States ability to protect themselves and by promoting the regional bloc known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which the Arab signatories belong to, the US hopes that it will have to spend far less money in the future defending its allies in the Gulf. An increased regional deterrence would reduce the need for expensive troop deployments and ensure the flow of energy exports from the Gulf without direct US military involvement.

However, a direct consequence of the US upgrading the armed forces of friendly Arab states could be a heightened sense of rivalry and competition in the Gulf - which is both a desired effect and a hugely inflammatory risk.

Arab states switch from defensive to offensive capability

"While the sale of arms and weapons-systems to the GCC states is not new, the significance lies in the fact that the deals include the provision of sophisticated offensive capabilities to the Gulf States," Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle.

US troops training Saudi Arabian forces

The US wants Gulf states to be militarily self-sufficient

"In previous cases these would have been opposed by Israel and the US Congress, but opposition has been muted in this instance owing to the implicit recognition that the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia in particular, are being armed to enable them to assert military leadership in the Gulf and counter Iranian influence."

While Iran may be forced to think twice about flexing its muscles with heavily-armed rivals on its borders, the Islamic Republic may also feel increasingly threatened to such an extent that it could step up its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons in a bid to protect itself. This in turn could lead to newly empowered states such as Saudi Arabia stepping up their own atomic ambitions, sparking a nuclear arms race in the Gulf - something the US hopes its conventional weapons deals can negate.

"Even if Iran has not taken a decision to acquire a nuclear weapons capability - and this is still unproven either way - it could spark a proliferation cascade if policymakers in Saudi Arabia decide that it too must acquire such capability," Ulrichsen said.

Gulf power struggles play into the hands of arms dealers

The delicate state of power in the Gulf makes it a rich environment for nations whose arms industries are hugely important to their economies. The US deals are likely to rankle with a number of rival weapons suppliers such as France and Russia - both of whom have strategic links to the Gulf.

French Air Force Rafale warplanes

France is among the leading European arms dealers

"Europeans and Americans have long competed for foreign arms contracts in Asia and the Middle East," Daniel Keohane, a senior researcher at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, told Deutsche Welle. "This competition is becoming fiercer since European defense budgets are declining relative to the rest of the world, especially compared with rapidly rising defense spending in East Asia and the Middle East."

"The real story here, however, is not a foreign sales arms race between European and American allies, but the actual arms race between countries in the Middle East."

Fear of Saudi Arabia approaching a rival supplier is also a driving force behind Washington's desire to seal the deals. France, Russia, Britain and - most worryingly - China are all ready to step in and provide Riyadh with the weapons it needs if the US cannot. With not only sales but strategic relations and influence at stake, the US would be losing more than a few billion dollars in profits if the Saudi kingdom looked elsewhere.

"Arms sales to the Gulf States have always provided very attractive and lucrative opportunities to weapons exporters," said Dr. Ulrichsen. "While the majority of the sales have come from US companies, western European, Russian and Chinese companies have all acquired substantial contracts in recent years."

"The Gulf States have been diversifying their security arrangements lately, signified most visibly by the opening of a French military base in Abu Dhabi in May 2009. This was part of an acceleration of French arms sales to the UAE, which already provide almost half of the Emirate's military equipment."

"France has been energetically attempting to get the UAE to purchase its Rafale warplanes instead of US-made F16s but a deal worth between $5bn and $10bn has yet to be concluded, and demonstrates the stakes involved between competing French and American interests."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge

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