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Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Posted: October 4, 2010 04:39 PM

Arming the Saudis

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The Pentagon has announced a $60 billion arms package to the repressive family dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, the largest arms sale of its kind in history. Rejecting the broad consensus of arms control advocates that the Middle East is too militarized already and that the Saudis already possess military capabilities well in excess of their legitimate security needs, the Obama administration is effectively insisting that this volatile region does not yet have enough armaments and that the United States must send even more.

According to reports, Washington is planning to sell 84 new F-15 fighters and three types of helicopters: 72 Black Hawks, 70 Apaches and 36 Little Birds. There are also reports of naval missile-defense upgrades in the works.

Though supporters of such arms sales argue that if the United States did not sell weapons to the oil-rich kingdom, someone else would, neither the Obama administration nor its predecessors have ever expressed interest in pursuing any kind of arms control agreement with other arms-exporting countries. A number of other arms exporters, such as Germany, are now expressing their opposition to further arms transfers to the region due to the risks of exacerbating tensions and promoting a regional arms race.

The United States is by far the largest arms exporter in the world, surpassing Russia -- the second-largest arms exporter -- by nearly two to one.

The Iranian Rationalization

The ostensible reason for the proposed arms packages is to counter Iran's growing military procurement in recent years, though Iranian military spending is actually substantially less than it was 25 years ago. Furthermore, Iran's current military buildup is based primarily on the perceived need to respond to the threatened US attack against that country, a concern made all the more real by the US invasion and occupation of two countries bordering Iran on both its east and west in recent years.

This US insistence on countering Iran through further militarizing this already overly militarized region is particularly provocative. Not only has the United States refused to engage in serious negotiations with Iran regarding mutual security concerns, but it has discouraged its regional allies from pursuing arms control talks or other negotiations that could ease tensions between the Arab monarchies and the Islamic Republic. If the Obama administration were really interested in addressing its purported concerns regarding Iranian militarization, it would be willing to engage in more serious diplomacy to limit the procurement of conventional arms on a region-wide basis.

In addition to alleged worries about Iran as a military threat to the region, US officials have also tried to justify the arms package as a means to respond to Iran's growing political influence. However, most of Iran's enhanced role in the region in recent years is a direct consequence of the decision by the Bush administration -- backed by the current vice president, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and other leading Obama administration officials -- to overthrow the secular anti-Iranian regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and replace it with a new government dominated by pro-Iranian Shiite parties. Another key element of Iran's growing influence is the earlier US decision to oust the anti-Iranian Taliban of Afghanistan and replace it with a regime dominated by tribal war lords, a number of whom have close Iranian ties. Similarly, Iranian influence has also increased in the Levant as a direct consequence of US-backed Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, which have strengthened popular political support for Hamas and Hezbollah and their ties to Iran.

Iran's emergence as a major regional military power also took place as a result of earlier American arms transfers. Over a 25-year period, the United States pushed the autocratic regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi to purchase today's equivalent of over $100 billion worth of American armaments, weapons systems and support, creating a formidable military apparatus that ended up in the hands of radically anti-American Shiite clerics following that country's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Rather than respond to these setbacks by further militarization, the Obama administration should, instead, seriously re-evaluate its counterproductive propensity to try to resolve Middle Eastern security concerns primarily through military means. Instead of meeting the legitimate defensive needs of America's allies, the proposed deal is yet another arrogant assertion of American military hegemony. As US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns put it in 2007 in response to a previous arms package to the Saudis, such weapons transfers "say to the Iranians and Syrians that the United States is the major power in the Middle East and will continue to be and is not going away."

As exiled Saudi activist Ali Alyami of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia put it, "Appeasing and protecting the autocratic Saudi dynasty and other tyrannical regimes in the Arab world will not bring peace, stability, or an end to extremism and terrorism."

There is also the possibility that, as with Iran following the 1979 revolution, US arms provided to the Saudis could end up in the hands of radical anti-American forces should the government be overthrown. The Saudi regime is even more repressive than Iran's in terms of its treatment of women, gays, religious minorities and political dissidents. Indeed, seeing their countries' wealth squandered on unnecessary weapons systems pushed on them by the US government and suffering under their despotic rulers kept in power in large part through such military support are major causes of the growing appeal of anti-American extremism among the people of the Middle East.

More Arms, Less Security

US officials insist that the Saudis alone are responsible for their procurement of these sophisticated weapons. Yet, underneath this convenient claim of Saudi sovereignty that supposedly absolves the United States of any responsibility in the arms purchases and their deleterious effects, lies a practice that can be traced as far back as the 1940s: The U.S Defense Department routinely defines the kingdom's security needs, often providing a far more pessimistic analysis of the country's security situation than do more objective strategic analyses. Conveniently, these alleged needs lead directly to purchases of specific US weapons.

As Robert Vitalis, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, looking at the history of US arms transfers to the Saudi royal family, observed:

If the billions have not been useful to the Saudis, they were a gold mine for Congresspersons compelled to cast pro-Saudi votes, along with cabinet officials and party leaders worried about the economy of key states and electoral districts. To the extent that the regime faces politically destabilizing cutbacks in social spending, a proximate cause is the strong bipartisan push for arms exports to the Gulf as a means to bolster the sagging fortunes of key constituents and regions -- the 'gun belt' -- that represents the domestic face of internationalism.

These military expenditures place a major toll on the fiscal well-being of Middle Eastern countries. Military expenditures often total half of central government outlays. Many senior observers believe that debt financing in Saudi Arabia that has been used in the past to finance arms purchases has threatened the kingdom's fragile social pact of distributing oil rents to favored constituents and regions.

A very important factor, often overlooked, is that a number of Middle Eastern states -- such as Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco -- are highly dependent on Saudi Arabia for financial assistance. As Saudi Arabia spends more and more on arms acquisitions, it becomes less generous, leading to serious budget shortfalls throughout the Arab world. The result is that these arms sales may be causing more instability and, thereby, threatening these countries' security interests more than they are protecting them.

The implications of these ongoing arms purchases are ominous on several levels. For example, one of the most striking, but least talked about for the Middle East, is the "food deficit," the amount of food produced relative to demand. With continued high military spending -- combined with rapid population growth and increased urbanization -- the resulting low investments in agriculture have made this deficit the fastest growing in the world.

For these and other reasons, ultimately the largest number of civilian casualties, the greatest amount of social disorder and the resulting strongest anti-American sentiment may come as a consequence of US-supplied weapons systems and ordinance that are never actually used in combat.