US approves arms sales to Gulf — with strings
BEIRUT - US President Barack Obama’s administration recently approved major arms sales to the Gulf Arab monarchies worth billions of dollars, but some of these deals are now coming with political strings attached because of US concerns about alleged human rights abuses by these long-time allies.
In October, the outgoing Obama administration underlined the extent of these concerns by warning Saudi Arabia, a strategic ally in the turbulent Gulf since the 1940s, that future military aid will depend on Riyadh halting its war in neighbouring Yemen.
Washington has already blocked sales of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia as the White House initiates a major review of weapons sales to the desert kingdom.
“We’re telling the Saudis that supporting their territorial integrity, their sovereignty, that’s one thing,” a senior US official told the Washington Post. “But their campaign inside Yemen is something else, particularly if they’re not prepared to accept the unconditional, immediate cessation of hostilities that we’ve called for.”
On September 21st, the US Senate rejected a rare attempt to block a potential arms sale to Saudi Arabia over Riyadh’s involvement in the Yemen war, particularly the constant attacks by its US-built warplanes dropping US-made bombs on civilian targets.
Even though the Saudis have come under harsh criticism in Congress, Senators voted 71-27 against a bipartisan resolution to stop the sale of 153 M2 Abrams tanks — some of them to replace tanks lost in Yemen — 20 armoured recovery vehicles and other weaponry worth $1.15 billion.
The foot-dragging on arms sales to the Gulf is alarming the US defence industry, which depends largely on exports to keep production lines going.
In October, Vice-Admiral Joseph Rixey, head of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, disclosed that US foreign military sales tumbled by about $10 billion in 2016 from the record $46.6 billion in 2015.
The slippage is partly the result of low oil prices and cuts in defence budgets. But Rixey stressed that a critical element was the delays imposed by the US administration on major arms sales to the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The biggest of these were a $4 billion sale of 36 Boeing F-15 fighter jets to tiny Qatar, one of the world’s major gas exporters, with an option for an additional 36; 28 Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet jets to Kuwait with an option for 12 more worth $3 billion, and Bahrain’s requirement for 19 new Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters with upgrades for its two squadrons of older F-16C/Ds worth $3.8 billion.
On November 18th, the US State Department approved the Qatar and Kuwait deals. But Congress must have the last word and the arms sales may yet run into obstacles.
Obama promised GCC leaders in May 2015 that he would be “fast-tracking arms transfers”. But these sales have been pending for more than two years, reflecting growing US unease with the policies of the Gulf states, among the most prolific arms buyers on the planet, and the shrinking US reliance on Gulf energy supplies.
There has been increasingly harsh criticism of the Gulf monarchies in Congress, along with deep concern within the outgoing administration, over possible human rights abuses.
This is most acute over the Yemen war in which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the GCC’s key military powers, are using US-supplied weapons, including cluster bombs, against Houthi rebels and obliterating civilian targets.
In late September, the Obama administration told Congress it would not give final approval on the Bahrain deal until the Saudi-allied island kingdom ceased its heavy-handed crackdown on political dissent that began in 2011 during the “Arab spring”.
It is worth noting that Kuwait, liberated from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s deadly embrace in the 1990-91 Gulf War by a US-led coalition, has become a key forward logistics base in the Gulf for US weapons and troops while Saudi Arabia refuses to allow US forces on its soil.
Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Qatar has the largest US air base in the Middle East at its sprawling al-Udeid facility in the desert outside the capital, Doha. Unlike the Bahrain deal, the planned sales to Qatar and Kuwait carry no conditions.
The reluctance to meet Gulf requests for major arms deliveries, which are sought largely to counter Iran’s expansionist policies, reflects the deep unease among the Gulf monarchies that their standing in Washington is diminishing alarmingly.
This is unlikely to change under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, whose hostility towards Islam, and Saudi Arabia in particular, was a defining element of his stormy election campaign.
But that said, he is also expected to move sharply away from Obama’s focus on human rights and this could herald a change in the policy concerning relations with Gulf monarchies.
Trump favours a more robust US military and to do that he will need to maintain production lines for major weapons systems, such as combat aircraft, missiles and armour — production lines defence contractors say have been jeopardised by the slowdown on big-ticket arms sales to the Gulf.
Lockheed Martin says the F-16 production line will have to be shut down if the sale to Bahrain is blocked. That would endanger potential F-16 sales worldwide and remove an invaluable tool for promoting US foreign policy.
The US global security consultancy Stratfor observed in an October 17th analysis: “Washington’s awkward position between… long-time regional rivals (Saudi Arabia and Iran) has made its role in the Yemen conflict tricky to maintain…
“As a result, the United States has started to scale back its support for Saudi Arabia. Even so, the latest disbursement of military aid to Saudi forces was accompanied by the most vocal congressional criticism yet of the war’s humanitarian costs and of Washington’s relationship with Riyadh.”
The delays in meeting the Gulf states’ military purchases is causing growing alarm within the US defence industry and to a greater extent the British defence industry, which survives largely on selling advanced weaponry to the Gulf.
They fear US foot-dragging will push Saudi Arabia and its partners to enhance defence links with Europe, Russia or even China. Changing key arms suppliers is a risky undertaking at the best of times, but the conflicts ravaging the Middle East make such a step infinitely more dangerous.
The US industry’s fears sharpened on April 5th, when Kuwait, dismayed by the US slowdown on the Boeing F/A-18s it wanted, signed up with the Eurofighter Consortium for 28 advanced Typhoon strike jets worth $8.7 billion.