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Arming Arabs: the lessons of history

By Wilbur Crane EvelandWilbur Crane Eveland has been associated with the Middle East in US government and private industry capacities since 1948. He is the author of "Ropes of Sand: America's Failure in the Middle East." / September 23, 1981

Members of Congress mobilizing to veto the sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia would do well to consider the lessons of history. In 1955 the Eisenhower administration reneged on a pledge to sell arms to Egypt. That set in motion a series of adverse developments from which the West may never recover.

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President Carter sent radar surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia to protect one of the free world's most vital resources. Sixty percent of the West's known oil reserves are located in the Persian Gulf, nearly half of them in Saudi Arabia. One bomb properly dropped on the Ras Tanura oilfield complex world take out the source of six million barrels of oil a day -- enough to paralyze the economy of Japan and severely cripple NATO's capabilities.

In 1955 access to another vital Middle East resource was at stake: the Suez Canal. Through it passed a portion of the region's oil, but the overriding value of the canal was its importance as a commercial and military lifeline between Western Europe and the East.

Largely owing to US efforts, Britain and Egypt reached agreement in 1954 for the evacuation of the huge British base at Suez and for Egyptian forces to assume responsibility for defense of the strategic international waterway. A mission was sent to Cairo to negotiate with President Nasser an agreed list of defensive armaments to be supplied under President Eisenhower's commitment to assist Egypt in protecting the canal.

In an effort to block the US-Egypt arms agreement, Israeli saboteurs had bombed British and American installations in Cairo. Israel's army then escalated its attacks on Egyptian troops and civilians in Sinai and Gaza. France had agreed to supply Israel with tanks and jet aircraft, but US ambivalence with respect to arms for Egypt continued for 10 months.

When a last-ditch appeal for arms by Nasser's personal representative was rebuffed in Washington, the Egyptian president signed an arms agreement with Czechoslovakia. Within months, Israeli attacks on Syria caused that country to break off negotiations to purchase a small supply of US weapons; the Soviet bloc has since been Syria's arms supplier.

Neither Congress nor the Reagan administration need be reminded of the instability and fighting that followed after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and Britain, France, and Israel resorted to war to punish Egypt. Nor is there disagreement that the primary threat to Western interests in the Middle East is the proliferation of Soviet influence that started in 1955.

The issue being contested in Washington is whether the sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia will pose a greater threat to Israel's security than it will accomplish by enhancing the ability of the United States to defend the Persian Gulf's oilfields. President Reagan has just reaffirmed a US commitment to sustain Israel's qualitative military superiority over the combined Arab armies. He also agreed to enter into joint-planning for Israel to play a role in the support of US forces designated to defend the Middle East against Russia.

Those who question Saudi Arabia's willingness and ability to contribute to the defense of the Middle East should be reminded that the Saudis were doing this before the state of Israel was created. Until 1962 the US Air Force's access to Dhahran airfield provided facilities both for protecting the Middle East's petroleum resources and for the Strategic Air Command's patrols of Russia's southern flank.