Why $60 billion in US arms to Saudi Arabia isn't causing an outcry

Israel doesn't oppose a US arms deal that would send advanced aircraft to Saudi Arabia, which is increasingly seen as essential to containing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

By , Staff writer

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    A US Air Force F-15 fighter jet does a low-level flyby in eastern Afghanistan in this January 1, 2009 file photo. The Obama administration will soon notify Congress of an arms sale to Saudi Arabia worth up to $60 billion of advanced aircraft.
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Nine years after 9/11 sent US-Saudi relations crashing to a low point, bilateral ties have made a complete 180-degree turnaround with the Obama administration's plan to sell up to $60 billion worth of advanced aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

The package, which would be the US's largest-ever overseas arms sale and has been in negotiations since 2007, underscores how Israel no longer feels threatened by Saudi Arabia and how the US increasingly sees the Gulf state as essential toward containing Iran, says Thomas Lippman at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"It’s a reminder to the Iranians," says Mr. Lippman, that if Tehran continues down a nuclear path "the response will be to so beef up regional rivals and enemies that their overall position will be diminished."

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The Wall Street Journal reported that the package would include 84 new Boeing F-15 fighter jets and upgrades to another 70 of them. It would also include three types of helicopters: 72 Black Hawk helicopters, 70 Apaches, and 36 Little Birds. In addition, US officials are discussing a $30 billion package to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s naval forces.

The White House is reportedly set to notify Congress of the deal within the next month, which would set off a 30-day congressional review period. It is expected to be touted as a way to spur new job growth and support at least 75,000 jobs at Boeing and United Technologies, the Journal reported.

Despite the prospect of new jobs, such a proposal would have been politically untenable several years ago, says Lippman, the adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In the years after 9/11, he says, "a deal like this would have simply inflamed the foam-at-the-mouth crowd. They must have calculated that it won’t."

To Americans, says Lippman, Saudi Arabia was synonymous with terrorism and Al Qaeda following revelations that many of the 9/11 plane hijackers were Saudis, and anti-American rhetoric ran high in Saudi mosques and madrassas. Riyadh was on rocky terms with the White House at the beginning of the century amid George W. Bush’s pledges to promote democracy and freedom in the Middle East. In 2004, the US for the first time ever included Saudi Arabia alongside Burma and North Korea in the list of eight countries it describes as seriously violating religious freedom.

But by the end of President Bush's term, Lippman says Riyadh became cozier with Washington, and Bush had softened his stance. In 2008, Bush visited Riyadh twice and also gave details of the aircraft sale that is now nearing completion. Then as now, arming Saudi Arabia was seen as a way to counter Iran.

“The Saudis can certainly make the case to Washington that Iran is a growing threat, so their argument seems to grow for getting such sophisticated planes," James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, told the Monitor in June when Saudi King Abdullah visited the White House to discuss the Saudis’ bid to purchase a large number of F-15 fighter jets.

Yet such a deal would also have been adamantly opposed by Israel years ago. During the 1980s, Israel opposed the sale of aircraft and missiles to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, according to a 2004 Congressional Research Service briefing. In 1986, the Senate blocked President Reagan’s sale of shoulder-launched “Stinger” missiles to Riyadh amid American and Israeli objections – although a denuded arms package eventually went through.

Israeli concerns about the newest deal have been reportedly calmed by assurances that the jets will lack long-range weapons systems and be of a lower grade than those sold to Israel. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has reportedly discussed the deal with US officials and a US Defense Department official told Reuters that Israel is "fairly comfortable" with it overall. As an editorial in The Jerusalem Post recently highlighted, "If the US does not sell to the Gulf states, EU countries or even Russia, which are much less receptive to Israeli interests, might fill the vacuum."

Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh today all share concerns about Tehran possessing a nuclear weapon. "In contrast [to the 1980s], today, the US, Israel and the Saudis are on the same page as far as Iran is concerned," The Jerusalem Post editorial declared. Lippman, in a 2008 policy brief (pdf) for the Middle East Institute, argued that Riyadh would feel compelled to build or acquire its own nuclear arsenal in the case of Tehran going nuclear.

"Part of what the [Obama] administration is doing," Lippman adds, "is to convince the Saudis that we can take care of their security concerns without them getting nuclear."

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