How arms deals are shaping the Mideast
A record U.S. arms deal with Saudi Arabia is part of an effort to put pressure on Iran, partly by strengthening alliances with oil-rich neighbors also concerned by Iran's rise.
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What do Arab states gain?
In addition to beefing up Gulf states' military capabilities, the recent arms deals cement the US security relationship with those nations, which form a regional bloc known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
"I think that the message has already gone out that the US has guaranteed a 'defense shield' for the GCC states," says Theodore Karasik, director for research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, based in Dubai, UAE. "Their security at the end of the day is guaranteed."
The sale of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia means that a support relationship with the US – for maintenance and training – will exist for at least a decade, binding the two in an interdependent relationship, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
But Dr. Karasik cautions against focusing solely on the Iran factor. The Gulf states are simply assessing their national security needs and developing a plan to fulfill those needs, he says, "across the threat spectrum."
"All the GCC states face a number of state and nonstate threats," says Karasik. "They can run from a state threat like Iran, to a nonstate threat like the Houthi rebels [in northern Yemen], or Al Qaeda or other terrorist derivatives that could spring up. This also includes, for example, border control, which involves protection of air, land, and sea around a particular country."
For example, the helicopters ordered by Saudi Arabia will be useful in dealing with the Houthi rebels, who have clashed with Saudi forces along the border with Yemen. "What they're doing is quite logical," he says. "They're not willy-nilly spending money. It's thought out very seriously."
How well have Gulf states utilized such arms in the past?
Saudi Arabia already uses the US Patriot missile system and F-15 fighter jets. It has proved fairly adept at operating those weapons systems, says Dr. Cordesman. While the Saudi kingdom has had some problems with its weapons, "everybody has problems, including the US," he says.
Karasik characterizes the Saudi performance as "very good," although he says, "there might be a question about manpower and sustainability."
Has arms buying shifted?
While the recent Gulf state arms deals may appear to be a major development, analysts say the global arms market is cyclical, with different nations commencing arms buildups at different times as they perceive their threat environments change.
Cordesman says there has been no major shift in global weapons procurement, though the Gulf nations are emerging as major importers, because they have no production base of their own. At the same time, European powers have been making arms cuts, skewing the market.
The Gulf states' recent purchases are part of a long-term strategy, says Karasik. Even after the purchases are finalized, it will take years to complete training and deployment of some of the weapons systems. "You don't buy something and get it right away," he says.