After the Gulf War, an Arms-Buying Spree

The excited crowd fills the viewing stands as if waiting for a Fourth of July fireworks display.

Arms dealers - many of them American, who these days cut half the world's weapons deals - rub shoulders with big-spending Arab officials and financiers.

An American triple-barrel .50-caliber machine gun turns a concrete wall into dust, smoking brass casings falling to the ground in an avalanche of spent firepower. "As you can see," the announcer says, "the target has been neutralized."

There is applause, and buyers turn to their checkbooks. The International Defense Exhibition (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, is the biggest arms bazaar in the world. For the turbaned and gold-brocaded sheikhs, the 1991 Gulf War prompted an unprecedented buying spree.

"Before, their experience had been eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, which was like World War I," says retired Lt. Gen. John Yeosock, commander of US, British, and French forces during the Gulf War. "Then they observed Desert Storm."

The laser-guided munitions and electronic warfare of the American-led coalition easily overwhelmed Iraq's Army.

Massive purchases of these weapons by Gulf states ever since has also kept struggling arms-production lines open. Some 42 percent of the world's post-cold-war arms sales are made to the Middle East, most of it top-dollar American hardware.

Never mind that the flawless appraisal given to US high-tech during the war was revised within a year, as embarrassed generals admitted that the stalwarts of the US campaign performed at levels far less than advertised. The latest critical General Accounting Office report, declassified on June 30, cites "a pattern of overstatement" by arms manufacturers and the Pentagon.

But Gulf commanders were impressed by the initial success stories, and the easy flow of petro-dollars ever since has brought a carnival atmosphere to this defense show.

The Mideast is already the most militarized region on earth, and planned Gulf purchases of $75 billion in the coming five years ensure that it will keep that status.

After the Gulf War, President Bush began talks with the West to create guidelines for controlling arms levels in the Middle East.

The need to keep dangerous weapons out of the wrong hands prompted then-Sen. William Cohen - today secretary of defense - to say in 1990: "Of course, we should be worried about it, but ... we've been contributing to it, and I think that's because we love the color of money and the smell of oil more than we hate the potential disastrous actions that could occur in the Middle East."

But under President Clinton there has been "an astonishing relaxation of export controls," writes Kenneth Timmerman, director of the Middle East Data Project in Washington. Since 1993, "the US has stopped even paying lip service to the notion of caps on arms sales to the region," he says. "Instead, a new world competition has set in ... to capture market share, whatever the cost."

That policy has brought consternation from Israeli officials, who worry that equipping Egypt and Saudi Arabia is "closing the gap" with Israel.

Yet it is Israel's own transfer of sensitive missile expertise - which many sources suggest includes US technology passed on illegally - that may one day threaten US troops and allies.

This "chain" begins with Israeli help with Chinese missile development (a $4.5 billion military deal was signed in September). Then China sells missiles to Iran, which in turn raises fears in the Pentagon of a "new" threat in the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Clinton has ordered evaluation of arms sales by "the impact on US industry and the defense industrial base." And in December 1995, he reportedly took the unprecedented step of calling the UAE president, asking him to buy US arms.

In the long-violent Middle East, aggressive arms policies are easy to sell.

So at IDEX, a group from the British bank Barclays happily participates. Dressed in suits and ties, they belly up to the big guns. "You're Rambo!" colleagues cheer, as a smiling marksman leaves the gunner's seat.

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