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.

A U.S. Air Force F-15 fighter in Eastern Afghanistan

Gulf states are stepping up weapons purchases from the United States in the face of an emerging Iran and other regional threats. The deals highlight the extent to which Washington now considers Gulf allies as key to containing Iran.

What are the major deals under way?

From 2005 to 2009, the US sold up to $37 billion in arms to Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait, according to the US Government Accountability Office.

The recent US-Saudi deal, which is expected to be submitted to Congress for approval soon, could be worth as much as $60 billion.

It would include 84 new Boeing F-15 fighter jets and upgrades to another 70 of them, as well as three types of helicopters: 72 Black Hawks, 70 Apaches, and 36 Little Birds.

In addition, US officials are discussing a $30 billion package to upgrade Saudi Arabia's naval forces.

The US is also expected to agree next year to sell the Theater High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system to the UAE for about $7 billion.

Russia has also been a major supplier of arms to the Middle East. Moscow agreed in 2007 to sell P-800 antiship cruise missiles to Syria. Israel strenuously opposed the deal, citing concerns that the missiles might fall into the hands of the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah.

Russia said in September it would go through with the deal. But it did, however, cancel its $800 million deal to sell S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Iran, saying that would violate United Nations sanctions on Iran. Tehran has purchased more than $5 billion in Russian weapons systems over the past decade

How do arms sales help US interests?

Many argue that the main reason for the US-Saudi deal is concern about Iran's rising power – and suspicions it is developing nuclear weapons. The US is increasingly concerned with Iran, and sees Gulf states – particularly Saudi Arabia – as essential partners in containing the Islamic state.

The US-Saudi deal is a reminder to the Iranians that if Tehran moves toward building a nuclear weapon, "the response will be to so beef up regional rivals and enemies that their overall position will be diminished," says Thomas Lippman, adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

It could also serve to dissuade the Saudis from seeking nuclear weapons of their own.

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

The deal could also spur new job growth, supporting at least 75,000 jobs at Boeing and United Technologies.

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.

• Staff writer Stephen Kurczy contributed from Boston.

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