Gulf Arms Deals: Buying Security or Bailing Out the West

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The Saudis are to receive 84 advanced Boeing F-15SA fighters and upgrades for 70 older models for the price of US$30 billion - the first part of an overall US$63 billion, solely paid by Saudi Arabia; that includes helicopters, missiles, precision-guided munitions, and new tanks. (Photo: AFP - Hassan Ammar)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Thursday, January 12, 2012

The United States and the Gulf monarchies have committed to what has been dubbed as “one of the largest re-armament exercises in peacetime history,” amounting to the sale of US$123 billion worth of fighter jets, helicopters, missiles, tanks, and other advanced weaponry.

The deal, announced this past Christmas Eve in Washington, has been justified by Andrew Shapiro, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, as “[sending] a strong message to the countries in the region that we are committed to support the security of our key partners and allies in the Arabian Gulf and the broader Middle East.”

On the surface, the deal seeks to ensure that any potential expansionist interest by Iran towards the region is deterred. Yet, the nature and outcome of previous and current substantial arms deals between Arab Gulf monarchies and the West, in terms of its military value vis-à-vis Iran, suggest an agenda beyond merely containing the Islamic Republic.

Considering history: the “lightning” example

Amer Mohsen’s recent article for Al-Akhbar Arabic devoted much attention to the first major arms deal between the West and the Arab Gulf monarchies, which occurred in the early 1960s, and how it illuminated much of the nature of why these deals are initiated and their usual outcome.

As Mohsen point out, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom broke new ground by committing to a transaction in regards to the English Electric Lightning supersonic jet fighter aircraft, developed by the British Aircraft Corporation (known today as British Aerospace) during the 1950s.

Saudi Arabia, mired in the Yemeni Civil War and sporadically conflicting with Nasser’s Egypt, ordered 35 Lightning F-53s and six T-55s which were delivered in phases, completed in 1972. For the British defense industry at the time this was the largest sale in its history.

Mohsen adds that documents leaked decades later revealed that the Saudis went first to the Americans to seek help in expanding their military capabilities. The Americans declined after their analysis concluded that the Saudi aviation sector could not withstand the massive expansion the Saudis desired. At the same time, the Americans were trying to bring Britain, a decaying power, into its strategic fold – the British vehemently sought to maintain their own independent defense industry and nuclear capacity. But the British were finally convinced after the Americans developed the Phantom, which came into service in 1960.

The Phantom immediately made the Lightning obsolete and was much cheaper to produce. The British decided to start purchasing the Phantom from the Americans, and discontinued the production of their Lightning series. There was a problem, a surplus of Lightnings were still available and were loitering uselessly in the factories. Thus the Saudi deal was born. The Americans contacted Riyadh and convinced them to buy a large number of the planes under the false pretext that they were the most advanced planes at the time.

The aircrafts’ capabilities were essentially useless for Saudi needs in terms of its conflicts in Yemen and use within the country’s own borders. The Lightning was a supersonic jet fighter, an aerobatics marvel, ineffective at lower altitudes or during routine air skirmishes. It was a sale that did not revolutionize or benefit the Saudi military greatly.

Kuwait followed suit in 1966, ordering 14 of the British planes. Similarly, the Kuwaitis faced trouble in maintaining and utilizing the aircraft and soon after replaced them. Currently, the Al Jaber Air Base has three Lightnings on display, with another one outside the headquarters building in the Ali Al Salem Air Base.

The US$123 billion Gulf Arms Deal

Fast-forward decades later, a new enormous arms deal has been conducted between Gulf monarchies and the current global superpower, the United States. The sale was first tabled in 2007, under negotiation between the Bush administration, and subsequently the Obama administration, with various Gulf monarchies as part of a larger defense shield against Iran’s growing regional power and its nuclear energy program.

By the end of December 2011, the first part of the US$123 billion arms deal became apparent. The Saudis are to receive 84 advanced Boeing F-15SA fighters and upgrades for 70 older models for the price of US$30 billion - the first part of an overall US$63 billion, solely paid by Saudi Arabia; that includes helicopters, missiles, precision-guided munitions, and new tanks.

In addition to that, the UAE has signed a US$3.6 billion deal to buy nearly 100 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile interceptors, the first foreign buyer of this particular product. This is only a small part of a larger deal worth close to US$36 billion that includes purchases of 80 F-16 jet fighters. For its part, Oman is slated to spend US$18 billion on Lockheed F-16C/D jets. Kuwait is set to spend US$7 billion on US weapons and upgrades to its Raytheon Patriot missile defense systems. While Iraq finalized a deal for fighter jets and tanks amounting to the tune of $11 billion.

If the Iranian threat is the core reason behind these various deals then its necessary to asses and compare Iranian military capabilities with its rivals.

Due to decades of sanctions and restrictions of arms purchases, the Iranian defense industry has flourished on its own and refurbished any older American weapons, built their own models, or tapped willing non-Western sellers. Of Iran’s GDP, military expenditure was estimated at around 2 percent by 2008. The country has around half a million active military personnel and 650,000 active reserves. With growing external threats, the Iranian military and security capabilities are more defensive in nature and relies on asymmetric styles of warfare - the latter, notably, comes into play in terms of Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Gulf.

Second to the US, Iranian naval power is perhaps the most robust in the Gulf. According to reports by the US Library of Congress and estimates gathered by military enthusiasts, Iran has an estimated total of 260 navy ships - in addition to 3 destroyers, 19 submarines, 5 frigates, 198 patrol crafts, 7 mine warfare crafts, and 26 amphibious assault crafts. It is their naval power, the ability to restrict access along the Strait of Hormuz, and the ballistic missile program that can target Israel that make Iran “the most powerful military force in the region (excluding Israel), except for the United States”, according to statements by US General John Abizaid in 2006.

Compare this with Saudi Arabia, the strongest Gulf state, which relies heavily on the importation of arms. Military expenditure data by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reveals that by 2008 the Saudis were ranked 9th in the world. The value of its military expenditure was estimated at around 11.2 percent of the country’s GDP in 2009, although this figure may be much higher due to a lack of transparency.

But their naval power is far inferior to that of the Iranians, made up of a total of 77 navy ships and only 7 frigates, 9 patrol crafts, and 7 mine warfare crafts. Therefore, they made up for the deficit by enhancing their air superiority. At the end of last year, Saudi Arabia had around 300 combat aircraft, comprising European and American models.

The operational capabilities of the Saudi military became apparent during its intervention against Houthi rebels in north Yemen during the winter of 2009-2010. The high tech-weaponry at the disposal of the Saudis could not defeat the Houthis, whose rebellion was overshadowed by the eruption of the Yemeni uprising. The Saudis lackluster performance resulted in 113 dead and more than 400 wounded Saudi troops; the number of Yemeni civilian and Houthi casualties ranges between 4-5 thousand.

The arms deal, then, is mainly geared towards safeguarding Gulf air superiority over Iran and seeks to nullify Iran’s sophisticated ballistic weapons such as the Shahab-3b and the Sejjil-2 systems. These types of weapons do not fare well in defending against a full-scale ground invasion, are not effective against asymmetric forms of war, nor are they effective in dominating the waterways of the gulf, where Iran does have the upper hand.

Therefore, who really benefits from this immense transfer of weapons and money?

Cui Bono?

American arms deals with the Arab Gulf States usually face obstacles or have been limited by Congress, mainly due to the strength of the Israeli lobby. This particular deal was approved in the fall of 2010, after numerous consultations with the Israelis, growing tensions with Iran, and the desperate need to inject money into exhausted American industries.

According to a Guardian report in September 2010, certain fail-safes have been incorporated to ensure that the weapons will not be used against the Americans and especially Israel. This ensures that the Gulf is the front line against Iran – and only Iran – and never directs its weapons towards Israel or other forces that use American technology, in effect forming a security buffer between Israel and the Islamic Republic.

Moreover, the arms and equipment Gulf countries are buying are not cutting edge weaponry. Indeed, not only are these weapons equipped with built-in fail-safes, the technology heading to the Gulf does not compare to the level and quality that the Israelis are gifted. As part of their own air force upgrade, Israel will receive around 100 of the latest and most expensive military aircraft, the F-35, at a considerable discount. Sometime this year, Lockheed Martin and Israel will ink a US$2.7 billion contract for 20 F-35As that are expected to be delivered by 2016.

Additionally, the White House has been arguing that the deal will ensure job security for an estimated 75,000 employees in major technological firms like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and General Electric. Job creation in a time of economic depression is the key motivator that allowed the deal to be pushed through Congress and the Senate.

These arms deals mostly benefit the vendors, the US and other Western states who are among the biggest arms exporters in the world. The vendors ensure that the products they sell are high in production and maintenance costs, and that they need to be intimately involved in the equipment’s operation and the training of the buyer. This, in effect, forces the Gulf states to be dependent completely on the West for sustaining their protection and security. The bond between oil production and the arms trade is ever so tightly intertwined, as oil pays for security, which in turn guarantees that the oil flows.

The arms deals also allow the US and other Western forces the leeway to limit their own military spending and pass ‘policing’ to their allies and clients in the region. Despite questions regarding actual military efficiency in the times of war, arms deals of this caliber bolster local strategic partners, who can carry out actions on behalf of their Western partners and even fight alongside the West with ease if need be.

The considerable amount of money that is being transferred from the Gulf, flush with cash from high oil prices, to centers in the West, which is in the midst of a significant economic crisis and desperately needs cash, is essentially what is happening here.

Mohsen ends his article with a poignant point. Referring to Noam Chomsky and Charles Tilly, Mohsen notes that money alone does not automatically create a successful army. A real experience in war, comprehending its brutal costs, and understanding intelligently how to develop oneself to prepare for a task of such magnitude are all necessary in establishing an effective, sustainable, and potent defense industry. Huge amounts of funds may help in buying time, and may occasionally manifest in short-term victories, but factors beyond the realm of money have changed the course of history.

Similarly, for the Gulf states, dependency on the West may work well for now, but there will come a time when they have to cooperate and work with Iran, a country not so far across the shore.


What can one say except that all the tragedies of our nation stem from Arab Gulf leaders. They are also responsible about the miseries of the Palestinian people,

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