August 7, 2007 No. 27
The Saudi Arms Deal
On the eve of the departure to the Middle East of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Bush Administration announced its intention to expand substantially its military assistance to the region. The proposed plan includes the sale of up to $20 billion of weaponry to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
The Administration also plans to balance this arms sale with an expanded package of security assistance to Israel worth about $30 billion over the coming decade. Aid to Israel thus far has been growing every year, in accordance with an agreement reached in 1996, and will amount to $2.4 billion in FY 2008. Thus, the new package represents an increased of about 25%. Simultaneously, the Administration announced that it will extend military assistance to Egypt for another decade at the current level of $1.3 billion per annum.
Unlike Israel and Egypt, which receive their weaponry in the form of grants, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states will pay for their equipment. The arms sale to Saudi Arabia has been in the works in Washington for several months but the only item specifically mentioned has been JDAM bombs GPS-guided bombs of the type used by the Israeli Air Force in the second Lebanon war. However, JDAMs are relatively inexpensive weapons; the price tag for several thousand would only amount to a few million dollars. Thus far, American spokesmen have refused to provide details on the rest of the package. Sales are apparently planned, not only to Saudi Arabia but also to the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman but there is as yet no firm information. Nevertheless, the $20 billion price being mentioned seems to refer only to sales to Saudi Arabia, for what senior Pentagon officials implied are air defense systems, anti-missile defenses, radar systems, early warning aircraft, and naval vessels.
For Saudi Arabia, the United States has never been the sole arms supplier. In addition to American equipment, the Royal Saudi Air Force operates British Tornado aircraft and the Saudi Navy relies largely on French-built vessels. Last year, Saudi Arabia also signed a huge deal with Britain for 72 Typhoon advanced combat aircraft.
The main purpose of the Administration is to use the arms sales to strengthen the commitment of the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, to America's grand strategy in the region. The Administration wants Saudi Arabia to support its policy in Iraq and especially to refrain from supporting extremist Sunni Islamist organizations throughout the world and particularly in Iraq. At the same time, military assistance to the Gulf states sends a strong signal to Iran by emphasizing American commitment to the security of those states. The criticism voiced in Tehran following the Administration's announcement indicates that this signal was clearly understood.
Two other reasons lie behind the latest American initiative. One concerns the American response to renewed indications of Russian desire to influence developments in the Middle East. Evidence of that emerged in recent months in reports of large Russian arms deal with Syria and Iran and of a possible return of the Russian Navy to the Mediterranean, based on access to Syrian port facilities in Tartus and Ladhakia. The second is directly connected to the global arms market: the U.S. Administration is providing open support for American defense industries in the face of fierce competition by other large suppliers. In the Gulf region, this primarily means competition with British, French and, to a lesser extent, Russian manufacturers. In the particular case of Saudi Arabia, it may even involve a hope of getting the Typhoon deal canceled.
Implications for Israel
Israeli spokesmen were quick to react against the Saudi arms deal even when it only involved the JDAMs and they warned that the supply of precision munitions to Saudi Arabia would violate America's promise to preserve the IDF's qualitative edge and would constitute a strategic threat to Israel. Two senior Israeli officials went to Washington to lay out Israel's claims before the Administration. They made two central points. The first was that while Saudi Arabia currently might not constitute a threat to Israel, its regime is not stable and could be replaced by an extreme anti-Israel successor. If that were to happen, the precision weaponry would give it a significant advantage which Israel could not counter. The second point was that simply violating the principle of preserving Israel's qualitative edge would damage its deterrent, which rests to a considerable extent on that American promise.
In fact, Israel's apprehensions appear to be overblown, notwithstanding the fact that the prevailing ideology in Saudi Arabia has been exceedingly hostile to Israel since it came into existence. Apart from sending symbolic representatives in past wars, the Saudis have never actually acted against Israel. And in array of serious threats to Saudi basic interests, Israel hardly figures at all. Moreover, the Saudi interest in preserving good relations with the West and ensuring the flow of oil actually requires tranquility on the Israeli front. Even a different regime, no matter how radical it might be, would find it difficult to ignore these realities.
Israeli objections to previous Saudi arms deals have also been raised and rejected because of America's special interest in its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Again on this occasion, in the face of Administration determination, excessively virulent Israel opposition would only have produced anger in Washington. So on this occasion, Israel chose instead to temper its response. In return, it will now receive an upgraded security assistance package of its own.
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