Does the Saudi Arms Deal Jeopardize Israel?

Israel has long been stronger militarily than its adversaries. This was actually true as early as Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Since 1967, the United States has helped its ally maintain this edge. Today, thanks to a single significant arms sale, that may no longer be the case.

Last December, the United States finalized a roughly $30 billion sale (part of a much larger package) of 84 F-15SA Strike Eagles to Saudi Arabia, along with upgrades to the Kingdom’s 70 existing Strike Eagles to bring them up to a comparable standard. The deliveries are not scheduled to occur until 2015, and this will not enlarge the size of the Royal Saudi Air Force, as their stocks of F-15Cs will be phased out. It will result in the entire stock of Saudi Eagles being multirole and thoroughly modern, and thus much more effective.

When the agreement was signed on December 29, the State Department announced that the sale will not diminish “Israel’s qualitative military edge.” But this only makes sense if the current Saudi government, which is already fiercely critical but basically tolerant of Israel, retains its character following the death or other departure of the elderly King Abdullah. The Saudi monarchy has faced succession crises before, but the situation is particularly shaky now. Crown Prince Nayef, the King’s half-brother, is almost 80, in poor health, and was described by The Economist as having a “famously mercurial temperament.” He shares the crown’s hostility towards Iran’s regime, which does not necessarily reflect the will of the Kingdom’s population. Some of the same social and economic pressures roiling the rest of the Arab world are present in Saudi Arabia as well, coupled with resentment at the extraordinarily privileged and decadent antics of the extended House of Saud.

The Shi’a minority, who comprise about 10 percent of the population, are particularly unhappy. Many of them live in the oil-producing regions adjacent to Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, and the United States assisted the royal family with thwarting an uprising led by the small island’s restive Shi’a majority, but involving many Sunnis as well. Saudi Arabian forces have been wary of (and involved in) ongoing strife to the south in Yemen and may already be wading into the very complicated Syrian civil unrest on the side of the rebels.

Even in a calm environment, the departure of Abdullah and/or Nayef could easily set up a power struggle, which could result in a new government in Riyadh that displays intense hostility to Israel (and the United States, or at least U.S. activities in the region) and is in command of a massive, modern arsenal. Even with a loss of technical support from the United States and Europe, Saudi Arabia could compensate to keep its military functioning. A much poorer, disorderly, and isolated post-revolution Iran was able to do just that during the Iran-Iraq war and continues to do so today. Also, even if, in the middle of a conflict, Israel maintained its qualitative edge, Saudi Arabia would not stand alone in any such conflict. The Kingdom’s air force is already strong enough to compete with Israel’s. If Saudi Arabia acted in concert with other regional powers (and also if Israel was partially or completely blockaded, to compensate for its adversaries losing Western assistance), the balance of power could shift away from Israel for the first time.

The U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia is clearly putting Israel in danger. This seems strange, considering the role that Israel and its lobbyists have come to play in the foreign policy of the United States, but it makes some sense if one realizes the other forces involved. Oil-related concerns, the desires of the military-industrial complex to find good customers, and other geopolitical issues make it possible for the United States to conduct business in a manner that works strongly (and perhaps calamitously) against Israeli interests.

The Saudi royal family is hostile to the regime in Tehran, placing them out of step with much of their population, particularly the Shi’a minority. This does, however, give the Saudi government common cause with the Israeli government, as well as that of the United States. There have even been rumors in recent years of military cooperation between the two Middle Eastern countries. This arms sale is essentially a bet on continuity within the Saudi ruling class, and that is now a risky gamble. It may no longer be possible to “have it both ways” by strengthening Middle Eastern countries while diplomatically ensuring that they not menace Israel.

Scott Charney is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.