The Saudi Arms Deal: Congressional Opposition Grows

At the end of July, the Bush administration announced that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman – would receive approximately $20 billon worth of U.S. arms sales. While neither the type amount of weapons, nor the timeframe for their delivery has yet been finalized, the list will likely include air-to-air guided missiles, Joint Direct Attack Munitions, upgrades for fighter aircraft, and new naval vessels – all weapons and systems desired by many countries around the world. Although many are calling this a Saudi arms deal, it remains unclear what each country will be getting. The administration has only said that the details of the sales will vary from country to country.

Israel and Egypt won’t be left out of the region’s weapons windfall, either. According to State Department reports, Israel will receive $30 billion and Egypt will receive $13 billion in military assistance over the next 10 years. Both agreements mark significant increases; Israel would be receiving a 25% increase over current aid totals, which are already the largest in the world. According to news reports, the deals will contain provisions designed to allay the concerns of the Israeli government and its supporters about the new advanced capabilities provided to Israel’s historic enemies. For example, Saudi Arabia will be expected to accept restrictions on satellite-guided bombs that include assurances the weapons will not be stored near Israeli territory.

The media has made much of the proposed arms package and its implications for our involvement in the region. Some reports highlight the enormous size of the package; others focus on the reaction of Iran and the potential destabilization caused by so many arms to an already-saturated region. Some perspective is needed. If the entire package were poured into the region in one year, and included advanced weaponry and technology not currently available there, this would represent a significant escalation of the regional arms race. But it is more likely that the sales will be completed over several years and will include at least some less controversial equipment. And, of course, the United States has been sending billions of dollars worth of weapons to the Middle East for many years, particularly since the 1991 Gulf War. Since 1998, Saudi Arabia alone has received over $15 billion in U.S. weapons.

Still, the hype surrounding the arms package indicates that the Bush administration is using it to send a message: that despite what has happened (or may happen) in Iraq, the U.S. will maintain its commitment to the region. Additionally, the administration has justified the sale as a means to thwart and offset Iran and Syria, support efforts to counter al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah, help modernize Gulf armed forces, and support interoperability with U.S. forces. Although there is no formal quid pro quo for the deal, the administration does hope that Gulf states will support its efforts in Iraq. And clearly the administration proposed the deal with ongoing negotiations over the use of Persian Gulf military bases in mind. And as always, the “if-we-don’t-arm-them-someone-else-will” defense has been bandied about.

All these arguments don’t add up. The United States has long dominated arms sales to the Middle East. And with soldiers trained to use U.S. weapons systems and countries relying on U.S. upgrades to existing weaponry, the United States is in no danger of losing its share of the Middle East arms market in the near future.

Moreover, the United States has had little success in the past using arms sales to buy leverage in the region. And with no strings attached to the assistance – no democratic reforms, human rights conditions, or peace-making obligations – the arms sales do nothing to change the behavior of the authoritarian regimes in the region. Sending more arms to the Middle East may provoke Iran into accelerating its own arms purchases. Russia and China have been all too eager to step in and provide Iran with high technology weapon to offset the balance of power in the region. Although the United States can express its displeasure after the fact, the reality is that once the weapons leave U.S. possession, we have little to no influence on how those weapons are used and by whom. Although the United States has not sold F-14s to Iran since the 1970s, it is still dealing with the aftermath of those sales. The Iranian air force still uses the jets, and the United States is continually trying to prevent spare parts for the fighter jets from making their way to Iran.

The deals will require the consent of Congress, and more than 100 members, both Republicans and Democrats, have already voiced their displeasure. There is precedent for such opposition. In 1986, for example, Congress publicly and strenuously opposed proposed Saudi arms sales, an embarrassment to Saudi Arabia as well as the Reagan administration.

The House is now calling for a detailed briefing on the proposed sales in September – the time when the administration hopes the sales’ details will be finalized. Opposing the deal, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA) has argued that the Gulf states won’t be tempted to purchase weapons elsewhere because, “We provide the kind of security for these countries that others cannot, and they know it.” Two Representatives have already announced that they will introduce a resolution of disapproval, with at least seven co-sponsors, when the administration sends its formal Congressional notification.

However, preventing an arms sale is an uphill battle. Many converts will be needed to override a presidential veto of any resolution of disapproval.

Key U.S. allies have also criticized the plan however. Germany has warned of exacerbating tensions and escalating arms races in the region. While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been cautious in his statements about the proposed sale, some Israeli hardliners fear that the sale threatens Israel in the long run, making the country vulnerable to attack from heavily armed Arab neighbors.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has used arms sales as a reward for assistance in its quest to stamp out international terrorist networks, as well as for its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This sale, and the recycled justifications for it, is part of this continuing policy. While the proposed arms package may curry favor for the United States in the short term, investing in long-term, non-military strategies for peace in the region would be the most sincere commitment the United States could make to the Middle East.

Rachel Stohl is Senior Analyst at the Center for Defense Information at the World Security Institute in Washington, DC.