Why Saudi Arabia? Why Now?

The "headline-grabber" read: "U.S. Plans New Arms Sales to Gulf Allies."

Nothing startling there. For decades the United States has routinely sold or transferred weapons and ammunition, sent military teams abroad or brought foreign military personnel to the United States for training, and transferred technology that allowed "friendly" governments to produce almost state-of-the-art copies of U.S. weapons.

What was a surprise were two details in the article’s subheading. The main recipient of Uncle Sam’s largesse was Saudi Arabia, and the value of the deal was said to be $20 billion.

Saudi Arabia? Isn’t that the country:

  • from which came 15 of the 19 men responsible for 9/11?
  • that opposed the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and whose king, in March 2007, called the invasion an "illegal occupation"?
  • that told the United States to remove its troops and find some other country for U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) forward command post?
  • whose border is so poorly monitored that 75 percent of all foreign fighters crossing into Iraq do so from Saudi territory, far more than from Syria?
  • whose autocratic government either will not or cannot prevent its youth from going to Iraq – an estimated 40 percent of all foreigners fighting U.S. troops and Iraqi government forces are Saudi nationals – where they become bomb-makers, snipers, and suicide bombers?
  • that nearly 60 years after the creation of the modern state of Israel still refuses to extend diplomatic recognition to Tel Aviv?

No matter how deft the White House "spin," there will be considerable congressional opposition to the sale. Previous Congresses have opposed sales of weapons to the Saudis on the grounds that the kingdom has never signed a peace agreement with Israel. This time, the opposition is fueled by the lack of sustained support from Riyadh for U.S. aims in Iraq and in the global war on terrorism.

Cost of Oil

There is also the sense among some members of Congress that the Saudis have not acted to control the soaring costs of energy. In the run-up to the 2004 elections, the Saudis allegedly promised they would increase production if necessary to preclude a price spike that might hurt the reelection prospects of the Bush-Cheney ticket. Once the U.S. election was concluded, however, the Saudis did little if anything to curb higher prices – first to $40 and then to $50 per barrel – pleading market forces beyond their control. Coincidentally with the announcement of the proposed arms sale, the price of a barrel of oil hit $78. Yet there was only silence from the Saudis.

From the perspective of the hard-liners in George W. Bush’s White House, the Saudis were undercutting every American goal in the Middle East, particularly the current president’s vision of a democratic Iraq as the seedbed for transforming autocratic regimes to democracies.

How different from 1990-1991 when President George H. W. Bush sent American troops to protect Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait. In the first years after the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon willing sold almost anything to the Saudis – with the stipulation, demanded by Tel Aviv, that Arab countries would not get equipment that technologically equaled the equipment provided Israel. Even so, based on these orders, the United States actually delivered $22.9 billion in weaponry to the Saudis in the period 1997-2004.

From Riyadh’s perspective, however, it is George W. Bush who is undercutting good governance in the Middle East, something more important yet more elusive than the type of government a country may have. Early 2006 was the turning point. As soon as it became clear that the Saudi-backed Hamas movement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and not Fatah had won the January 2006 parliamentary election, Washington and Tel Aviv – who regard Hamas as a terrorist organization – took steps to cut all financial, commercial, and diplomatic contact with the incoming Palestinian government. This set the Bush administration on a collision course with King Abdullah who was pressuring Fatah and Hamas to overcome their past animosities and form a "unity government." By early 2007 conditions were so dire that Hamas and Fatah agreed to the Saudi-sponsored "Mecca Accord" as the basis for a united government. The agreement intensified U.S. and Israeli counteractions, and after three months fighting resumed between the factions.

Supporters of the Bush administration quickly saw Riyadh’s effort to respect the election results as yet another instance in which Saudi Arabia was not pulling its weight in the war on terror. In fact, Congress had already expressed its frustration about Riyadh’s failure to be more actively engaged in furthering U.S. (and therefore implicitly Saudi) objectives. In fiscal years 2005 and 2006, Congress had directed that Saudi Arabia was not to receive any funds in the State Department’s foreign operations appropriation. But as usual, the legislation contained an escape clause: the ban against assistance became moot if the president certified that the Saudis were cooperating in the war on terror. Much to the dismay of many in Congress, Bush so certified each year.


An unanswered question about the proposed arms deal is: Why now? Had the administration moved before November 2003, the announcement would have been seen in the region as an audacious – given the "success" of U.S.-led coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq – but credible recommitment by Washington to the then-25-year-old policy of diplomatic, economic, and military (conventional and nuclear) containment of Tehran’s ambitions in the Gulf by increasing Riyadh’s military stance.

But looking at the Saudi record and Riyadh’s increasing propensity to act in its interests without coordinating with Washington, there is the suggestion that the Bush administration is suddenly wary of its "other" flank in the Persian Gulf – the one occupied by the Saudi-dominated six-member Gulf Cooperation Council. Militarily overcommitted in mid-summer 2007, the White House has only two cards to play: pump up fear of Iran acquiring enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon, or bribe the regional allies.

For a few months the nuclear fear factor seemed to work, but Tehran seems to have become "reasonable" enough in its position to defuse tensions with most of the main actors in this dispute. This left the Bush administration with bribery, spiced with a touch of traditional Sunni-Shi’a sectarianism that underpins relations between Riyadh and Tehran even when they cooperate (e.g., the just-formed Iraq security subcommittee that will consider steps to reduce the influx of weapons and fighters into Iraq from Iran).

This also explains the visit last week by the secretary of state and the secretary of defense to the region on an old-fashion, bribe-them-first-then-twist-arms, whistle-stop campaign to make sure regional "allies" – this time including the Saudis – are in line behind U.S. policy.

Inconvenient Inconsistencies

But the multi-billion dollar arms deal has some inconsistencies that could cause the two secretaries problems. The most immediate one is the policy message represented by the sheer size of the arms deal. Washington has been insisting that there is no military solution to the region’s trauma. Yet it is proposing not only $20 billion in weapons to the Saudis but another $13 billion to Egypt and $30 billion to Israel – a total of $63 billion for weapons in a part of the world already awash in modern arms. And this total apparently doesn’t include $40 million in guns, bullets, rockets, missiles, small arms ammunition, night-vision goggles, and spare parts for the Lebanese army this year and another $280 million for 2008. Nor does it include the $3 billion Iraq is spending on weapons and ammunition – all of which are contributing to the current mayhem in these two countries.

Nonetheless, since Israel has already said it will not oppose the sale, it is unlikely that Congress will vote to block it or even to amend it. As for the Pentagon, it hopes to save money through economy of scale for items produced for either the Saudis or Israelis. And of course U.S. companies that build weapons and munitions are pleased at the prospect of new contracts and new profits.

The irony in this whole affair is that George Bush started the Iraq war over weapons that never existed and that have not been used since 1945. Now his administration seems to think the way to end the war is to make sure that there are more weapons – ones that kill thousands every day. Go figure!

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.