The Middle Eastern Arms Trade: US Motives and Future in Region

 /  July 10, 2017, 10:05 a.m.


With his head-turning and unprecedented $350 billion weapons agreement with Saudi Arabia, President Trump exposed many Americans to the immensity of the United States’ status as an international arms dealer, a position often overlooked by the American public. With the War on Terror dominating the news and politics, and with defense spending soaring from $316 billion in 2001 to a record of nearly $700 billion in 2010, this neglect is understandable. However, with this instance of arms dealing in the national spotlight, Americans are asking whether such a  controversial weapons deal represents merely an economic agreement as President Trump has suggested—emphasizing subsequent “jobs, jobs, jobs”—or an integral act of defense and national security fundamental to this War?

The weapons package that American defense contractors are expected to deliver to the Saudis includes four stealth nearshore frigates, 115 M1A2S Abrams tanks, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, 198 multi-capability helicopters, along with countless support systems and munitions. As monumental as this weapons deal appears to be, it is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the United States’ prominence as the world’s leading arms dealer. The United States more than doubles its closest competitor, Russia, in terms of arms exports by supplying nearly 40 percent of all international arms sales, dealing with 173 nations. These arms sales have only increased under President Obama, increasing by 43 percent from the Bush Administration and, in 2011, more than tripling the annual sales amount of any prior year. The final statistic for approved arms exports throughout 2016 came in at $33.6 billion according to the Department of Defense. Furthermore, within the first few months of the Trump presidency, the defense budget has seen a $30 billion increase, with top defense contractor stocks rising nearly 20 percent.

In the wake of the Saudi Arabia deal, a notable number of Americans are left questioning the authority of the President and the Defense Department. Noted in a comprehensive report by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Saudi Arabia faces a range of human rights issues such as suppression of free speech, gender discrimination, and unusually harsh punishments under its interpretation of Sharia. Compounding the human rights troubles are repeated accusations against the Saudi government of state-sponsored terrorism, including the back-channeling of funds to terror groups. Moreover, in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen bombing campaign, primarily targeting the Houthi rebels, the Saudi government has also been plagued with issues of target misidentification and collateral damage concerns, resulting in Yemeni civilians being the majority of military-caused deaths. These citations are antithetical to the framework and intent of both the US Constitution and American military standards, yet hundreds of billions of dollars in US weaponry have continued to flow into Saudi Arabia. However, in the scope supplying weapons to countries that do not seem to exercise paralleled values and caution as the US, the Saudis are only the beginning of the controversy.

President Trump recently engaged in another seemingly antithetical Middle Eastern arms deal, signing a $12 billion agreement with the Qatari government to supply the nation with dozens of F-15 fighter jets. Similar to the nature of the US-Saudi agreement, this exchange seems to mirror the inherent hypocrisy of the latter. This hypocrisy complicates itself when taking into consideration recent allegations against Qatar made by other Arab states, which have been supported by the American President. President Trump, in a series of Tweets following news of the Qatar allegations, stated that the US will take a strong stance against state-sponsored terrorism and will refuse to fund nations non-combative of radical ideologies—a stance in which he directly implied Qatar’s complicity in harboring terror. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed a different view, responding that “the United States’ relationship with Qatar is strong and we cooperate with Qatar in a number of areas, including in the fight against terror.” With Qatar and Saudi Arabia acting as two of America’s most important Middle Eastern Allies, controversial viewpoints in Washington cast a cloud over the nature of America’s dealings in the region.

The record of controversial Middle Eastern exchanges cannot be solely limited to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, one must also take note of dealings with Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, and Libya. Pakistan, another billion-dollar customer of the United States, has long faced US concerns of harboring Taliban fighters who freely cross back and forth between Afghan and Pakistani borders, contributing to the recent Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Egypt, Turkey, and Libya, who are all billion-dollar arm recipients, have each faced issues of authoritarian governmental control and democratic suppression, adding to the inherent contradictory nature of America’s political ties and weapons exports to the nations. As with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the State Department routinely and publicly criticizes these nations for a lack of adherence to democratic principles such as free speech, free public expression, and freedom of party-political choice. On the flip side, the Department of Defense boasts of the government’s latest efforts in the fight against terror, pointing to the export of arms. Thus, the four aforementioned buyers are often both the recipients of State Department criticism and the United States’ primary customers, as roughly 40 percent of American foreign arms exports are to Middle Eastern recipients. In the continued mass armament of the Middle East, many are left asking: why is the United States engaging in billion dollar arms deals within the volatile and controversial Middle Eastern climate?

The answer is quite simple—one cannot simply scapegoat nations accused of state-sponsored terror and as the root cause of the rapid spread of Islamist extremism, as this is detrimental to all nations involved in the ongoing War on Terror. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with other Middle Eastern allies, are essential to America’s current efforts to combat the threat of terror. For example, for more than a decade, Saudi Arabia has been crucial to taking the fight to Al-Qaeda through countering potential attacks and conducting airstrikes against the group and other terror organizations. Additionally, Qatari forces and nearly ten thousand US military and intelligence personnel currently stationed at Al Udeid Air Base have been tasked with combatting terror in the region. As demonstrated in the aftermath of the initial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the future of the War on Terror hinges upon the ability of all Middle Eastern allies to effectively combat terrorist organizations themselves. Gauging President Trump and Secretary Tillerson’s remarks on the Saudi Arabia agreement and address to Muslim nations earlier in May, the United States is placing stronger emphasis on strengthening its Middle Eastern allies through financial support and the provision of high-capability military hardware and technologies.

Over the course of the War on Terror, he world has witnessed the arms trade secure a stable position within the United States’ combat strategy, which the Department of Defense describes as a “by, with and through” approach, meaning American intervention lies on pacing the war through US backed militias and foreign security forces. Adhering to the bipartisan agenda of preventing the escalation of American involvement, US strategy supports allied fighters through American air power, American special operations advisory, and the influx of American weaponry and technology. For example, as seen in efforts to eradicate ISIS, American-backed troops have steadily reclaimed territory and have tightened the noose on the long-held Islamic State capitals of Mosul and Raqqa in Iraq and Syria. While the provision of arms may seem to be an American attempt to exploit conflict for profit in the eyes of some, American arms exports have undoubtedly proven to assist in both counterterrorism efforts and in strengthening foreign federal forces.

Though this strategy has garnished substantive results over the course of time, Islamist extremism is proving to be a force that will not dissolve in the near future. Thus, the pressure is on US lawmakers to keep American forces out of conflict the public deems “not our business,” all the while maintaining homeland security and keeping the boot of the US military on the throats of terror organizations. America has proven that the sale of weaponry is the new alternative to placing boots on the ground. Not only are American soldiers kept out of harm's way, but our Middle Eastern allies also gain valuable military technologies and indispensable counterterrorism and military experience. With US military weaponry and technologies, Middle Eastern nations are receiving the capabilities and US Special Forces-caliber training to reverse the rampant spread and influence of terror groups. One can only expect the arms trade and military development to persist as America continues to the effort to fight a primarily remote War on Terror.

Bryson Merriweather is a contributing writer for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Bryson Merriweather


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