Trump's Plan for Selling Weapons to the Middle East

Members of Saudi security forces take part in a military parade in preparation for the annual Haj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca

While most Obama-era sales to the Middle East were fighter jets and helicopters, air defense systems and munitions top the list so far in the Trump presidency.

While the United States remains the main guarantor of Sunni Arab security, with the presence of naval, land and air forces in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Iraq, these countries have adopted a deliberate policy of diversifying their arms imports choosing to spend tens of billions of dollars on European or Russian weapon systems rather than on U.S.-made arms. Even Egypt, the recipient of a generous annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid, has tapped from its reserves and loaned from Gulf states and from suppliers in order to purchase at least $13 billions worth of weapon systems since 2013 from France, Germany, and Russia rather than from the United States.

At its core, this policy of diversification is designed to increase Arab leverage on the United States, to retain freedom of action and to hedge against possible U.S. regional retrenchment. Therefore, easing U.S. defense export regulations or reducing surcharge rates will not necessarily make much difference to the choices that these countries will make regarding the purchase of American versus non-American-made weapon systems.

Arms diversification reduces an over-dependency of the Arab countries on U.S.-supplied weapon systems that could be used to prevent their freedom of action. Being overly reliant on U.S. platforms, munitions, logistical and technical support could undermine the efficacy of military action at a time of increased Arab willingness to take their own initiative, sometimes in the face of American disapproval. The purchase of advanced European weapon systems demonstrates the futility of the United States trying to over-restrict military actions by the Arab countries in places like Yemen and Libya, whether by the administration or by Congress.

In addition, the competition that diversification creates between U.S. and European manufacturers for the Arab arms market continually pushes up the quality of the capabilities being offered. Arab purchasing power has helped them to undermine the level of U.S. restrictions on the types and the sophistication of the weapon systems released to them. Consequently, highly advanced U.S. weapon systems and munitions have been sold to countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, at a level that probably exceeds what would have been released if they were solely dependent on U.S. arms.

Buying substantial amounts of French, British, Russian and German-made weapon systems also serves to reinforce the security relationships between Egypt, the Gulf states, and these countries as a way to hedge against a possible weakening of America’s regional commitment. The Obama administration’s desire to pivot away from the region towards Asia reinforced the need for arms diversification by the Arab countries as a means to bolster their relations with other extra-regional powers who could possibly help guarantee their security. U.S. retrenchment from the Middle East is still not considered to be a far-fetched prospect.

Political goals obviously play an important role in the degree of arms diversification. Qatar has attempted to overcome its regional isolation by purchasing arms abroad to enhance multiple partnerships. It has recently negotiated deals with the United States for thirty-six F-15s ($6.2 billion) and precision-guided munitions ($300 million), with the UK for twenty-four Eurofighters ($6.7 billion), with Italy for helicopters ($3 billion) and for warships ($5 billion). In addition, it has negotiated deals with its regional partner Turkey ($700 million) as well as with Norway ($1.9 billion).

Implications

Increasing or even retaining the significant contribution of foreign-military sales to America’s economy will require continued substantial orders from the Middle East and Asia. Overall, Arab demand for expensive U.S.-made major weapon systems may, however, have peaked for the time being, following the extensive sales of the past decade. In the major categories of airplanes, helicopters, warships and air-defense systems the Arab clients are probably at or close to their capacity limits. With residue demands being shared among multiple arms exporters in line with the Arab policy of diversification.

The variance between the Trump administration’s desire to increase arms sales to the Middle East and the declining regional demand for what the United States presently markets, will require something more than expeditious export approvals or a reduced surcharge. The president will in all likelihood bring pressure to bear on Arab leaders to “buy American” as a price for continued U.S. security guarantees to the countries of the region. In addition, his administration looks set to create new opportunities for arms exports through the release of advanced capabilities hitherto denied to the Arab countries, including the F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet and armed drones.

The release of these capabilities is obviously problematic from the viewpoint of America’s commitment to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME). Declining arms exports in combination with the pressures from Saudi Arabia, the UAE as well as from Lockheed Martin, is tilting the balance in favor of selling the F-35 fighter to the Arab countries. This could indeed contribute considerably to keeping the Middle East as a major arms market in the years to come.

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