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Tottering equations

Print edition : Apr 08, 2011 T+T-
Jordan, which has been witnessing widespread street protests, bought U.S. weaponry worth $431 million in 2010. Here, opposition supporters hold a placard reading "The penniless people" during a demonstration on March 11 in Amman demanding sweeping government reforms.-KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP

Jordan, which has been witnessing widespread street protests, bought U.S. weaponry worth $431 million in 2010. Here, opposition supporters hold a placard reading "The penniless people" during a demonstration on March 11 in Amman demanding sweeping government reforms.-KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP

Much of the oil revenues of West Asian countries go back to the West through arms manufacturers.

EVEN as the Arab street is on the boil demanding the ouster of authoritarian regimes, Western governments are busy trying to notch up multi-billion-dollar deals in the region. In Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen, United States-supplied weaponry and crowd control equipment such as tear gas shells and rubber bullets have been used against protesters. The oil-exporting states in West Asia have been splurging their money on buying sophisticated weaponry worth billions of dollars, mainly from the U.S., while allowing their economies to suffer. These lop-sided priorities of the pro-Western regimes in the region are a factor that has ignited the ongoing popular revolts.

British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the Gulf states in the last week of February accompanied by representatives from leading arms manufacturers. Cameron was not at all contrite on the issue of funnelling high-tech weaponry into a volatile region. Britain, along with France, had recently suspended weapons sales to Bahrain and Libya after security forces there fired live ammunition on protesters. But the big markets for international arms merchants are among the Gulf sheikdoms and emirates, which are flush with petrodollars. Leveraging the so-called threat Iran poses to its neighbours, the U.S. has already sold weapons worth $50 billion in the region between 2006 and 2009. The Obama administration has notified the U.S. Congress of potential military exports to West Asia worth more than $100 billion in the years 2009 and 2010.

The Egyptian government purchased weapons worth more than $2 billion from the U.S. in 2009. Egypt is the second biggest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel. Between 2001 and 2008, Egypt purchased weaponry worth $10.4 billion. The recently deposed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali government in Tunisia bought weapons worth more than $15 million in 2009. Jordan, another country that is witnessing widespread street protests, bought American weaponry worth $431 million last year. Tiny Bahrain, where the people have been on the streets since early February, splurged $100 million on American arms in 2010. Some of the weaponry was used against peaceful protesters in Pearl Square in Manama, the capital, during a midnight raid by the security forces in the third week of February. U.S. arms sales to Iraq after the 2003 invasion have been worth $3.5 billion.

The United Arab Emirates alone is planning to spend $6 billion in military purchases in the next eight years. In the last decade, the UAE purchased around $10 billion worth of armaments from the U.S. One-third of the total U.S. arms sales are to West Asia, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE being the biggest customers. Late last year, the U.S. signed one of its biggest deals, worth $60 billion, with Saudi Arabia. It includes the purchase of advanced military aircraft, helicopters, missiles and bombs. Between 2001 and 2008, according to figures compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the United Nations, the Saudi kingdom spent $34.9 billion in military purchases, twice more than the combined defence procurements of China and India in that period.

A significant amount of the profits the Saudi state generates from the oil bonanza is ploughed back into the pockets of U.S. companies through multi-billion-dollar deals. Robert Baer, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer with considerable experience in West Asia, has written that a tacit part of U.S.-Saudi relations was that the Americans would buy Saudi oil and would provide the Saudis with protection and security. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Andrew Shapiro, stated recently that the sale of sophisticated military equipment to the Saudis was meant to further align the kingdom's military relationship with the U.S. and allow the kingdom to better protect its oil infrastructure, which is critical to our economic interests.

This recycling of petrodollars back to the West has now been profitably extended by Washington to states such as the UAE and, in the recent past, to Libya after the West rehabilitated Muammar Qaddafi on the world stage. European Union states alone provided Qaddafi with weapons worth more than $474 million in 2009.

The West's embargo on arms sales to Libya was lifted in 2004. Now the U.S. and the E.U. want to set up a no-fly zone over Libya following the takeover of the eastern part of the country by rebel forces. An economic and arms embargo has been imposed on the Qaddafi-led government in Tripoli while arms and money are being supplied to the rebels holed up in Benghazi. West Asia today is the most militarised region in the world, while its people are the most repressed. The alliance between the West and the authoritarian rulers has meant excellent profits for the armaments industry. In 2006, the British government, citing national interests, stepped in to stop a probe against the arms manufacturer BAE for bribing Saudi officials to sweeten a multi-billion-dollar deal.

Many of the more than 1,000 U.S. military bases around the world are located in the volatile West Asia region. Qaddafi kicked out the Americans from their military bases in Libya soon after the ousting of the Libyan monarch King Idris in a military coup in 1988. But the foothold the Pentagon lost in northern Africa was more than compensated for by the permanent bases it established since in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and many other Gulf states. The military bases the U.S. has set up in the region after the two Gulf wars are among the biggest in the region.

The U.S. military presence near Islam's holiest places in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s was a highly emotive issue in the Arab world. Most of those involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks were Saudi nationals. In the last week of February, another Saudi citizen was arrested in the U.S. for allegedly planning terror attacks. Although the U.S. has pulled out a large number of its troops from Saudi Arabia, many U.S. troops still remain in secret micro-bases near the capital, Riyadh. In Oman, the U.S. uses the base on Masirah Island for its military activities in the region.

The U.S. military bases in neighbouring Kuwait host around 15,000 troops. In Iraq, the occupying American military has an unspecified number of bases. Washington has indicated that after the planned withdrawal of the bulk of the U.S. forces from the country, it would like to hold on to five big military bases. Bahrain hosts one of the biggest American naval bases. Its strategic location astride the Strait of Hormuz abutting Iran is crucial to the American game plan of dominating the region militarily.

It also explains why the Obama administration is treating the ruling Khalifa dynasty there with kid gloves while brandishing the big stick at Qaddafi. President Barack Obama is continuing the policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who saw the West Asian regimes as a bulwark against America's current bete noire in the region Iran. Washington's goal in the region was to transform the Arab-Israeli conflict into one between the Arabs and Iran. By overstating Teheran's nuclear ambitions, the West sought to drive a wedge between Iran and its neighbours. With the Arab world now caught up in the vortex of revolutionary change, Iran may no longer be seen as a threat by the new governments that are likely to emerge.

The U.S. Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar played a crucial role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some years ago the U.S. agreed to sell 80 advanced F-16s to the UAE in a deal worth around $15 billion. In return, the U.S. was allowed to build military bases there with access to the only deep-water port in the Persian Gulf capable of accommodating aircraft carriers. The U.S. Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) released in 2010 noted that the U.S. is a global power with global responsibilities. The U.S. has 400,000 soldiers rotationally deployed around the world. Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the Central Command (CENTCOM), told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that the Arabian peninsula commanded significant U.S. attention and focus because of the importance of our interests and the potential for insecurity. He described the countries in the region as key partners. Petraeus said that the Obama administration was also planning to build expensive missile defence systems in the Gulf region. The Obama administration announced in November last that it planned to sell Patriot interceptor missiles worth more than $900 million to Kuwait.

All of these cooperative efforts are facilitated by the critical base and port facilities that Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and others provide for U.S. forces, said Petraeus. The U.S. has deep security relations with Jordan, which is also witnessing serious protests. While speaking at the opening of the King Abdullah 11 Special Operations Training Centre (KASOTC) built with American financing, General Petraeus lauded Jordan as a key partner which has placed itself at the forefront of police and military training for regional security forces. The present popular upsurge in the Arab world, especially in the oil-producing hubs where the American military presence is most visible, is sending jitters down the spine of the U.S.

Washington is worried not only about the fate of its bases but also about the sophisticated weaponry it has supplied to the states in the region. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran under the Shah had assumed the role of a regional policeman on behalf of the Americans. The U.S. government had given the Shah state-of-the-art weaponry available at the time. The weapons were duly inherited by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which was immediately put under an arms embargo by the U.S., making it very difficult for Teheran to get spare parts for the F-14 jets and other U.S.-made weapons.

Egypt under Hosni Mubarak was among the staunchest U.S. allies in the region and the recipient of American military largesse. The military leadership that has taken over after Mubarak remains close to the U.S. But the Obama administration is fearful about the future. A democratically elected government in Egypt will find it difficult to play a subservient role to the U.S. in the region and also peacefully coexist with Israel, which keeps on trampling on Palestinian rights. American military analysts in fact say that the Obama administration should continue with the policy of underwriting military aid for Egypt, arguing that this will continue to give Washington a say in the promotion of a post-Mubarak political system beneficial to its interests.

The Arab street will have a different take on the matter. The arming of authoritarian rulers and the building of bases on their territory by the U.S. constitute an affront to Arab dignity and nationhood. The blowback against the U.S., starting with the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, may have just begun.