Kuwait recently signed a contract with the Eurofighter consortium for 28 advanced Typhoon strike jets worth $8.7 billion as part of a major drive to upgrade the emirate’s air force, which for decades has almost exclusively used US-built aircraft.
The deal, struck in April, was a major setback for Boeing, which has failed to secure approval to deliver 40 F/A- 18E/F Super Hornet fighters under a 2014 request by Kuwait aimed at replacing its older F-18 variants.
Increasingly, the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, fear the delay in providing them with requested arms is a deliberate move by the United States as it disengages in the Middle East, despite repeated promises to sell the Gulf monarchies whatever weapons they need to maintain their defences in a region filled with conflicts.
US President Barack Obama promised GCC leaders at a meeting at his Camp David retreat in May 2015 that he would be “fast-tracking arms transfers”. However, that has not happened.
“There’s a sinking feeling we’ve been sold out to the Iranians and also that this is becoming a double whammy as the distrust is increasing between Gulf leaders and the US,” said Abdullah al-Shayji, a political science professor at Kuwait University.
“I hope the Americans will wise up so as to raise this increasing trust deficit that’s been here over the last two years.”
The complaints about US foot-dragging on arms sales were given weight by a May report by Foreign Policy, citing US officials, that the Obama administration has “quietly placed” a block on sales of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia for use in its war in neighbouring Yemen. Human rights groups claim these and other US-supplied aerial weapons are causing mounting civilian casualties.
“It’s the first concrete step the United States has taken to demonstrate its unease with the Saudi bombing campaign” that Riyadh says is aimed at Iran-backed Houthi rebels, Foreign Policy observed.
There was no official US confirmation but there is growing unease in the United States and the US Congress with Saudi Arabia’s new aggressive foreign policy, largely in response to threatening moves by long-time regional rival Iran.
US Senators Chris Murphy and Rand Paul, introduced an amendment in June to limit US bomb sales to Saudi Arabia. Similar efforts are under way in the British parliament and, in late February, the European Parliament passed a non-binding arms embargo on Saudi Arabia to signal its alarm over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
The Yemen conflict, which erupted in March 2015, is one of several factors causing this alarm about the Gulf monarchies in Washington, deepening a Western rift with Riyadh largely triggered by the US decision to disengage militarily from a region where it has protected the Arabs.
Long-standing US-Saudi links, built on an exchange of US military support for a reliable flow of oil, have been strained as the United States built greater energy self-reliance. The turn to open Arab distrust following the July 2015 nuclear agreement between US-led world powers and Iran, Gulf states see as a dangerous shift towards Tehran.
Shayji said Kuwait’s decision to buy the European jets was a sharp message to Washington “that… Kuwait will not be waiting any more for US approvals while other alternatives are present”.
Qatar also is running out of patience over its 2014 request to buy 73 Boeing F-15E/F Strike Eagle jets worth as much as $12 billion.
Like other GCC states, it is increasingly infuriated by US red tape that is holding up major arms deals. Meanwhile, Iran is engaged in a major modernisation of its armed forces with funds stemming from its nuclear deal that included releasing frozen assets worth $100 billion and lifting sanctions.
Left with a choice of alienating Israel or Qatar, which accommodates the nerve centre of US air operations in Syria and Iraq at the sprawling Al-Udeid Airbase in the desert west of Doha, the US administration has been paralysed on the issue.
Qatar sees Israel as the primary problem. The hard-line government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has expressed deep concern about the Strike Eagle deal because of the gas-rich emirate’s dalliance with Islamic extremists.
Israel’s deepest concern is that its Qualitative Military Edge (QME) over its regional adversaries, which the United States has pledged to maintain, will be eroded if the Americans deliver advanced weapons to the GCC states.
“The US balance-of-power strategy in the Middle East is approaching a potential pitfall,” the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed. “A number of crucial arms contracts for the sale of US weaponry to several GCC states are at risk of falling through because of Israeli opposition.”
The above edited article by James Bruce, originally appeared in The Arab Weekly
There is a great deal wrong with Saudi Arabian policy in Yemen although, it should be said, that Washington has not previously been overly picky about where its weapons were deployed.
With an eye to a plethora of potentially lucrative deals with Iran, the US sees considerable political mileage in biding its time over giving these deals the green light.
However, the real consideration behind the foot dragging by Washington is the objection of Israel. Tel Aviv has been outspoken in condemning all American arms sale agreements with the GCC region, especially Qatar, who has offered generous financial support to a number of organisations the Israelis find, at best, “questionable”, including Hamas.
Gulf Arabs may well feel that President Obama has deserted them now he is no longer dependent on their oil and gas deposits but until and unless he comes through for them on the mooted arms deals it is for sure his successor in the White House will not look on the proposed arrangements any more favourably, given the power of the Jewish Lobby and its determination to follow orders from Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, European dealers continue to benefit from the current impasse, as witnessed by the $8.7 billion deal with Kuwait. Could it be their humanitarian concerns are less well developed than those of Washington, or that the leverage of the Israelis is not quite so pronounced in European capitals?