Why is Saudi Arabia stockpiling US weapons?

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The bountiful package of high-end fighter jets, helicopters, radar and missiles that Washington has agreed to sell Saudi Arabia is the strongest signal yet that the two countries have recovered from the their post-9/11 meltdown in bilateral relations.

The arms deal, which President Barack Obama's administration officially unveiled this week to Congress, could potentially bring the U.S. defense industry $60 billion over a decade or more, making it one of the single largest U.S. weapons sales ever.

If Congress does not block the sale – which administration officials said they do not expect – it will further cement the U.S.-Saudi security relationship for years to come. The kingdom will be dependent on U.S. training and maintenance for its new weapons.

The package on the table, which has been under negotiation since the Bush administration, authorizes Saudi Arabia to buy 84 new F-15 fighter jets and three types of helicopters: 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds.

The deal also includes an upgrade for 70 other F-15s already in the Saudi Air Force, as well as Saudi purchases of HARM anti-radar missiles, precision-guided JDAM bombs and Hellfire missiles.

Such a deal could not have happened eight years ago, said Anwar Eshki, chairman of the Jeddah-based Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, because after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, “The United States suspected or believed that Saudi Arabia helped or didn’t block those events.”

However, Saudi Arabia’s subsequent stand against terrorism “enhanced the relationship again,” Eshki said.

Announcing the arms package, U.S. officials stressed that it will add jobs to the ailing U.S. economy and, by signaling U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security, help deter potential Iranian aggression.

But the transfer of such state-of-the-art weaponry to Saudi Arabia is unlikely to enhance stability in the volatile Middle East or do much to keep Saudi Arabia safe from the dangers it faces, analysts said.

“The real problems in the Middle East are about domestic politics, not about international relations,” said F. Gregory Gause III, an expert in Saudi Arabia and professor of political science at the University of Vermont.

Those dangers include a paralyzed political process and potential security vacuum in Iraq, and deteriorating economic and security conditions in poverty-stricken Yemen, where a robust Al Qaeda affiliate has found safe haven.

Its long border with Yemen means that Saudi Arabia could potentially face an influx of Yemeni refugees fleeing civil strife, or a resurgence of the 2009 border conflict with Yemeni rebels that left more than 100 Saudi soldiers dead.

In addition, a continued deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raises the eventual possibility of violent outbreaks by frustrated Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, or another military confrontation between Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

“I just got back four days ago from the West Bank,” said Washington-based Mark Perry, an independent military and foreign policy analyst. “It’s dark and gloomy and volatile and it’s very worrisome … The potential for violence is incredible, especially in East Jerusalem and Hebron.”

All these situations degrade the security environment of Saudi Arabia, but are unlikely to be impacted by the proposed arms deal.

“I don’t think that these weapons are going to protect Saudi Arabia from the real threats it faces in the region,” said Gause.

Moreover, the arms package is “not even that useful in balancing Iran militarily” because Iran is capitalizing on its political relationships with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraq’s leadership, Gause added. “That’s how they’re spreading their influence in the region.”

However, “if there is one strategic reason to be in favor of this arms sale, it’s our leverage in a proliferation situation,” said Gause.

“If the Iranians do obtain a nuclear capability, Saudi Arabia will face a choice: Do we get one or not?” he explained. The proposed arms deal may make the Saudis more “comfortable with the American security guarantee” and thus give the United States “some leverage, some credibility” when attempting to dissuade Riyadh from going down the same nuclear route as Iran, he added.

Amman-based Mouin Rabbani, an independent writer and analyst specializing in Palestinian affairs, said he sees the arms deal as a way of “solidifying the strategic alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia” with the “underlying message” that “Iran won’t be able to attack Saudi Arabia without eliciting an American response.”

But Rabbani does not see the arms deal itself fulfilling Saudi defense needs. “I think with all due respect that the people who try to understand the arms purchase on the basis of Saudi military needs fundamentally misunderstand” the situation, he said. “Any military objective is entirely secondary. What this is really about is ... to buy regime security …. Military acquisitions are an important [way of] petrodollar recycling.”

Jeddah-based analyst Eshki said that Saudis are struck by the fact that, unlike in the past, Israel is not objecting to the proposed arms package.

Perhaps, he said, this is “because Israel has two enemies – a wise enemy and a lunatic enemy.”
Since the arms are being sold to Saudi Arabia and not Iran, he added, the Israelis “can accept” the deal.