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Arms Sales a Critical Agenda Item for Obama-GCC Summit

When President Obama meets May 13 -14 with leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations at the White House and Camp David, he will attempt to reassure the Arab leaders that the Administration is not tilting towards an alliance with Iran, as part of the final round of P5+1 negotiations.  One of the main offers Obama is making is increased arms deals—both quantitative and qualitative.  

For their part, the GCC heads of state will have a concrete agenda, to test Washington’s resolve in living up to its collective security obligations to the vital region.  They will be bringing a list of state-of-the-art weapons systems that they wish to purchase from American defense manufacturers, and President Obama is likely to welcome the requests with open arms.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia spent a total of $80 billion on defense, making it the fourth largest military spender in the world.  The GCC countries are expected to spend $18 billion in new weapons purchases this year, led by Saudi Arabia.  In 2014, the United Arab Emirates spent $23 billion on defense. 

Qatar is finishing work on contracts with American arms suppliers to buy $11 billion in Apache attack helicopters and Patriot and Javelin air defense systems.  The GCC market has reached such a size that the two largest American weapons manufacturers, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have opened full-time sales offices in Doha.  And Lockheed Martin has, for the first time, established a foreign arms sales division, with the goal of generating 25-30 percent of total revenue in overseas sales in the coming years.

Since Russia’s recent announcement that it will go forward with the sale of S-300 air defense systems to Iran, after having stalled the sale for years, as part of the pressure on Tehran to sign the P5+1 deal, the US is now preparing to sell F-35 stealth fighter jets to GCC countries.  The high-priced F-35s can penetrate and defeat the S-300 air defenses.

Anthony Cordesman, a leading US military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently noted that the quality of weapons now being sold to the GCC states, Egypt and Jordan, are a reflection of the new regional geopolitical reality:  Israel and the Arab states share the assessment that Iran represents the greatest threat to regional stability.  Under a 2006 US law, American arms sales into the region must preserve Israel’s security needs.  Dr. Cordesman noted that the beefing up of GCC, Egyptian and Jordanian military capacities fit that requirement now, given the priority targeting of Iranian surrogates and Sunni extremists.

Some critics of the burgeoning arms market in the region have argued that it will further fuel sectarian conflict; however, supporters point out that Arab states are conducted bombing raids on Islamic State (ISIL) positions in Syria, from bases in Jordan, and recently, Egypt and the UAE conducted bombings of Ansar al-Sharia and Libyan Dawn military sites in Libya.

At the recent Idex arms show in Abu Dhabi, another significant trend in arms sales was noted.  Top selling hardware included surveillance drones, and heavy air transport vehicles capable of firing precision-guided stand-off missiles.  These weapons systems reflect the active role of the Gulf States in conducting counterinsurgency warfare against non-state terrorists.

While the United States has been the largest supplier of weapons to the GCC, Egypt and Jordan, totaling more than $8.4 billion in 2014, other NATO countries are also engaged.  France is in the process of selling their new Rafale fighter jets to the UAE.

It is expected that, in the coming weeks, the UAE will finalize a contract to purchase Predator drones from the US, manufactured by General Atomics, making it the first non-NATO country to be approved for sales.

Increasingly, Sunni Arab states have taken the lead in regional security operations, most recently seen in the month-long campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.  During that operation, the Pentagon provided the Saudis and allied Arab states with targeting data on precise locations of arms depots and other infrastructure targets.  Now, one of the short-term priorities for the GCC states is to replenish the stockpiles of missiles and bombs that were deployed in that campaign.

For President Obama, the dramatic boost in quantity and quality of arms sales to Arab allies is a “win win” proposition.  With cuts in Pentagon spending projected to continue for the remainder of the Obama presidency, the foreign sales have been a boon to an American manufacturing sector that has been in net decline for decades.  In 2013, the last year that comprehensive data is available, Lockheed Martin sold a global total of $45.5 billion in weapons and aerospace hardware, Boeing sold $30.9 billion, Northrop Grumman sold $24 billion, Raytheon sold $23 billion and General Dynamics sold $31.2 billion.  These Big Five US defense giants boosted sales to the Gulf by an estimated 25 percent in 2014.

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