A de facto alliance in the Mideast against Iran has opened the way to more sales to Arab states, and raised fears of an arms race.
WASHINGTON — To wage war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using F-15 jet fighters bought from Boeing. Pilots from the United Arab Emirates are flying Lockheed Martin’s F-16 to bomb Yemen and Syria. Soon the Emirates are expected to complete a deal with General Atomics for a fleet of Predator drones to run spying missions in their neighborhood.
As the Middle East descends into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks, countries in the region that have stockpiled U.S. military hardware are using it and wanting more.
The result is a boom for U.S. defense contractors looking for foreign business in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets — but one that also raises the prospect of a dangerous new arms race in a region where the map of alliances has been sharply redrawn.
Last week, defense-industry officials told Congress they were expecting within days a request from Arab allies fighting the Islamic State group — Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt — to buy thousands of U.S.-made missiles, bombs and other weapons, replenishing an arsenal that has been depleted in the past year.
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The U.S. has long put restrictions on the types of weapons U.S. defense firms can sell to Arab nations, meant to ensure that Israel keeps a military advantage against its traditional adversaries in the region. But because Israel and the Arab states are in a de facto alliance against Iran, the Obama administration has been far more willing to allow the sale of advanced weapons in the Persian Gulf region, with few public objections from Israel.
“When you look at it, Israel’s strategic calculation is a simple one,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Gulf countries “do not represent a meaningful threat” to Israel, he said. “They do represent a meaningful counterbalance to Iran.”
Industry analysts and Middle East experts say the region’s turmoil and the determination of the wealthy Sunni nations to battle Shiite Iran for regional supremacy will lead to a surge in new orders for the defense industry’s latest, most high-tech hardware.
The militaries of Gulf nations have been “a combination of something between symbols of deterrence and national flying clubs,” said Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst at the Teal Group. “Now they’re suddenly being used.”
Saudi Arabia spent more than $80 billion on weaponry last year — the most ever, and more than either France or Britain — and has become the world’s fourth-largest defense market, according to figures released last week by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks global-military spending. The Emirates spent nearly $23 billion last year, more than three times what they spent in 2006.
Qatar, another Gulf country with bulging coffers and a desire to assert its influence throughout the Middle East, is on a shopping spree. Last year, Qatar signed an $11 billion deal with the Pentagon to purchase Apache attack helicopters and Patriot and Javelin air-defense systems.
The tiny nation is hoping to make a large purchase of Boeing F-15 fighters to replace its aging fleet of French Mirage jets. Qatari officials are expected to present the Obama administration with a wish list of advanced weapons before they go to Washington next month for meetings with other Gulf nations.
U.S. defense firms are following the money. Boeing opened an office in Doha, Qatar, in 2011, and Lockheed Martin set up an office there this year. Lockheed created a division in 2013 devoted solely to foreign military sales, and the company’s chief executive, Marillyn Hewson, has said Lockheed needs to increase foreign business — with a goal of global-arms sales becoming 25 percent to 30 percent of its revenue — in part to offset the shrinking of the Pentagon budget after the post-Sept. 11 boom.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe the proxy wars in the Middle East could last for years, which will make countries in the region even more eager for the F-35 fighters, considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal of weapons.
The plane, the world’s most expensive weapons project, has stealth capabilities and has been marketed heavily to European and Asian allies. It has not been peddled to Arab allies because of concerns about preserving Israel’s military edge.
But with the balance of power in the Middle East in flux, several defense analysts said that could change. Russia is a major arms supplier to Iran, and a decision by President Vladimir Putin to sell an advanced air-defense system to Iran could increase demand for the F-35, which is likely to have the ability to penetrate Russian-made defenses.
“This could be the precipitating event: the emerging Sunni-Shia civil war coupled with the sale of advanced Russian air-defense systems to Iran,” Aboulafia said. “If anything is going to result in F-35 clearance to the Gulf states, this is the combination of events.”
At the same time, giving the Gulf states the ability to strike Iran at a time of their choosing might be the last thing the U.S. wants. There are already questions about how judicious U.S. allies are in using U.S. weaponry.
“A good number of the American arms that have been used in Yemen by the Saudis have been used against civilian populations,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an assertion that Saudi Arabia denies.