Who Benefits from Massive Arms Deals?

The autocratic monarchies, Sultanate, and Emirates of the oil rich Gulf Arab states are some of the most heavily armed countries in the world. Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia allocate the largest percentage of their gross domestic product for military spending.

The advertised reason for procuring such large quantities of sophisticated and highly priced military hardware is to enable the rulers to defend their populations from their “Iranian enemies.” This claim by the Gulf rulers and arms sellers does not convince many of their citizens or knowledgeable regional observers and analysts.

Analysts argue that the Gulf rulers’ purchases of large quantities of modern military equipment are more likely to be used to defend themselves against their increasingly restless populations. For instance, the Saudi rulers dispatched their troops and heavy equipment to crush the pro-democracy and pro-justice revolt in neighboring Bahrain to prevent the spread of such unrest to Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, the Kuwaiti Emir has mobilized his special forces to ensure that the large demonstrations by young and liberal Kuwaitis against his family’s rule are forcefully contained. Critics of the Saudi and other Gulf ruling families argue that since the defense of these rulers and their countries from external threats is guaranteed by their Western allies, specifically the US, they can only be buying this variety of advanced and expensive military hardware to defend themselves against their restive and oppressed citizens.

Furthermore, critics maintain that Gulf rulers are pouring billions of dollars into Western economies through the purchase of expensive military equipment as an advance payment for the protection that Western Powers are expected to provide when needed.

Following his re-election on November 6, 2012, President Barak Obama asked the US Congress to approve a $24.2 billion arms sale to Gulf Arab states including twenty-five transports and refueling aircraft for the Saudis. The autocratic Saudi monarchy has already concluded a $60 billion arms deal with the Obama Administration in 2010. They have made these gigantic purchases from the US in addition to larger amounts from eastern and western Europe in recent years.

Germany in particular supplied the Saudi state with 270 advanced Leopard 2 battle tanks in 2011 and is currently in the process of concluding a deal for several hundred Boxer armored personnel carriers that are “well suited for suppressing uprisings.” Opponents of this deal recognize that the recipient of these Boxers, the Saudi Arabian National Guard, would certainly be involved in suppressing any kind of mass demonstrations, and that these German tanks would inevitably be used for “fighting revolting crowds.”

The Saudi people are wondering why their government is spending these huge sums on arms when they know that the US will defend their country from external threats as it did in 1990-1991, when Saddam Hussein attempted to take over Saudi oil fields. They know that as long as the Saudi ruling family has oil and uses it to maintain acceptable prices and an adequate supply, and prevents other OPEC members from causing global economic disruptions through oil supply or currency manipulation, the West will defend them at any cost.

Many of the politically subdued people of the Gulf States know that their autocratic regimes are more interested in defending themselves against their disenfranchised populations than they are fearful of Iran’s attacks on their desert domains.

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They also know that those who help to invent and exaggerate the ruling dynasties’ scare tactics regarding external threats are more interested in securing lucrative arms and other business deals than they are concerned about the protection and well-being of the millions of oppressed inhabitants of the Gulf.

While many of the Gulf Arab populations understand, and some even appreciate, the West’s reasons for trying to ensure the Gulf region’s stability, they are perplexed and saddened by the West’s continued support for their despotic rulers while simultaneously supporting other Arab populations that are overthrowing their dictators, some of whom are less dangerous to Western interests, democratic systems and way of life than the Saudi monarchy, which the West is doing all it can to protect.

Arab populations of the Gulf have had mostly pleasant and beneficial contacts with Westerners for centuries. All of the land of the small Gulf States was colonized and politically divided by the British Empire. Their infrastructure was fashioned by the British and many in their populations have been educated in Europe. Compared to the Saudis, the populations and ruling families of the small Gulf States, especially Bahrain, are more socially relaxed, politically advanced and religiously tolerant.

However, the last two generations of Saudis have had extensive contacts with the West, especially with Americans. This is due to the exploration, production and exportation of Saudi oil. American companies have largely built Saudi Arabia from the ground up. Hundreds of thousands of Saudis and Americans have worked side by side. They have also studied in American schools, and conducted business with US companies almost exclusively until the era of globalization and the rise of Asian powers and cheaper products.

Due to this history, the Saudi people like and trust the Americans more than any other people. As emphasized in this article, the Saudi people are lamenting the decline of American involvement in their country, especially in the construction industry.

Given their long history and association with the West, a significant number of the people of the Gulf States are bewildered by their trusted Western allies’ continued support for tyrannical rulers at a time when prudence demands support for democratic movements, especially in Saudi Arabia, a country whose government’s institutions advocate destruction of democratic systems and whose doctrine poses a lethal threat to Western democracies.

Continued unconditional Western sales of military hardware to Gulf Arab autocracies will empower extremists and alienate potential allies in Saudi Arabia and throughout the region. The long-term consequences are likely to dwarf all financial benefits the West is currently reaping from arms sales to Gulf Arab regimes.

Empowering one’s sworn enemy constitutes indulgence in self-destruction and endangerment of Western democratic ideals, especially individual liberty and freedom of expression.

Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountability. Read other articles by Ali.