U.S. Arms Pipeline Flows to Gulf Arabs
A strong if silent supporter of the United States for three decades, the sultan who rules this Persian Gulf nation has become a major beneficiary of a Bush administration policy to let friendly nations in the region buy billions of dollars of high-tech American weaponry.
As the U.S. shops for allies willing to assist in its war on terrorism -- including a possible attack on Iraq -- the administration is employing a time-honored strategy of using weapons sales as an inducement, analysts say.
Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- all countries where the U.S. has military forces -- have been given approval for major arms purchases. In some cases, the purchase requests had been stalled for years.
Qatar, where the U.S. bases refueling and transport planes and has built a command-and-control center for a possible air war against Iraq, is developing a “shopping list.”
As an unspoken quid pro quo, Persian Gulf “host” nations are expected by most analysts -- and many U.S. officials -- to permit the American military continued use of bases within their boundaries even if the U.S. strikes a fellow Arab country such as Iraq.
In Oman, a Kansas-sized nation of 2.5 million people wedged into the Arabian Peninsula, Sultan Kaboos ibn Said has long allowed the U.S. to base P-3 surveillance planes and AC-130 gunships at three airfields. The U.S. Air Force stores tons of gear at bases here, ready to be immediately sent into a war zone.
One thing the sultan does not do is speak publicly of his long and close ties to Washington.
The sultan’s reticence, while more extreme than most, is in keeping with a general policy among Gulf nations to barely acknowledge the presence of U.S. forces.
“The higher the profile of U.S. troops, the easier it is for domestic Islamic activists, as well as Iran and Iraq, to challenge local governments by exploiting nationalistic and religious resentments over what is interpreted by some as foreign encroachment,” said Joseph Moynihan, formerly a Middle East expert at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.
Although it has been U.S. policy since the 1991 Persian Gulf War to help countries in the region upgrade their military, the program kicked into high gear after the Sept. 11 attacks. A fast-track process has been established to consider such purchases.
Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, is buying upgraded radar and advanced missiles. Bush has declared the island nation a “major non-NATO ally,” which will speed further purchases.
Kuwait, from which the U.S. could launch a ground offensive against Iraq, is buying 400 Hellfire missiles and 16 Apache Longbow attack helicopters. The Apache purchase has been pending since 1994 amid concern in Washington about whether the Kuwaitis needed such advanced firepower. Now it is expected to be completed around year’s end.
The United Arab Emirates, which allows U.S. warplanes to use its airfields, is buying 80 Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighters to be fitted with electronic gear to jam enemy radar.
Oman is buying 12 Fighting Falcons for its small air force; laser-guided bombs; Harpoon, Maverick and HARM missiles; and technology that can turn a “dumb” bomb into a precision-guided weapon. The deal is expected to top $1 billion.
Rachel Stohl, senior analyst with the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, which is often critical of military spending, has warned that “these sales are just the tip of the iceberg. After the Gulf War, arms sales to the Middle East skyrocketed.”
Scholars who study such sales and their impact on regional conflicts are divided about whether the U.S. policy will increase stability in the Gulf or make future wars virtually inevitable.
Joyce Neu, executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego, said the policy is shortsighted and makes the U.S. vulnerable to wars in which it could face an adversary armed with American weapons.
“The reason Iraq has the ability to fight us now is because we furnished weapons to it to fight Iran in the 1980s,” Neu said. “We need to reward coalition partners, but there are other, more benign ways to do it: trade partnerships, economic enticements and such things as educational, cultural and technical exchanges.”
Peter Cowhey, dean of the graduate school of international relations and Pacific studies at UC San Diego, disagrees. Arms sales give the U.S. more influence over the purchaser’s foreign policy because modern military hardware requires upgrades, repairs and maintenance, and that means continued contact with the sellers, he argues.
“The nature of international security relations is that benefits rarely come without risks,” Cowhey said. “Of course, one could say that we should simply encourage regions to abstain from new armaments. But the problem here is that there are other major suppliers of military technology” from which Gulf nations could buy.
Sultan Kaboos is known in diplomatic and military planning circles as one of the United States’ strongest and least demanding friends.
After deposing his father in 1970, the sultan launched a slow but steady modernization drive with U.S. backing aimed at erasing his father’s legacy of isolation and bankruptcy.
Kaboos backed the 1979 Camp David accord between Egypt and Israel, brokered by President Carter. The sultan has spoken of the need for rapprochement with Israel.
Grateful for his support, the U.S. has an informal agreement to protect Oman.
With Washington urging Gulf nations to think cooperatively about security matters and drop their go-it-alone approach, the sultan took a lead in urging the 1981 formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He pressed the council to form a joint military unit to help rein in Iran and Iraq. Oman stares at Iran across the Strait of Hormuz, through which tankers carrying much of the world’s oil must pass.
Although treaties and diplomacy have brought it peace, Oman has had past conflicts with most of its neighbors and fought a war with Marxist rebels in a remote province.
Concern about security runs deep in Omani society. The nation built hundreds of forts to repel invaders from the sea during centuries of trade wars with European powers.
“The sultan is wise times 1,000,” said one Omani when asked about the purchase of advanced U.S. military hardware. “His majesty knows that Oman will have security only if we are strong.”
But this is also a nation attempting to fund social programs to avoid political unrest among the poor. Although it is trying to diversify its economy, Oman is still dependent on its relatively small reserves of oil and natural gas.
After watching U.S. success in Afghanistan, the Omani shopping list was clear. Reluctant to increase the size of its 45,000-member armed forces, it wanted only the best weapons.
“There is a philosophy by his majesty that it is not important the quantity, but rather the quality that matters,” said Abdullah ibn Shuwain al Hosni, undersecretary in the Ministry of Information. “It does not matter how many thousands are in your army, but the quality of those armies.”
Times staff writer Perry was recently on assignment in Oman.