US peace policy for the Gulf: divide and conquer
The timing of the Gulf arms deal looks very suspicious, according to Mohamed Darwish
The recent announcement of a $20 billion US arms deal with countries in the Arab Gulf has stirred widespread controversy concerning the amount and the short- and long-term effects of this deal on the region. The Gulf, a focal point of tensions over rival regional and international strategic and economic interests, has been the scene of almost constant warfare since 1980.
There appears to be a sharp divergence of views between military and political analysts in the Gulf over the actual objectives and potential effects of this deal. Mustafa Al-Ani, senior advisor and director of the Department of Security and Terrorist Studies in the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, maintains that the deal has been blown way out of proportion and that it would not have a major impact on the balances of power in the region. By contrast, a political science professor at a university in the United Arab Emirates, who asked to remain anonymous, holds that the deal harbours devious political aims and threatens to destabilise the region for a long time to come.
Al-Ani stressed an essential point. The Gulf countries, specifically Saudi Arabia, had requested the arms that are the subject of the deal five years ago. However, for various reasons, the American government deferred approval of the sales. "The shopping list is by no means new and the resultant deal has no relation whatsoever to recent security or political developments in the region," he insisted. Also, according to this strategic analyst, the deal's state-of-the-art weapons and defence equipment comprised are some of the most costly in the world. A $20 billion price tag for such equipment is not excessive in the world of military technology. In addition, although Saudi Arabia will probably be the primary beneficiary of the deal, this relatively modest amount, in terms of military purchases, will be footed collectively by all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Not only that, but payments will be staggered over 10 years, in $2 billion instalments per year, thereby minimising the strain on the economies of the six GCC countries.
When news of the arms deal was released, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that the purpose of the American sale of this advanced weaponry to the Gulf was to strengthen the front against Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. However, Al-Ani emphasised that the Gulf countries had nothing to do, directly or indirectly, with the substance of such statements. The GCC countries are neither bound by such statements, nor do they necessarily share their underlying premises, especially the "source of threat". If anything, the statements must be viewed in the context of the controversy in the US over this deal. Therefore, such interpretations that are aired in that debate do not reflect the positions or commitments on the part of any of the GCC governments.
According to Al-Ani, the criticisms that have been levelled against the GCC countries over the arms contract are groundless. These countries, he said, have no interest in arming themselves beyond what they regard to be their own needs for purely defensive purposes. Iran, by contrast, has been one of the most eager countries in the region to obtain advanced weapons. Yet the Arabs and the GCC countries in particular have never registered any objection to the ambitious armaments programme that Tehran began to put into effect several years ago, in spite of the fact that the development of its Shihab missile system and various other programmes to upgrade its air and naval forces have been a source of considerable anxiety to the Arab countries in the Gulf.
Al-Ani went on to point out that the Gulf arms deal was part of a more comprehensive package that included several other Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. The GCC portion of this package accounts for less than a third of its total value. Moreover, whereas the Gulf countries will pay the full costs for the military equipment they ordered, the $30 billion and $13 billion worth of weaponry destined for Israel and Egypt respectively, will be delivered in the form of grants extended to these two countries over the same 10-year period within the framework of the American foreign military assistance programme.
While the UAE political science professor agrees with Al-Ani that the US-GCC arms deal will not have a significant impact on the military balance of power in the region, he is nevertheless highly suspicious of its political ramifications. Why, he asked, did the US choose this moment, in particular, to announce its approval of that deal, bearing in mind that the countries in question applied for this military equipment more than five years ago, which is to say even before the occupation of Iraq in April 2003?
He argued that the US has suffered a major military and political debacle in Iraq and is currently searching for an honourable exit strategy in order to salvage the prestige of the world's sole superpower. But Washington is not prepared to withdraw "most" of its forces from Iraq until it has ordered the situation in the region in a manner that suits its strategic and geopolitical interests. Its recent behaviour towards Iran leaves not the shadow of a doubt that a major factor in American strategists' calculations in this regard is Tehran's growing political and military influence in the region. Of particular concern to them are Tehran's strategic relations with Syria, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine and, perhaps more immediately, its very tangible impact on anti-American resistance in Iraq. They are therefore pressing to create a "Sunni" front, consisting of the Arab Gulf countries, Egypt and Jordan, to oppose the so-called "Shia" front led by Iran. Their hope is that these parties will clash for years to come, unleashing mounting waves of sectarian strife and exhausting the region militarily, morally and materially, thereby eliminating any effective regional powers and clearing the field for the US to assert its hegemony over the region and beyond.
According to the UAE professor, one of Washington's most frequently used tactics to goad the Gulf countries into falling in line with this scheme is to intimidate them with Iran's growing power. US officials are constantly cautioning of "the dangers of Iran's growing influence in the region" and of "the Iranian regime's ability to agitate the Shia minorities in the Gulf [which represent an average of 30 per cent of the population in these countries] against the regimes." He goes on to point out that even though officials in the Gulf are fully aware of the nature of the pressures Washington is trying to apply and even though they are not taken in by its exaggerated claims with regard to Tehran's regional ambitions, they cannot afford to close their eyes to what is actually happening around them.
However, he continues, the US and Gulf leaders know that the types of weaponry being supplied to them under the arms deal could never withstand an actual Iranian assault -- all the more so given that the arms will not be delivered in a single shipment, but bit by bit over the next 10 years. So, if this is the case, he asked, why did Washington link its unveiling of this deal with statements stressing the need to strengthen the ability of Arab countries in the Gulf to stand up against Iran, Syria and Hizbullah? He believes the answer to this is obvious: the US aims to trigger a situation in which regional forces realign themselves along sectarian divides and then lash out at each other until only the US is left to reap the fruits.
In short, the US is resorting to a form of blackmail, using "the potential threat" of the Shia "enemy". This arms deal, which will have no impact on the actual balance of power in the region, is a product of such extortion. Its purpose is to drain the material resources of the Gulf countries in order to boost the American military industries and to offset the enormous budget deficit that accumulated due to the ongoing occupation of Iraq.
While Gulf leaders are aware of this too, they feel that they are caught in a vice. On the one hand, they realise that no matter how much military equipment they acquire they will never be able to respond on their own to any Iranian military response should a confrontation erupt between American forces in the region and Iran. On the other hand, they cannot afford to turn their backs on the sole superpower which has helped keep their regimes in power. Only the might of the US could have driven Iraqi forces out of Kuwait following the Iraqi occupation of that country in 1990. According to the UAE professor, the only way out of this predicament for the Gulf countries is to do their utmost to distance themselves from the conflict between the US and Iran. They fear that if they do not take such precautions their territories will become the theatre of operations in an impending conflagration that would reduce their countries to rubble and reverse all their recent progress.