Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Deal of century

Ahead of efforts by the Trump administration to resolve core conflicts in the Middle East, Washington is sealing unprecedented arms deals

Deal of century
Deal of century

It was officially announced in Washington this week that US President Donald Trump will take his first tour of the Middle East and Europe this month. According to Reuters and other international news agencies, the tour will include Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican. While in Saudi Arabia, the two sides will discuss an unprecedentedly huge arms deal to the tune of $115 billion. Up to now Saudi defence spending ranged around $63.7 billion annually according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Military affairs experts consulted by Al-Ahram Weekly have described the deal, which has not yet been finalised, as the largest in Saudi history since the Yamama deal with Britain in the mid-1980s.

According to the Reuters report, the package includes conventional armaments such as combat vehicles, including the Bradley fighting vehicle and M109 artillery vehicle, as well as munitions, including armour-piercing Penetrator Warheads and Paveway laser-guided bombs the sale of which the Obama administration had previously suspended due to humanitarian concerns related to the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

However, the most important items are a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system with several batteries and a C2BMC software system for battle command and control and communications as well as a package of satellite capabilities, all to be provided by Lockheed Martin once Congress approves the deal.

“The deal must be seen in the context of comprehensive arrangements for the security of the Gulf,” said General Chief of Staffs Mohamed Qashqoush, adviser at the Nasser Higher Military Academy in Cairo, in an interview with the Weekly. “In this regard we need to consider the alliances on the other side, such as that which emerged between Iran and Russia against the backdrop of their working together in Syria. Iran has accumulated considerable expertise there during the past five years and it will probably sustain a presence in Syria in the future, perhaps behind a Russian facade. Another thing is that Russia and Iran form an alliance west of the Gulf which, in turn, casts to the fore the idea of the Gulf defence umbrella again.”

Last week, the US and Russia, together with Iran and Turkey, the regional parties to the conflict in Syria, agreed to create four safe zones in Syria. Major General Majed Anwar Eshqi, director of the Middle East Political and Strategic Studies Centre in Jeddah, told the Weekly by phone that while he generally agrees with General Qashqoush with regard to arrangements in the Gulf, he believes that, above all, there is a shift in US policy towards the Gulf. The Obama administration was in the process of withdrawing from the Gulf region and repositioning itself in East Asia, meaning that the Middle East is no longer a great priority for it. The current administration believes that the Middle East is still a priority, albeit it without neglecting the US’s other areas of influence. At the same time, it believes that it is possible to compensate for the absence of a US military presence in the region by means of a technologically sophisticated military machine and managing military relations within the framework of partnerships with countries in this region.

Major General Eshqi noted that, “The security of this region rests on two pillars. One is the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); the other is Egypt. The US understands this quite well, as seen from the preparatory tour to the region undertaken by the US secretary of defense and, prior to that, the meetings [in Washington] with Arab leaders such as Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the monarchs of Jordan and the Emirates.” He also held that these movements must be seen in a larger context that includes the arrangements in Syria, the use of the “Mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan combined with the visit to that country by the US national security advisor in order to call for a halt to all support to the Taliban, and the message to Iran that the US might repeat the experience in Iran if circumstances require. “In sum, there is now a nearly complete US plan and vision for how the current administration in Washington intends to deal with the region politically and in terms of security.”

It could be that the US will not be the only international partner in the emergent security arrangements in the Gulf. Other powers might also take part, even if Washington remains at the forefront. Qashqoush relates, “there was a certain divergence in points of view between Saudi Arabia and Britain, during Theresa May’s recent visit there, over the location of the command and control centre for the comprehensive defence system in the Gulf. However, the US, which is in the process of working out the agreement with Riyadh over THAAD and the command and control system, is one step ahead especially when compared with developments in defence agreements in the Gulf, whether at the level of NATO in Kuwait or relations between Oman and the UK. Accordingly, two coalitions are taking shape. One of these is flexible and is centred in the Gulf and includes the US and NATO. This will intersect with the Israeli “iron dome” system. There is no problem in this because the US is the common ally that will manage the systems.”

On the notion of emergent regional axes, Major General Eshqi agrees that this is, indeed, the case and comments: “President Trump will begin with a visit to Saudi Arabia. Alongside discussion of the major defense armaments agreement, he will listen to the Saudi vision on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.” In the latter regard, he remarked: “I believe that there has been a shift on the part of Hamas, now that it has drawn up a new charter in which it accepts the 4 June 1967 boundaries. In addition, there are calls with regard to the Palestinian prisoners [in Israeli jails] and for the release of [Marwan] Al-Barghouti as an alternative to [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] to steer negotiations in the future.”

Iran is certain to be a key topic on the agenda during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. On this subject, Ashqi observes: “Iran, by virtue of its presence in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, threatens the security of the Gulf as well as the security of Israel. Therefore, the US is intervening to protect its allies in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region, such as Israel. It intends to coordinate and manage these areas in order to halt the Iranian threat or peril and, accordingly, it will construct the defense system in order to counter the Iranian missile threat and will deal with electronic jamming and other armaments and logistics questions.”

Experts agree that a huge arms deal is about to be concluded between Riyadh and Washington and that this deal is effectively a key to how Washington intends to handle all other complex and multifaceted issues in this region that have been carried over from the previous administration. In this regard, it is clear that there is an intent to militarise policy in this region with respect to the handling of regional threats and dangers from Iran. Part of this entails enhancing security and defence systems in the Gulf while the US attempts to manage relations between its regional partners. This latter facet, in turn, entails addressing some chronic problems such as the question of the Palestinian-Israeli settlement process and the crises in Syria and Iraq.

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