Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Selling American weapons to the Gulf

Though much-lauded by the Trump administration, the recent arms deals between the United States and the Arab Gulf states are actually a continuation of  Obama’s policies, writes Ahmed Mahdi

 

Selling  American weapons to the Gulf
Selling American weapons to the Gulf

On 19 May this year, US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first official foreign trip as president. On this day, he celebrated the signing of a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. In addition to the arms deal, American business leaders also signed deals potentially worth more than $200 billion over the next 10 years.

The arms deal, plus other investments that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said could total up to $350 billion, was the central achievement of Trump’s first day in Riyadh. Trump said it was a “tremendous day” and mentioned “hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs. So I would like to thank all of the people of Saudi Arabia.”

“This is the beginning of a turning point in the relationship between the United States and the Arab and Islamic world,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said as he stood beside Tillerson. Jubeir also praised ExxonMobil, the giant American oil and energy company (Tillerson was CEO before he retired to join the Trump administration) as “the largest investor” in Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s policies towards Saudi Arabia could be compared to those of his predecessor Barack Hussein Obama. What are the points of continuity and the points of difference between Obama and Trump towards the Arab Gulf states, as manifested in the recent arms deals?

 “Both sides [Washington and Riyadh] have an incentive to herald this as a new era in Gulf cooperation,” Derek H Chollet, US assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs under Obama, told the New York Times after Trump’s visit. “I see this as largely continuity.” What has changed, said Chollet, is that the House of Saud is now dealing directly with a member of the Trump family, namely Jared Kushner.

According to the Times, Trump’s family is now involved in the making of US arms deals, especially his son-in-law Kushner. On 1 May, according to the Times, Kushner received a high-level Saudi delegation in a meeting room at the White House, where they discussed the arms deal between Washington and Riyadh.

One American official suggested that Riyadh should also buy a sophisticated radar system designed to shoot down ballistic missiles. He was referring to a radar system called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or Thaad, manufactured by American arms-manufacturing company Lockheed Martin. But the Saudis told Kushner that the cost of the radar system could be a problem and asked for his help to get a discount. So Kushner picked up the phone and called Marilyn A Hewson, chief executive of Lockheed Martin, and asked her whether she could give the Saudis a discount.

As his Saudi guests watched in amazement, Hewson told Kushner that she would look into it. The Times asked the White House and Lockheed for comment on the call between Kushner and Hewson, but it declined to do so.

Another change in policy from Obama to Trump, aside from the involvement of Trump family members, is that Washington is now much more aligned with Saudi Arabia against Iran. Obama signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran in 2015 (commonly known the “Iran nuclear deal”) and alleviated several sanctions on Iran as a result, to the chagrin of Washington’s Arab Gulf allies.

Obama tried to sooth the worries of the Arab Gulf states towards the Iran nuclear deal, but with little success. Not even a summit between Obama and Gulf leaders at Camp David in May 2015, and additional sanctions imposed by the Obama administration against Iran after signing the JCPOA (mainly because of ballistic missile tests by Tehran) managed to alleviate the fears of the Arab Gulf states over a possible détente between Washington and Tehran.

Obama himself approved an arms deal with Saudi Arabia in September 2015 worth $1 billion that included missiles fitted on F-35 jets previously sold by the United States to Saudi Arabia. It was clear then that Obama’s aim in the deal was to alleviate Riyadh’s worries about a possible Washington-Tehran détente.

In an article entitled “An Arms Deal Is Aimed at Saudis’ Iran Worries,” the New York Times reported at the time that “the weapons deal, although not the largest between the United States and Saudi Arabia, comes at a time when the Obama administration is promising Arab allies that it will back them against what many Arab governments view as a rising Iran.”

It also wrote that “Obama administration officials said they understood Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Iran’s behaviour in the region, including its support of terrorist groups, and about the economic benefits that Tehran may receive under the nuclear deal. Obama has offered Saudi Arabia new support to defend against potential missile strikes, maritime threats and cyber-attacks from Iran.” None of this, however, had a major effect on easing the tensions between Riyadh and Washington.

Trump, on the other hand, clearly expressed his hostility towards Iran during his election campaign. In addition, during his visit to Riyadh in May Trump said of Iran that “it is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room.” (The Iranians might reply to this by saying that they only want to defeat the American intervention in the Middle East and end the Israeli occupation of Arab land.)

Yet another change is that Trump, unlike Obama, is unlikely to stop US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia on human-rights grounds. The Obama administration had put a hold on precision-guided missiles that it had agreed to sell to the Saudis, fearing that they would be used to bomb civilians in Yemen. Trump, who does not prioritise human rights values, freed up the weapons Obama had frozen, these now being part of the $110 billion package.

WAS IT $110 BILLION? Trump has kept reiterating that he has sold weapons to Saudi Arabia worth $110 billion, and he keeps giving himself the credit for this deal. But did Trump really sell the Saudis $110 billion in arms?

Bruce Reidel, a former CIA officer, published an article on 5 June this year on the Website of the Brookings Institution, a famous American think-tank, in which he said that there were no contracts thus far under the deal, and that there were only intentions and negotiations that had started during the Obama administration, but had not yet resulted in real agreements.

“I’ve spoken to contacts in the defence business and on the Hill [in Washington], and all of them say the same thing: there is no $110 billion deal. Instead, there is a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts. Many are offers that the defense industry thinks the Saudis will be interested in someday. So far nothing has been notified to the Senate for review. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the arms sales wing of the Pentagon, calls them ‘intended sales.’ None of the deals identified so far are new, all began in the Obama administration.”

Riedel later told the US TV network ABC that the $110 billion deal was actually just a “wish list” of what Washington would like to sell to Riyadh over the next four or five years, stressing that these sales were not contracts, at least not yet, and that the Saudis might be unable to pay due to the declining oil revenues earned by the Kingdom.

It is necessary here to look at US government procedures for international arms agreements. Before the sale of any weapons, Washington has to sign a Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) with the country which will buy the weapons. An LOA is a letter of intent sent from another country to Washington in order to purchase weapons from the United States. On 20 May, the Pentagon released seven LOAs with Saudi Arabia worth a total of about $23.7 billion.

Six of the seven LOAs were signed during the Obama administration, and only one (dated 23 January 2017) was signed during the Trump administration (Trump took office on 20 January, and it is unlikely that he was able to finish a deal worth hundreds of billions of dollars in only three days, so negotiations over them must have started during the Obama administration). According to ABC News, these seven LOAs were sent to Congress to notify it of the arms sales.

They were followed by three additional Congressional notifications issued in late May and early June concerning training and selling radar systems to Saudi Arabia worth about $1.7 billion. This total of about $25.4 billion is far from Trump’s claim of $110 billion. The other $85 billion is categorised, according to the Pentagon, as a Memorandum of Intent (MOI) that illustrates potential, not actual, Saudi purchases which could occur in the future. 

According to ABC News, one American official called Trump’s announcement of the $110 billion in arms sales a “White House trick”. Trump has been overstating his achievements on the arms deal, and the job opportunities which such a deal will create for the American people, as a part of his unprecedentedly early preparations for the 2020 election campaign.

He has repeatedly used misleading or false statements on increasing job opportunities in the United States to take the credit for them. The Website of the US magazine Fortune features an article entitled “President Trump Likes Taking Credit for Jobs. Here Are the Facts,” in which it is shown that Trump repeatedly uses false information on jobs to give himself credit.

 

ARMS DEAL WITH QATAR: On 5 June this year, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha and warned Qatar of severe consequences if it did not stop sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State (IS) groups and stop media attacks on the four states.

Trump supported the move, calling Qatar a sponsor of terrorism. “The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” Trump said on 9 June in the Rose Garden at the White House. He also tweeted on the Saudi-led move against Qatar that “perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

On 14 June, however, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis signed an agreement with his Qatari counterpart Khaled bin Mohamed Al-Attiyah to sell Qatar 36 F-15 fighter jets for $12 billion. (The deal signed by Mattis was actually part of a larger $21 billion agreement made in November 2016.)

Qatar also hosts airbases used by the American military to attack IS. The most important of these is the Al-Udeid Airbase that hosts about 10,000 US troops, in addition to the Al-Sayliyah, Falcon and Camp Snoopy Bases. Al-Udeid has been dubbed the “nerve centre” of the American air raids against IS. Following Trump’s comments, a US Defense Department spokesman issued a statement of thanks to Qatar for footing the bill for the Base.

“The United States and the Coalition are grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support of our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security,” said US Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway. Similarly, on 9 June Tillerson himself said that the blockade against Qatar posed an impediment to the military campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq. “We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar… The blockade is hindering US military action in the region and the campaign against IS,” Tillerson said.

Trump could have used his powers as chief executive of the United States, or as commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, to stop the arms deal with Qatar. But the fact that his secretary of defence has nevertheless proceeded with the deal shows that Trump is aware of the importance of the Qatari bases. So it seems that Trump is playing both sides: he wants to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt (whose relations with Doha have been strained for years), and he wants to look tough on terror. At the same time, he does not want to lose the military bases his military commanders need to perform their missions in the region.

Another mixed message is his idea of who is the sponsor of terrorism. Trump wrote in his book Time to Get Tough (published in 2011) that Saudi Arabia is “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petro-dollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.” During his presidential election campaign, he also repeatedly threatened Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorism.

Now he has shifted the blame to Qatar. It is not that Qatar does not deserve punishment for its policies towards the states in the region. (It does). But one has to look at Trump’s mixed messages and his attempt to “be unpredictable,” as he has described his policies, with care.

In my opinion, the reason for Trump’s shift towards Qatar is not terrorism per se. Instead, I think Trump’s real target is Iran. The Saudi-led boycott against Qatar came in response to the comments of Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, on Iran. In my view, the spark which started the fire occurred on 23 May when a story published by the Qatar News Agency (QNA) reported that Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani had given a speech at a military graduation ceremony in which he had criticised the aggressive rhetoric aimed at Iran by the Arab Gulf states and the United States during Trump’s visit to Riyadh a few days earlier.

“There is no wisdom in harbouring hostility towards Iran,” he said, according to the QNA report which was later removed. This statement contradicts the attempts by the Arab Gulf states to contain Iran’s actions in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. He also said that relations with Israel were “good,” and that Hamas was the official representative of the Palestinians. Hamas is considered to be a terrorist organisation by Washington, but not by Moscow. He also complained of an “unjust campaign” to link Qatar to terrorism.

The next day, Doha denied the authenticity of the report and blamed the story on hackers, claiming that its state news agency and associated Twitter account had been breached and that the stories were fakes. Doha is wary of Tehran’s policies in the Middle East, but it avoids being as hostile as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are towards Tehran, in part because of a shared major gas field with Iran. The South Pars gas field (as it is called in Iran) or the North Field (as it is called in Qatar) accounts for nearly all of Qatar’s gas production and around 60 per cent of its export revenue.

Such close relations between Doha and Tehran did not prevent Trump from proceeding with the $12 billion F-15 arms deal with Doha. Again, Trump is here displaying his ability to play both sides of the issue.

We have been witnessing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons purchases by the Arabs. As a result, it is clear that they are not short of weapons. In the meantime, Israel (which has a population of only 8.7 million) has finally lifted the ban on prayer in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, but it continues to restrict the entrance of the Palestinians to the mosque by installing a camera surveillance system and frisking people who want to enter and to pray.

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