In today’s class on energy and security, Dr Webber rightly linked increased arms purchases in Arab oil-exporting states with the past decade’s increase in crude oil prices. But the Arabs’ motives for preferring US weapons suppliers over sophisticated French, Russian, Belgian and British arms are far more complex than he stated.
First the facts, as presented by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the foremost authority on global military expenditures: between 2000 and 2011, Saudi Arabia’s imports of weapons increased from $86 million to $1,095 million. The US supplied 37.5% of the Kingdom’s purchased weapons. Over the same period, the United Arab Emirates’ imports of weapons increased from $247 million to $1,444 million, with 48.7% coming from the US. Both Arab countries bought, or planned to buy, some of the most advanced American weapons available for export, including upgraded versions of the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, and the THAAD missile defense system.
Their proclivity to buy US weapons was much stronger than it was for other countries on the top-20 list of arms importers over the same period. Chile, for example, spent a similar amount on weapons as the Gulf states, but only 13% came from US suppliers. India spent even more—and is looking to equip its forces with the most advanced weapons available—but bought just 1.7% of its weapons from US suppliers.
The major Arab oil-exporting countries purchase arms for a variety of reasons that are both overt and less talked-about. They include: (1) providing a defense against their strategic foe, Iran; (2) providing security for their populations and critical national infrastructure from non-state groups like Al Qaeda or Somali pirates; (3) strengthening the internal security of their autocratic governments against potential dissidents; (4) developing indigenous weapons industries of their own; (5) bolstering the egoes of rulers who see the purchase of powerful, modern weapons as a point of pride; and (6) offering a form of “payback” to the US, France and the UK in return for a security guarantee.
The last two points have not been analyzed to a great extent in academic literature or in the media because they are never mentioned in public remarks or documents. However, they are still very real, as any former resident of these countries will tell you.
As a journalist based in the UAE for three years, I had an opportunity to cover the IDEX 2009 defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi, one of the largest arms sales events in the world. Companies hoping to sell weapons systems to the UAE’s military paraded tanks, jeeps and frigates on a dirt course and canal in front of the country’s smiling ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan. The Sheikh was surrounded by his generals, but the very public appraisal process—in view of television cameras and foreign visitors—served as a public statement about the country’s wealth and the ruler’s hands-on role in the process.
Similarly, reason (6) is never explicitly talked about, but a number of major weapons deals between western military powers and the Gulf states are said to have “political” dimensions. In 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Abu Dhabi and agreed to open a French military base in the emirate. In response, Abu Dhabi’s government agreed to consider purchasing nuclear reactors and a powerful fighter jet from France. The Rafale deal later fell apart, after the UAE’s complaints that the French supplier, Dassault, “did not understand the political nature of the deal” that had been worked out between the two governments .