The United States has paused some of its planned arms sales to certain Middle Eastern countries following the wave of unrest and political turmoil that has swept through the region, and is reviewing defence relationships with other Mideast countries.
James Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs during a May 12 hearing that the US was looking at the long-term implications of arms trading on a country-by-country and regional basis regarding the Middle East, and had put some transactions on hold.
“Historic change of this magnitude will inevitably prompt us, as well as our colleagues throughout government, to reassess current policy approaches to ensure they still fit with the changing landscape,” Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said during a May 3 speech.
“While the impact on our defence relations and the defence trade is uncertain, changes in the region may lead to changes in policy and therefore changes in how we do business,” he said.
At the moment the US spends US$3 billion a year on military aid to Israel, which is the largest recipient. Following Israel is Egypt, which, according to the US State Department, receives US$1.3 billion of military aid every year. Other countries in the region that receive foreign military financing include Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.
Notably, the US relationship with Libya changed very rapidly after the protests there. “It was a promising market, because we saw it as a promising relationship,” Mark Kimmitt, a retired Army brigadier general, told NPR. Gaddafi had renounced nuclear weapon development and ended support for terrorism, leading to improved relationships with Washington and other western powers. “As the situation improved, the amount of trade improved.” Some items Libya purchased from the US included spare C-130 parts, border security and oil well equipment.
However, other governments, like France, Italy and Russia, provided US$10 billion or more in weaponry to the Gaddafi regime, according to NPR. With the sanctions against Libya, Russia alone lost US$4 billion in arms deals.
The United States has financed the Bahrain Defence Force and the country is eligible to receive “excess defense articles,” which in the past have included an Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate, according to the Congressional Research Service. The US maintains a naval headquarters in the country. Recent financing has gone towards improving the Bahrain’s air defences and improving counter-terrorism capabilities. The anti-government demonstrations there that began in February have been met with force.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, the Obama administration requested U$106 million in U.S. economic and military assistance for Yemen in 2011. For 2012, it requested U$116 million in State Department and USAID-administered economic and military aid. The Yemeni government is using force to halt civilian protests, and tanks have killed dozens when shelling protestors.
Some of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are worried that military aid and weapons sales are no longer in the US’s interest following the Arab Spring, and want tighter control over arms deals.
“When U.S. foreign policy interests, goals and objectives shift, evolve and transform over time, so will our arms transfer policy,” Shapiro said. Consequently, Shapiro’s office is re-examining the Conventional Arms Transfer policy.
“This policy has suited the United States well since it was enacted just after the end of the Cold War, but it is time to dust off its pages and make sure that it reflects the reality of today,” he said. “We don’t know yet what specific changes, if any, are needed. But in light of sweeping transformation it is essential that we, as well as our colleagues in other government agencies, assess current processes and procedures toward the region.”
“Whenever unrest spreads in places like the Middle East, there’s a tendency for Western governments to become cautious in making arms transfers,” says Loren Thompson, a defence industry analyst at the Lexington Institute. “They either take longer to sign contracts, or they take longer to actually deliver weapons that have been contracted, because they’re worried the weapons may fall into the hands of anti-Western regimes.”
“I think the amount of instability in the region has taken a lot of people by surprise,” Jeffrey Abramson, deputy director of the Arms Control Association told NPR. “And I think when you see that instability, you start thinking, ‘Is this the way I want to help that area become more stable? Is it by selling more arms, or is it something else?’ My expectation is the United States and other countries will rethink their approach and start looking at non-military ways of moving forward.”
The US is the world’s largest arms trader, followed by Russia, and has traditionally been the biggest Middle East weapons supplier, especially to oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia.
“When we sell key components to other countries, we have a strict end-use monitoring program,” said Kimmitt. “If a country turns against us, we can turn off the spigot.”
“Tto the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a long-term impact yet on the defence needs of countries in the region.” David Hamod, president of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce told NPR.