Saudi Arabia plans to buy two Lockheed Martin KC-130J refueling aircraft in a deal that could expand to 25 planes. (US Marine Corps)
DUBAI, PARIS AND WASHINGTON — Despite frustration over US policies in Egypt, Syria and growing negotiations with Iran, military relations between the US and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) remain strong with nations poised to continue buying billions in hardware, officials and analysts said.
“No one in the region wants to have a bad relationship with the US; no one, and everything [American officials] want, we want,” one Arabian Gulf source said. “But over and over again over the last two years [US officials] have promised too many people too many things and failed to deliver; that’s the issue.”
Relations have been strained this year after the US decided not to launch a punitive strike against the Syrian government, which the UN said used chemical weapons against civilians. GCC states had begun to line up behind the US for a military intervention. The US was ready to strike Syria, if not for an eleventh hour deal hashed out between Washington and Moscow to destroy Damascus’ chemical weapons.
Washington’s reaction to political instability in Egypt also irritated US allies in the region that supported the ouster of the Islamist Morsi government. The US has suspended some military aid and delivery of weapons to Cairo.
GCC countries also say Washington has failed to engage in a dialogue before launching diplomatic talks between the US and Iran that promise eased sanctions in exchange for Tehran renouncing nuclear weapons.
“No one in the region is against having a good relationship with Iran that will benefit all of us, but you can’t start negotiating with them without consulting with us, your allies, who are living 200 miles from Iran and host your bases,” the gulf source said.
Saudi Arabia declining a two-year seat on the UN Security Council was an expression of frustration over Syria and Iran developments, especially with Washington, prompting a visit from Secretary of State John Kerry.
“The GCC and the US share three types of relationships,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “A strategic relationship, a military-to-military relationship and a political relationship. Some are good and some are poor.
“The US can continue their military relationship due to its robust structure and combined objectives, but the other two are under duress,” he said. “It is very important to understand the point of view emanating from the gulf today being based on partnerships and not just purchases.”
For their part, a high-level official in Paris expressed confidence that the Middle East considers France a “reliable country,” and keen to expand ties in the region.
Weapons Deals on the Rise
But despite disagreements with Washington, weapons trade between the US and GCC nations have flourished.
“There will always be political and regional issues and differences between the US and the GCC, but they will be eventually overcome,” said Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a political science professor at the United Arab Emirates University. “The structural strategic relationship is deeply rooted, but at the moment, it is not at its best but will grow again.”
Between 2008 and 2011, GCC nations received $15.9 billion in new weapons, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. Of that, $9.4 billion were American-made, while $4.6 billion was built in Western Europe. China delivered these countries $900 million in weapons across that same period.
But one analyst said Saudi Arabia’s recent rejection of a seat at the UN Security Council might hit American arms sales.
“You all heard the comments Saudi Arabia made a few weeks ago on turning down the seat on the security council,” Craig Fraser, managing director at FitchRatings, a debt rating agency, told journalists in Paris.
“Saudi Arabia is one of the largest international customers for some of the US contractors,” he said. “I would estimate some of the contractors could get 10 percent of their revenues from Saudi Arabian contracts in the next few years, so it’s a substantial amount of business.”
So far, there have been no visible signs of reducing US purchases.
In October, US defense giant Lockheed Martin announced a deal with Riyadh for two KC-130J refueling tankers that could expand to 25 aircraft.
Yet, there has been a growing sense of caution surrounding US defense sales because of the political upheaval in the region.
After last year’s attack in Benghazi, Libya, US State Department officials counseled caution, looking to make sure that weapons wouldn’t fall into the hands of radicals or be used by new governments to suppress dissents.
But that caution hasn’t stopped sales from happening.
“I haven’t seen any indication that foreign policy decisions are leading to a down spiral in US overseas sales,” said Andrew Shapiro, a former senior State Department official who headed the bureau responsible for foreign military sales. “If anything, the last few years have seen significant increases in sales.”
That said, turmoil in the region has slowed the handover of some systems.
The Obama administration recently halted delivery of fighter aircraft, tanks and spare parts to Egypt, in a move US officials have emphasized were temporary.
Much of that decision was about domestic pressure, given US legal obligations to cut aid following a coup.
The reaction in Egypt, however, has been less understanding, one source said, adding that anger with Washington is running high after American officials first backed the ouster of the Morsi government.
“When it comes to Egypt, America was confused,” Abdullah said. “It did not know what stand it had to take and tried to please everyone. This did not fare well as the US started losing many friends in Egypt.”
Still, sales to the region have and likely will continue to rise, Shapiro said, given hardware is only part of the rationale for buying American.
“Arms sales are not just about particular sales,” he said. “They’re not just about a particular product or a particular sale. They are also part of the relationship between our overseas partners and the United States.”
By that measure, Middle East countries are increasingly cozying up to the US.
Criticism From Both Parties
US lawmakers and analysts who closely follow national security and foreign policy issues acknowledge Washington’s friendships in the region have seen better days.
“Things certainly have hit a dry patch — or maybe an oil slick,” quipped Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman and Intelligence Committee member Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said American officials “should understand and respect the reasons Saudi Arabia and every other friendly regional state — again including Israel — questions our recent actions and our current politics and commitments.”
“While anyone who talks to ... State Department and US CENTCOM experts, and examines our security cooperation with the Arab states, can see real progress in many areas of our security cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the Arab states, far too much of our rhetoric and far too many of our policies in dealing with Syria, Iran, Egypt and other states ... has created all too many reasons for Saudi and other Arabs to fear and distrust,” he wrote in a Nov. 4 paper.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and other Republicans — joined by a growing number of Democrats — are frustrated and bewildered by the Obama administration’s Middle East policies.
“The response of our allies has been negative. These are relationships that our administration has directly with these countries ... and they don’t feel very good about what’s happening,” Corker said during a brief Nov. 5 interview. “Saudi Arabia, Egypt, are just two examples. You look at Syria and just look at our changes in aid, it was like: Ready. Fire. Aim.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, called Washington’s relations with its Middle East allies “the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
“They no longer trust us, and they no longer believe in our word. All the chickens are coming home to roost,” McCain told Defense News on Nov. 5. “When a president of the United States says he’s going to attack a country and then doesn’t, that gives the countries that are in direct threat from what’s going on there great pause.
“Bandar said when they didn’t take the seat on the Security Council, ‘This is not a message to the UN, this is a message to the US,’ ” McCain said, referring to Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan. “Israel has the same skepticism. It exists all over the Middle East and all over the world.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., last month called the White House’s reluctance to directly provide weapons to Syria’s opposition forces an “embarrassment.”
Such sharp criticism from both parties has some of the White House’s allies on Capitol Hill defending its policies and actions. They contend the Obama administration took the only actions on Syria and Egypt it could and is doing the kind of face-to-face diplomacy needed to mend any damaged fences.
Asked if the administration is too uninvolved in the Middle East, Senate Foreign Relations East Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., replied, “Goodness, no.”
“The United States spends more time on the Middle East than any other nation that’s not a Middle Eastern nation already,” he said. “It’s been our high priority focus for some time.”
Levin said administration officials “can only do what [Secretary of State John] Kerry is already doing: He’s traveling around the region saying, ‘The action we have taken is the right action for this particular time in this particular place, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not good friends and allies.’ ”
McCain, on the other hand, sees the secretary’s trip in a less-flattering way, describing it as “Kerry running around like the guy that follows the elephants in the circus parade.”
Senators interviewed for this piece were split on whether Saudi Arabia and other regional nations getting closer to Beijing should trouble the US.
“Sure, I worry about it. They are adjusting to a world without US leadership,” McCain said. “And it is the result of a diminution of US leadership, which is the direct responsibility of the president of the United States.”
Corker shrugged and said “it depends on what kind of role [the Chinese] are playing.”
“To be candid, I’m not too concerned with other countries getting involved in fighting terrorism,” Corker said with a wink before turning serious and expressing a sentiment shared by McCain.
“What I do view as a problem is other countries viewing us as not being reliable. And I think that’s where we are today,” Corker said. “That is highly problematic in a number of dealings. That’s the biggest problem, I think, this administration has created.”
Marcus Weisgerber, John T. Bennett, Zachary Fryer-Biggs and Vago Muradian in Washington; Awad Mustafa in Dubai; and Pierre Tran in Paris contributed to this report.