Monday, February 12, 2007

Leaders of Sunni Arab states are embarking on a military spending spree in an attempt to contain the growing threat from Iran.

Alarmed by the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and the prospect of a military clash between its Shi’ite regime and the United States, Persian Gulf leaders intend to use billions of dollars of oil revenue to purchase a huge array of military hardware.

Many of the deals will be finalized at a massive arms fair scheduled to open in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia alone has a shopping list that runs to nearly $50 billion, including fighter aircraft, cruise missiles, attack helicopters and more than 300 new tanks.

The UAE has earmarked $2 billion for a rapid-reaction brigade — possibly to take a lead role in a regional protection force. An additional $6 billion will go for missile-defense batteries, airborne early-warning systems and aircraft.

Both countries are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, established in 1981 to provide security against the threat posed by Iran. Other members, including Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, are expected to spend heavily in the coming months.

Gulf leaders have watched with growing alarm as Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy has flexed its military muscles — filling the postwar power vacuum in Iraq, exerting influence in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, and refusing to back down over its nuclear program.

Many are now convinced that the only way to avoid being sucked into a war between the United States and Iran, or being caught up in the turbulence that would follow, is to beef up their own defenses.

Last week, Iran carried out exercises in the Gulf, including test-firing its new Russian defense-missile system, and warned that any attempts to halt its nuclear program would result in attacks on U.S. interests around the world.

In a speech yesterday marking the 28th anniversary of the country’s Islamic revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again insisted that Iran would not give up its uranium-enrichment program, which is regarded by the U.S. and its allies as the precursor to a nuclear weapon.

U.S. plans for a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear sites are reported to be well-advanced, despite public denials, and many in the Gulf states fear that they could be caught in the backlash.

One highly placed Saudi diplomatic source told the Sunday Telegraph that there were concerns about U.S. intentions and doubts about the real threat from Iran.

“There are some people who are wary about Iran, but the Americans are running a very successful public relations campaign against Tehran. A lot of Saudis fear that the U.S. will come and make mischief then go away, but we have to live here afterwards.”

Some analysts argue that many Gulf states would prefer to be able to adopt a position of well-armed neutrality.

“They are genuinely concerned about Iran because not only are the Iranians not Arabs, they are Shias. For the Saudis in particular, they are sworn enemies. But they share a common enemy with Iran — the West and its way of life. They don’t really want to depend on the Americans,” said military analyst Paul Beaver.

With oil pushing $60 a barrel, the spending power of the Sunni states has been boosted, with the UAE government alone looking at a windfall of more than $100 billion if prices stay at present levels for the next two to three years. Up to 20 percent of that extra revenue may be devoted to defense modernization.

Tim Ripley, the Middle East analyst with Jane’s Defense Weekly, said: “The Gulf states have a shopping list of arms worth more than $60 billion if all the deals under discussion eventually go through.”

The largest deal is Saudi Arabia’s purchase of 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets from BAE Systems.

After the Gulf War in 1991, Saudi Arabia and a number of other states spent $10 billion. Now countries are again flocking to the arms bazaars and more than 900 exhibitors will be competing for their business at the Idex 2007 exhibition in Abu Dhabi.

Although much of the equipment being purchased is designed to counter an external military threat, many are also spending heavily on homeland security.

“People are concerned that if there is a complete breakdown in Iraq it may wash over to them,” said Marc Lee, the organizer of a conference on defense in the region that will be held the day before the arms fair. “They are acutely conscious of the instability threats on the other side of the Gulf and the threat from Iran.”

At the last Idex exhibition, in 2005, $2 billion of deals were done in five days, but this year is expected to break all records. Up to 45,000 delegates are expected, and the UAE tourism ministry has hired two cruise liners to cope with demand for accommodations.

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