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article imageOp-Ed: What does selling $110bn of arms to Saudi Arabia really mean?

By Paul Wallis     May 20, 2017 in World
Riyadh - Donald Trump has announced a $110bn deal with Saudi Arabia for new military systems. The Obama administration sold $115bn to the Saudis in its term of office. The question for analysts, however, is about the effects of the sales on the region.
The Trump deal is very broad-based. For once, the claims of jobs are more or less right, depending on the time frames for delivery. (Time frames dilute jobs if they’re based on longer terms.) The irony is that at this level of sales, the US military industrial machine is delivering a lot of advanced weaponry in to a very unstable part of the world.
The issues for military and political analysts are based on the power structures in the Middle East. The standard model for Middle East confrontations are basically Iran vs Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are long term “associates” of the West. The Iranians are long term “enemies”, although a lot of the enmity is based on baggage from the old days of direct Iranian/Israeli/US interactions.
The Saudis have their own issues, notably in Yemen, which is a festering ulcer practically next door. The new weaponry may or may not be deployed directly in Yemen. In that type of war, it’s arguable that super-advanced systems aren’t really required. Saudi Arabia is militarily strong, anyway, if still carrying some old hardware well past expiry date.
There’s some drudge work in the analysis process:
Will upgrading Saudi Arabia’s military cause an arms race with Iran? Probably not. The Iranians may have a lot of involvement around the region, but going broke isn’t one of their more noticeable policies in military acquisitions. For a nation with a large military capacity, they’re relatively conservative in acquisitions.
Does the new hardware give Saudi Arabia a distinct military edge? Yes. Apart from Israel, other Middle East countries are way behind. That said, Saudi Arabia’s overall profile is more defensive than aggressive.
So why the need for these new systems? Saudi Arabia, like many modern nations, has a gap between its standing systems and the new systems emerging around the world. You can at least in theory call these necessary upgrades.
Is this deal putting arms in the hands of terrorists?
No, at least not while the House of Saud is in power. Saudi Arabia has more to lose than most other nations in terms of domestic terrorism, particularly the Islamic State brand of terrorism, which has been openly hostile to the Saudis. Arming terrorists would be an own goal of monumental scale.
What are the positives for the US? The most obvious, and to be fair, truly crippling, market positioning is a major factor. This scale of purchase locks out Russian and Chinese arms deals for years to come. As a committed US ally, Saudi Arabia is taking an unequivocal, and not necessarily universally popular, position in taking sides, too. These are both major shifts in positioning for Saudi Arabia.
The imponderables
Saudi Arabia has taken a major positioning move. How that move will generate reactions around the Islamic world is debatable, to say the least. Anti-US elements will have a field day to their audience. That’s not likely to make much impression on the Saudis, but it does have some evolutionary potential in anti-Saudi politics, too.
Israel's military and politicians may or may not take kindly to a rejuvenated Saudi military. Although both countries are US allies, the history between the two nations is at best abrasive. Israel has the military capacity to fight a war with an advanced opponent, too. It’s unlikely in the short term that the new arms deal will cause much more than some Israeli skepticism, but let’s not discount the possible military contact points.
Iran can and probably will buy new systems from the Russians and Chinese, and achieve a degree of parity, albeit at a cost. Strategically, new systems are required anyway. Iran could achieve a level of local superiority, but the distances and possible combat environments aren’t much in favour of either side if both have roughly equal systems.
So – Is this “peace in the Middle East by arming everyone to the teeth”? No, but it does change the game in terms of who’s prepared to take military risks. The new hardware and systems add a level of difficulty and uncertainty for actual conflict. Modern conventional war is brutally efficient, and most governments in the region would collapse as fast as Iraq under Hussein if seriously beaten. There are some risks just not worth taking, and regional governments know that fact very well.
The Saudis have done the right thing from their perspective, putting in place a new military capacity which does make them a hard target. In this case, uncertainty is peace. It’s just a matter of how long a new military political environment takes before it’s back to “war as usual” in the Middle East, but this could stymie national conflicts for some time.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about US Saudi arms deal 2017, Donald trump saudi arabia, Saudia Arabia military spending, Iran vs Saudi Arabia military, usisrael relations
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