Arms sales to Middle East under scrutiny

US begins "case-by-case" review as Washington's aims to assess the effects of the turmoil as uprisings result in the departure of two of its key allies.

Powered by automated translation

WASHINGTON // The US government has put arms sales to the Middle East under a "case-by-case" review as it assesses the ramifications of the turmoil in the region.

The uprisings have led to the departure of two key US allies in Tunisia and Egypt and may unseat a third in Yemen. The US last week pulled its support from Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president.

The violence has caused Washington to review the military aid it provides its regional partners, said Travis Sharp, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

"Given the fact that there is so much dissent and turmoil that is going on, the United States has decided it is quite prudent to take up a more rigorous review of its arming policies to make sure that the individual decisions on a case-by-case basis are consistent with the political transitions that are currently going on in the region," he said.

Egypt has been the focus of Washington legislators who have halted arms sales that were ready for shipment.

Richard Genaille, the deputy director of the Pentagon's Defence Security Co-operation Agency, said in an interview with Reuters that "each one of those shipments is being scrutinised. Is this something that we want to send to Egypt right now given the situation"?

Washington supplies Egypt with roughly US$1.3 billion (4.75bn) annually in military and security aid.

In its fiscal year 2012 budget request, the Defence Department asked for $670.9bn from the US Congress, down $37.3bn from the 2011 financial year. The decrease is part of a larger effort in the US to reduce spending and fight a growing foreign debt.

And yet, US arms sales to the region are unlikely to stop with US defence contractors continuing to produce much sought-after weapons systems, Mr Sharp said.

"US defence companies are definitely looking overseas as a market opportunity that may offset some of the reductions in the US military budget that almost everybody expects to be coming down the pipe. The supply is there coming from the companies, but that doesn't change the fact that there is also demand."

Brian Finlay, the director of the Managing Across Boundaries programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, noted that US defence companies had formed a powerful lobby that has risen in prominence during the economic downturn.

"We're seeing arms producers across the country, and interests across the country really coalescing to form a pretty significant lobbying bloc, and to complete the perfect storm this is also happening at a time of fiscal restraint and a wider economic downturn here in the United States."

"Jobs are pretty hard to come by, and jobs that are available in these industries pay pretty well. They're good jobs. It makes it even a more potent political issue for the administration."

The US last October announced an unprecedented $60bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia over the next 15 to 20 years, which includes 84 Boeing Co BA.N F-15 fighter jets, and upgrades to 70 F-15s already owned by the Saudi government. The deal also includes 150 Javelin anti-tank guided missiles and three different types of helicopters.

In addition, the US agreed to sell the United Arab Emirates an advanced missile defence system built by Lockheed worth an estimated $7bn.

The Saudi and UAE deals comprise two of Washington's largest foreign arms sales, and are both unlikely to be challenged in Washington.