AIN Blog: Is the U.S. Recycling Saudi Petrodollars into Weapons Sales?

 - January 10, 2011, 5:57 AM

I have long suspected that the main U.S. purpose in supplying huge arms packages to Gulf countries is to recycle petrodollars. Uncle Sam pays heavily for its reliance on imported oil, but offers in return a shopping list of shiny new weaponry from the U.S. defense industry. Like kids in a candy store, the Arabs take up these offers, although with not enough thought given to how they might absorb and operate the kit. 

Some evidence to back my theory is available courtesy of Wikileaks. Secret reporting by State and Defense Department officials in 2009 and 2010 reveals their determination to proceed with the latest, record-setting package to Saudi Arabia, despite objections from Israel and their own doubts about the capabilities of the Saudi armed forces.

In 2009 meetings between U.S and Israeli officials to discuss American plans to sell no fewer than 84 more Boeing F-15 Strike Eagles and 178 helicopters to Saudi Arabia, Israeli officials warned their American counterparts that “moderate Arab countries could in the future become adversaries.” They added that some of the proposed U.S. sales to the Gulf had no relevance to countering threats posed by Iran–the major rationale put forward by Washington to justify them. In particular, Israeli officials objected to the inclusion of AESA (active electronically scanned array) radars, enhanced Paveway II bombs and the joint helmet-mounted cueing system on the new F-15s for Saudi Arabia. They also opposed the possible basing of Saudi F-15s at Tabuk in northern Saudi Arabis, close to the Israeli border.

We learn from another Wikileak that King Abdullah is in favor of attacking Iranian nuclear sites. But he wants the U.S. to do it. All those shiny new Saudi F-15s would stay firmly grounded. Eventually, it may be the Israelis who solve this particular dilemma, by striking the sites with their own F-15s. Indeed, the U.S. agreed in 2009 to quietly supply Israel with GBU-28 laser-guided bombs designed specifically to eliminate hardened targets.

So what are the new Saudi F-15s for? The existing fleet of F-15C/D interceptors could be upgraded to meet any conceivable threat from the Iranian air force, which has been seriously weakened by decades of sanctions. In a justification of the latest package sent to Congress last November, Secretary of Defense Gates cited “terrorist groups and other regional threats,” including attacks by the Houthi rebels along the Saudi border with Yemen in the south.

But what do we learn from Wikileaks about that conflict, which flared briefly in late 2009? The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh reported to Washington the poor performance of the Saudi armed forces against a lightly armed guerilla force, despite round-the-clock artillery barrages and many air strikes by F-15s and Boeing AH-64 attack helicopters. King Abdullah was said to be angry about the time it took to expel “the ragtag Houthi fighters” and about the high number of Saudi casualties, “many apparently from friendly fire.” Two months later, the U.S. ambassador met Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid to voice concern that some Saudi air strikes had struck civilian targets, even though the U.S. provided classified satellite imagery of the border area. “If we had the Predator, maybe we would not have this problem,” was Khalid’s reported response. (Khalid also noted that the Yemeni government had provided some questionable targets–including what turned out to be the headquarters of that country’s northern area military commander, who is a political opponent of Yemeni President Saleh.)

There was another undesirable outcome of this border conflict. The Saudis expended so many munitions that they were obliged to ask the U.S. for an emergency supply. The tardy response from Washington led to complaints from Prince Khalid and senior Saudi Air Force officers. Did the U.S. deliberately slow the resupply, to remind the Saudis that it retains a degree of control–in secret–over how and where American-supplied weapons are used?

Such concerns are probably the main reason why the Saudis pursue alternative options for the supply of some defense kit. The UK has been the main beneficiary of this strategy, notably through the Al-Salam agreement to supply 72 Eurofighter Typhoons. AIN last year reported problems in the progress of this deal. But the Saudis will probably proceed, not the least because the Europeans seem less concerned about Israel’s security being threatened by the kingdom than the Americans. We also learn from Wikileaks that the Saudis are thought likely to base some Typhoons at Tabuk.