By Barry Rubin
The United States is building up the defenses of Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, for the day that Iran has nuclear weapons. This program has two purposes: to make the local states feel more confident about resisting Tehran and relying on the United States. It also brings a lot of revenue into the faltering U.S. economy. The companies involved say this will provide more than 70,000 jobs.
This particular deal sets a record at $60 billion just for starters. Saudi Arabia will be buying 84 F-15 fighter jets; upgrades for 70 F-15s; and more than 150 helicopters including Black Hawks and Apaches sent over a number of years. Ships and anti-missile defenses may be added later.
Israel’s concern about such a massive strengthening of the Saudi air force is mitigated by getting its own new planes, the F-35, and knowing that short of an Islamist revolution in Saudi Arabia, the American-supplied aircraft won’t be a threat to itself.
The U.S. sale seems reasonable both in military and strategic terms. One should add, however, that the Saudis are never going to be able to defend themselves against Iran, just as they weren’t able to do so against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime.
Everything depends on how scared Riyadh is by Iran and how confident it is in the willingness of President Barack Obama to act decisively in its defense. Here is one weak spot in the U.S. strategy. The other is the failure to understand—or at least to respond effectively—to Iran’s campaign of ideological, terrorist, and financial subversion toward other countries in the region.
If one is looking for an omen about these problems, it can be found in the U.S. inability to get the Gulf Arabs to support U.S. policies. Supposedly, Arab devotion to the Palestinian cause is a major factor in the Middle East. But U.S. officials had to beg the United Arab Emirates to donate a paltry $42 million—an amount, one might suggest jokingly, equivalent to the royal families’ expense account for lunches—to the Palestinian Authority (PA).
So don’t get carried away by this latest “generosity.” In 2009, the UAE gave the PA a mere $173.9 million. So far this year, the UAE has provided…$42 million.
Arab state contributions to the PA, never high, are plummeting. During an average year, the total donation of all Arab states and institutions combined to the PA has tended to be about one-eighth that of the United States alone. The Saudis have been particularly unwilling to give. Between January and August 2009, they sent $241.1 million—not serious money by Saudi standards.
So far in 2010? A grand total of $30.6 million.
To put this in perspective, following the Gaza flotilla episode alone, Obama pledged an additional $400 million in U.S. aid for the PA. American taxpayers have to make up for the money not paid by oil-rich Arab governments.
This situation can be taken as a measure of Obama’s ability to get Arab states–after all of his flattery for Arabs in general and Saudis in particular, expressed sympathy for Islam and the Palestinians; and distancing from Israel—to get their support. The U.S. government can give and sell, but can it get? Apparently, no.
Of course, the Saudis are going to spend a lot more on defense than in foreign aid. The United States does that also. But what does this story reveal:
–Lack of Saudi and Gulf Arab interest in actually helping the Palestinians, rather than using them to bash Israel and the West, demand concessions from the West, mobilize people to support the regime, and distract their subjects’ attention from conditions at home.
–Belief that they can get the West to subsidize the Palestinians and Israel to make all the concessions.
–Inability of the U.S. government to use its leverage to get Arab regimes to do anything, even when those regimes depend on it for survival. The U.S. government has no credible determination or toughness to get Arab rulers to listen to its concerns.
–At the same time, it points to how badly the Arab regimes (with some exceptions, Syria, Libya) need U.S. backing to survive.
Incidentally, even aside from everything else the Gulf Arabs should be doing more to help the PA because it is in their own interest to ensure that the PA wins out over Hamas. Otherwise, Iranian-Syrian-revolutionary Islamist influence will spread even further and endanger the Gulf Arabs’ survival.