Mideast: Western arms sales under scrutiny

April 22, 2011 at 10:51 AM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 22 (UPI) -- The wave of political violence sweeping the Middle East and Africa has thrown a harsh spotlight on Western arms sales to authoritarian regimes and some arms export licenses have been shelved.

That's likely to be a big boon for the Russian and Chinese defense industries.

In recent years, Moscow has re-established itself as a significant arms supplier in the Middle East, as it was during the Cold War. But this time, instead of providing weapons for ideological gain, the Russians are in it strictly for cash.

China has yet to make a dent in the Middle East and African arms market but as it nails down access to the regions' energy and mineral wealth with dizzying dynamism arms sales are likely to follow.

Unlike Western powers, which make arms sales conditional on observance of human rights and democratic reform, deals with Moscow and Beijing carry no such political baggage. That makes them attractive to authoritarian regimes.

"Recent events in Africa and the Middle East have brought into question the ethics of arms sales by Western powers to countries with poor human rights records," Oxford Analytica observed in an analysis Tuesday.

"In light of Western-supplied weapons and riot-control agents to quell protests calling for greater democracy, particularly in such states as Libya, Egypt and Bahrain, a large number of arms export licenses have been withdrawn."

This new wariness about selling weapons to unsavory regimes even if they are Western-oriented -- if it lasts -- is likely to have a political impact because it will mean Western governments could lose significant influence over states where they should be seeking to increase diplomatic leverage.

It will also mean that, absent major arms exports, that unit costs of weapons systems will increase, straining already thinning defense budgets, reduce funds for research and development, a vital element of the defense infrastructure, and slash jobs in key high-tech industries.

The Americans may have been hesitant about selling weapons to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi but other governments -- Italy and Russia, in particular – were less scrupulous and provided arms worth $10 billion or more to the Tripoli regime.

It is now using those weapons against its own people as Gadhafi fights for survival.

It must be noted that the ethical issues engaging Western powers have been frequently debated in the past, usually when evidence of high-level corruption over huge arms deals are uncovered.

But the hand-wringing rarely lasts for long because the sale of weapons is vital to the Western arms industry -- particularly to the Middle East, and especially to Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf Arab states confronting Iran.

Several years ago, British Prime Minister Tony Blair blocked an investigation into massive kickbacks made by British firms to Saudi Arabian leaders after Riyadh warned it would never buy weapons from Britain again unless the probe was dropped.

The prospect of the Americans backpedaling on the mammoth $67 billion arms package it will provide the Saudis over the next 10-15 years, with another $23 billion in naval sales under discussion, is so remote as to be unthinkable.

The economic consequences to the U.S. defense industry -- the Saudi arms package alone sustains at least 75,000 jobs -- would be incalculable.

In 2010, the production line for Boeing F-15 strike fighter in St. Louis was close to being shut down because of a drop in sales. The massive Saudi deal, involving the sale of 75 new F-15Is and the upgrading of 70 already in Saudi service, saved the day.

Admittedly that's an extreme example. But Oxford Analytica said that whatever restrictions Western governments impose on arms sales to the Middle East and Africa, they won't last.

"Western defense firms may take a short-term hit but pragmatism will win out," Oxford Analytica observed, "and export-license restrictions will eventually be relaxed."

"Influence or leverage in the Middle East and North Africa must be maintained. The stakes -- in terms of energy resources and even counter-terrorism -- are too high to do otherwise.

"This is particularly true given the increasing competition in the international arms market, where non-Western exporters are becoming more prominent, most notably Russia and China.

"They may be seen as representing new, more reliable partners by governments around the world that are anxious to maintain what they characterize as security."

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