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Saudis, Gulf Gain Arms With U.S. Impact Left Unclear

Gulf States Win U.S. Arms Without Full Record of Effect
F15 airplanes fly over the Saudi capital Riyadh during an officers graduation ceremony at King Faisal Air Force University in 2008. Photographer: Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. authorized as much as $37 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations over five years without always documenting the potential effect on foreign policy and national security, government investigators found.

The departments of Defense and State cleared the transfers of fighter planes, helicopters and missiles from fiscal 2005 through 2009 even as the six receiving countries rejected U.S. appeals to coordinate more as a group, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Such sales “need to be coordinated closely together as part of a single, holistic policy,” said Robert Hunter, a senior adviser at the Rand Corp. policy group and a principal author of former President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 doctrine of committing to military force if needed to defend U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. Hunter spoke to an audience at the Middle East Institute in Washington today.

The GAO report exposes gaps in the way the U.S. tracks and evaluates sales to the region as the Obama administration prepares to notify Congress of another planned package for Saudi Arabia that may total as much as $60 billion. The U.S. is seeking to improve regional security against Iran and terror groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with sales including missile-defense systems.

U.S. Defense Capacity

Among the considerations required by federal law for arms transfers to the region are the capacity of the U.S. defense industry, the U.S. pledge to maintain Israel’s military edge in the region, protection of human rights and safeguarding of sensitive technologies.

“As arms transfer authorizations increase to this part of the world, the U.S. government needs to ensure that it reviews requests” for their impact on foreign policy and national security, the GAO concluded.

“The partial absence of documentation of agencies’ reviews, however, raises concerns that U.S. priorities are not consistently considered before such sales are authorized,” the GAO said.

The GAO conducted the analysis at the request of three Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. They asked for the review in October 2008 during the waning days of President George W. Bush’s administration, and the report was delivered to lawmakers this month.

Policy Objectives

“Concerns remain regarding the integration of these programs with broad U.S. policy objectives in the region,” the lawmakers said in their 2008 request for the report. They also expressed concern over “implementation in some recipient countries,” without giving details.

Investigators sought to calculate total arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait. The GAO also examined a sample of 28 cases of arms transfers handled by the State Department or the Pentagon for how the prospective sales were evaluated.

The Defense Department authorized about $22 billion of transfers under the Foreign Military Sales program to the six Gulf countries, the GAO found. Saudi Arabia and the UAE accounted for more than 88 percent of the total value.

Duplicate Figures

The GAO couldn’t accurately determine the value of transfers under the State Department’s Direct Commercial Sales program because some figures were duplicated and at least $6 billion of $21 billion in authorized transfers were for U.S. military units.

The countries mainly used their own money to buy the weapons, according to the GAO. That included the UAE’s purchase of a Patriot missile defense system and Oman’s acquisition of antitank missiles.

Officials didn’t always evaluate the potential foreign policy or national security implications, or failed to document the assessments, the GAO determined.

The State Department didn’t have a record of its evaluations of arms transfer requests against a set of criteria such as protecting human rights and safeguarding sensitive technologies, the GAO reported.

The State Department, in a written response accompanying the GAO report, agreed its process could be improved, while disagreeing that the gaps posed any risk, saying appropriate evaluations are conducted. The Defense Department agreed to do a better job of documenting reviews.

Gulf Cooperation

The investigators said State Department and defense officials cited evidence of cooperation by the Gulf countries with steps such as bases for U.S. troops and support for operations in Afghanistan or for neighbors such as Iraq and Yemen.

Bahrain provides basing for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and Qatar plays host to the Tampa-based U.S. Central Command’s field headquarters.

“If indeed the arms sales provide a degree of assurance for Saudi Arabia and the UAE and others, they can be constructive,” said Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “If Iran had nuclear weapons, it’s not clear how conventional weapons are going to have an impact on that.”

Long-standing efforts by the U.S. to prod Gulf nations to coordinate with each other have been thwarted. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. in 2006 formed the Gulf Security Dialogue to cooperate jointly with the six nations on countering terrorism and the spread of illegal arms, improving defense capabilities and stabilizing Iraq.

The plan weakened as Saudi Arabia declined to participate in the formal system and the other nations also opted to deal with the U.S. one-on-one rather than as a group, the GAO said.

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