WASHINGTON — This week, coinciding with President George W Bush’s two-day trip to Saudi Arabia, the Bush administration is expected to notify Congress about an arms package for Saudi Arabia.

The sale is part of an overall package that was announced at the end of July 2007; a series of arms deals worth at least US$20 billion to Saudi Arabia and five other Persian Gulf states, as well as new 10-year military and economic aid packages to Israel and Egypt.

Speaking to the press aboard Air Force One on Monday, while en route to Saudi Arabia, National Security Advisor Steve Hadley said, “These are not new announcements. This is the implementation of the announcement that was made months ago. Pretty big package, a lot of pieces. As these pieces get readied and worked out between the two parties, they can then get notified on the Hill.”

Later that day, the US State Department announced it had initiated the formal 30-day congressional notification process for the proposed sale of 900 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) to Saudi Arabia. According to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, the best estimate of the cost for those is about $120 million.

This was the sixth formally announced sale of the overall Gulf Security Dialogue package. The others are two proposed sales to the United Arab Emirates—a Patriot missile system and an E2C airborne early warning system support; one to Kuwait for Patriot Missile System upgrades; and two others to Saudi Arabia for some targeting pods and Airborne Warning and Control System upgrades. Together, the value of these sales is about $11.5 billion.

Last month, the State Department said it would delay the notification until after Congress comes back into session. Thus, the announcement comes a day before the House of Representatives returns to work and more than a week before senators return to Washington.

The official announcement will kick off a 30-day review period during which lawmakers could move to block the sale. Although the new House session does not officially begin until January 15 and senators do not return until January 22, Senate Democrats have been briefly opening and closing the body each day during its holiday break, meaning the Upper House remains technically at work; so in actuality, the Senate would have only about three weeks to review the proposed sale.

Congress can block major arms sales if both chambers pass a joint resolution of disapproval. The measure would then require the president’s signature, effectively meaning that Congress would need two-thirds of both the House and Senate to override a presidential veto. At best, such a resolution may pressure the administration to reduce the size of the package. In 1986, for example, such a threat figured in persuading the Ronald Reagan administration to cut back an arms package to Saudi Arabia. But the sale ultimately went through, despite heavy opposition from Israel and its allies in Congress.

When the overall package was announced last summer, it was widely seen as a move to shore up allies in the Middle East and counter Iran’s rising influence, and to provide justification for increased military assistance to Israel. Since then the announcement has initiated a process and debate that has been long, but not that controversial.

Even by the standard of past arms sales to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, traditionally one of the world’s largest arms-buying regions, these are major arms transfers with the potential to significantly affect the regional strategic balance.

One of the more notable aspects is that the Bush administration plans to sell advanced satellite-guided bombs, such as the JDAM, which the United States has never before sold to Saudi Arabia, fighter aircraft upgrades, and new naval vessels to six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

Reportedly, the Pentagon asked the Saudis to accept restrictions on the range, size and location of the satellite-guided bombs, including a commitment not to store the weapons at air bases located near Israeli territory

In what some observers view as a leak designed to embarrass the United States, on Sunday senior Israeli security officials announced that the smart bombs the Saudis will be getting aren’t as smart as the ones the Israelis will receive.

According to the JDAM manufacturer, Boeing Co, recent enhancements to the kits include laser navigators and glide wings that allow jets to drop the munitions from a distance of more than 64 kilometers from the target.

Israel has had JDAMs since 1990 and used them extensively in its 2006 war against Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia, of course, is not lacking for weaponry. Although its status as a weapons buyer in the Persian Gulf is not at the extraordinarily high levels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it remains, in the most recent four-year period, the largest importer of defense technology in the Near East. For the period 2002-2005, Saudi Arabia’s total arms agreements were $8.9 billion in current dollars, making it the leading Near East arms purchaser.

But while Saudi Arabia has been a huge buyer of weapons over the years its ability to integrate them into its military has been problematic. A report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies found:

Like most Gulf countries, it often focused on buying the most effective or advanced system, and paid little attention to the practical problems of integrating weapons from different suppliers into overall force structures that minimized the problems in operating systems designed by different countries, the maintenance problems involved, and the difficulties in supplying and sustaining systems with different maintenance and ammunition needs in combat.

It is far from clear that Saudi Arabia has overcome those problems. William Arkin, a well-known military affairs analyst, previously wrote:

The Saudi military is even less dangerous than the gang who couldn’t shoot straight. After gazillions in arms sales during the heyday of oil, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia demonstrated that it was not capable, even with its advanced American-supplied military, of defending its country. When Desert Storm unfolded in 1991, the Saudi military was well shielded behind the American armed forces: Saudi ground forces were given a sector to operate in where they wouldn’t get in the way. Through terrorist attacks in the mid-1990s and the rise of terrorism, the Saudi “military” proved unable to protect itself, let alone the country.

But Arkin noted one danger from the deal:

What comes with the deal, though, is far more subtle trouble: Saudi Arabia has demonstrated over decades that it has no interest in building up its own high-tech arms capabilities. American contractors will train, maintain and even operate the new Saudi equipment. American military personnel will follow. We will buy nothing in terms of security, and we will just put our own people in danger. But most important, we will once again renew the cycle of American penetration into the heart of Islam, one of Osama bin Laden’s original and most compelling rallying points. That’s why the Saudi deal is so dangerous.

The proposed sale to Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states, is noteworthy on a number of counts.
  • The sale to Saudi Arabia is being backed by the Israeli government and its supporters in Washington, who have traditionally opposed major weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
  • Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to which the US administration will sell arms are said to not pose a military threat to Israel, the US has promised Israel $30.4 billion in military aid over the next decade, a significant increase over the approximately $23 billion Israel has received in the past 10 years.
  • The deal is being sold on the basis that it is needed to counter the threat of Iran, though the exact nature of that threat or how these US weapons transfers will counter it is never spelled out. Moreover, at the same time, the US is seeking Iran’s help in bringing stability to Iraq. As William Hartung of the New America Foundation’s Arms and Security Project wrote:

    Threatening Iran with military strikes and arms sales to potential adversaries is more likely to spur Tehran to add to its own arsenal while being less open to talks on its nuclear program. If the Bush administration is looking for a new designated enemy to stand in for the late Saddam Hussein, this approach will work just fine. But if it wants to solve the security problems of the region, it would be hard to come up with a more counterproductive policy.

  • The US administration’s initiative will not be an easy sell within the region at a time when many Arab leaders view the US’s stated goals of both supporting Iraq and deterring Tehran as being at odds with one another.
  • Arguably the biggest irony of all, approximately two-and-a-half years after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denounced 60 years of US support for authoritarian governments in the Arab world, the US is reverting to type in the Near East by peddling arms and a familiar strategic vision to the same regimes.

  • One might view this as the triumph of hope over reality; given that the US has had little success in the past in using arms sales to buy leverage in the region. And unlike some past sales, no conditions are attached. In fact, when Rice visited the Middle East last July, she insisted that the Bush administration had not imposed demands on its allies in exchange for the arms and aid deals. “This isn’t an issue of quid pro quo,” Rice told reporters. “We are working with these states to fight back extremism.”

    And with no strings attached to the assistance—no democratic reforms, human-rights conditions or peace-making obligations—the arms sales do nothing to change the behavior of the authoritarian regimes in the region.