Arms Sales in the Middle East: Trends and Analytical Perspectives for U.S. Policy


This report analyzes state-to-state arms sales in the Middle East with a particular focus on U.S. transfers, as authorized and reviewed by Congress. The information in this report, including sales data, is drawn from a number of official and unofficial open sources.

Arms sales are an important tool that states can use to exercise their influence. The Middle East has long been a key driver of the global trade in weapons, disproportionately so when accounting for population. Some states in this heavily-militarized and contested region are major arms purchasers, empowered by partnerships with outside supporters and wealth derived from vast energy reserves. In part due to external relationships, some Middle Eastern countries have developed and continue to develop military industrial bases that supply some of their own defense needs and/or generate profits through arms exports.

Congress has constitutional powers and a number of legal prerogatives related to arms sales. In some cases, these powers and prerogatives allow Members to exert considerable influence over foreign sales. Because of the large quantity of U.S. arms sold to Middle Eastern states, a number of key historical episodes involving executive-legislative interaction on arms sales relate to the Middle East. Given that some U.S. policymakers across party lines have expressed support for a smaller military footprint in the Middle East, and that executive branch strategic documents have increasingly emphasized “building partner capacity” to advance U.S. strategic goals, arms sales could become increasingly important to U.S. foreign policy in the region.This shift would expand Congress’s role in the formation and direction of that policy.

The United States is the single largest arms supplier to the Middle East and has been for decades. However, other major producers like Russia, France, and China are also key players in the region. Their respective strategies and goals for arms sales appear to differ in some ways.

This report focuses on recent arms sales, primarily from the United States, to seven Middle Eastern states: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraq, Turkey, and Qatar. These states, some of the region’s largest arms purchasers, have taken a range of approaches as they assess various means of pursuing influence and security in an unstable region. Some appear to be increasing their commitment to the United States as their primary security guarantor, while others may be interested both in building up their own domestic arms production capabilities and in seeking out alternative suppliers. When considering domestic or non-U.S. procurement, these states may focus on indications of U.S. military or political commitment to the region or U.S. willingness to share technology relative to other potential suppliers. Still others may incorporate aspects of various approaches as they consider how arms purchases from the United States or others fit into their broader foreign and defense policies.

This report concludes by considering a number of arms sales-related issues of congressional interest. Arms sales are often a key component in Congress’s approach to advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives, such as preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbors and countering Iran’s regional influence. Arms transfer policy often figures prominently in the U.S. approach to specific ongoing crises, like the Saudi-led coalition’s military effort in Yemen. In addition, arms sales can factor into broader policy issues, such as human rights and the content and balance of U.S. foreign assistance.

The report discusses a number of options available to Members of Congress, including those related to oversight, reporting requirements, checks on executive action, and conditions on transfers or funding.

Arms sales are recognized widely as an important instrument of state power. States have many incentives to export arms. These incentives include enhancing the security of allies or partners; constraining the behavior of adversaries; using the prospect of arms transfers as leverage on governments’ internal or external behavior; and creating the economies of scale necessary to support a domestic arms industry (see textbox below).4 U.S. arms exports sustain parts of the U.S. defense industrial base. Moreover, foreign sales constitute a relatively important part of the U.S. economy, constituting 6.2% of the value of all U.S. exports from 2007 and 2014, compared with a worldwide average of 0.8% over the same period and 1.9% for Russia (one of the United States’ main competitors in this arena).

Direct deployment of U.S. manpower and resources appears to feature less prominently in current U.S. public opinion and policy debates regarding future foreign policy approaches to the Middle East than was the case in the years following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Therefore, arms sales in the region may become a significant way for the United States and other external

actors to influence Middle Eastern partners and political-military outcomes.6 On the other hand, U.S. reliance on arms sales as a policy tool places at least some responsibility for their use in the hands of partners who do not always share U.S. interests, follow internationally-acceptable rules of engagement, or have the same capabilities as U.S. forces.

Congress, through its oversight of U.S. arms sales, plays an important role in shaping U.S. policy in the region. In past eras when arms sales figured prominently in U.S. regional or global efforts, congressional actions and opinions in specific cases arguably had a significant effect on overall policy trajectories.

Arms Race And Domestic Industry

Arms sales are an important contributor to the U.S. aerospace and defense industry, a sector that directly employs over 1 million workers, with another 3 million working in support.7 According to one industry observer, international sales have made up 20 percent of U.S. firms’ total sales in recent years, and industry executives reportedly expect that figure to grow.8 Middle Eastern states play a critical role in sustaining this industry.

In early 2014, it was reported that, as the U.S. Navy looked to shift from the F-18 to the new Lockheed Martin-produced F-35, Boeing’s F-18 assembly line in St. Louis, MO, could close within two and a half years. Similar projections were made for the F-15 production line, which would come to an end in 2019 after fulfilling a large order from Saudi Arabia. However, two large deals with other Middle Eastern partners (Kuwait and Qatar9) appeared to save those lines from closure and extend their operations into at least 2020. Similar dynamics have played out in South Carolina (where a potential deal with Bahrain for a number of F-16s could boost a Lockheed-Martin plant in the state),10 Ohio (where Saudi orders have sustained General Dynamics tank production in Lima),11 Massachusetts (home to Raytheon, whose production of the Patriot air and missile defense system was rejuvenated by a 2008 UAE deal),12 and elsewhere. House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger, in response to a Trump Administration decision to delay some military aid to Egypt, said that when sales are curtailed, “the companies and the workers that put that equipment together in the United States are hurt.”

Opponents of specific arms sales sometimes characterize these potential economic benefits as short-term or incommensurate with the potential downsides. During a June 2017 debate over sales of air munitions to Saudi Arabia, Senator Rand Paul criticized those who would justify the deal as “a jobs program,” saying that “we are going to give money to people who behead you and crucify you to create jobs. That should never be the way we make a decision about arms sales in our country.”

The Demand for Arms in the Middle East

The Middle East is one of the most militarized regions in the world, featuring numerous conflicts or standoffs that involve nearly every state in the region. Israeli leaders, pointing to a series of perceived existential threats including several major wars between Israel and its neighbors, assert a continued need to maintain a large and technologically advanced military. Iran is seen as a threat not just by the United States and Israel, but by nearly every one of its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. Ongoing conflicts in places like Yemen, Syria, and Libya demonstrate the extent to which other states seek to influence outcomes through the use of their own military forces and through arms transfers to local partners.

Several additional factors have created an enormous demand for arms in the region. Many countries face transnational terrorist threats and, in some cases, domestic insurgencies. In addition, many states have large militaries that often play a prominent, even dominant, role in domestic and international politics. Advances in technology and capabilities have made some systems obsolete, creating a need for new acquisitions. Some have argued that the importance Middle Eastern governments evidently ascribe to large weapons purchases stems from the role of arms in building international credibility, as well as national pride and identity. These are strong incentives in a region where legitimacy is widely contested and where some states became independent less than half a century ago.15

By almost every measure, the Middle East is a main participating region in the global arms trade, constituting 61.1% of the value of all arms agreements concluded by all suppliers with the developing world from 2012 to 2015, and 54.5% from 2008 to 2011. The Middle East has particular importance for the United States: arms from the United States made up 46.2% of all arms delivered to the Middle East from 2008 to 2011, and 45.8% between 2012 and 2015, outpacing those from the next largest supplier (Russia, whose deliveries totaled 19.1% and 17.5% of all deliveries to the Middle East, respectively).16 Those trends show no sign of slowing down in an increasingly militarized region:

 _Of the 57 major U.S. arms sales proposed in 2016, 35 were to nations in the Middle East, totaling over $49 billion (or 78%) of the $63 billion aggregate total of proposed U.S. arms sales for that year.17

 _In FY2017, the State Department announced $75.9 billion worth of proposed sales, $52 billion of which were to Middle Eastern states.18

 _While three Middle East states had annual budgets putting them in the top 15 of global defense spenders in 2016 (Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iraq, at 4th, 14th, and 15th respectively.

Read Full Health Arms Sales in The Middleeast


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