People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 15

April  10, 2011

US Military Stranglehold over Arab World


Yohannan Chemerapally


LIBYA, along with Syria, is among the few Arab countries that are not under the American military and security umbrella. If the American led destabilisation efforts against these two countries succeed, then the West will succeed in its goal of converting the Mediterranean into a NATO lake.




These days the rebels in Libya are being supplied with sophisticated weaponry by the NATO countries, currently backing them in their bid to oust the government there. In Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen, American supplied weaponry and crowd control equipment like tear gas shells and rubber bullets were used against protestors. The oil exporting states in West Asia have been splurging their money on buying billions of dollars of sophisticated weaponry, mainly from the US, while allowing their economies to suffer. These lopsided priorities of the pro-western regimes in the region is a factor that have ignited the ongoing popular revolts.


The British prime minister, David Cameron, was in the Gulf states in the last week of February, with representatives from leading arms manufacturers accompanying him. Cameron was not at all contrite on the issue of funnelling high tech weaponry into a volatile region. Britain, along with France, had recently suspended weapons sales to Bahrain and Libya after security forces there fired live ammunition on protestors. But the big markets for international arms merchants are among the Gulf Sheikdoms and Emirates flush with petrodollars. Leveraging the so-called threat Iran poses to its neighbours, the US has already sold weapons worth 50 billion dollars in the region between 2006 and 2009. The Obama administration has notified the US Congress of potential military exports to West Asia worth more than 100 billion dollars for the years 2009 and 2010.


The Egyptian government purchased weapons worth more than 2 billion dollars from the US in 2009. Egypt is the second biggest recipient of US military aid after Israel. Between 2001 and 2008 Egypt purchased weaponry worth 10.4 billion dollars. The recently deposed Ben Ali government in Tunisia brought weapons worth more than 15 million dollars in 2009. Jordan, another country, which is witnessing widespread street protests, had brought American weaponry worth 431 million dollars last year. Tiny Bahrain, where the people have been on the streets since early February, splurged 100 million dollars on American arms in 2010. Some of the weaponry was used against the peaceful protestors in the capital Manama’s Pearl Square during a midnight raid by the security forces in the third week of February. The US sales to Iraq after the 2003 invasion amounted 3.5 billion dollars.


The UAE alone is planning to spend 6 billion dollars in military purchases in the next eight years. In the last decade, the UAE purchased around 10 billion dollars worth of armaments from the US alone.




One-third of the total US arms sales are in West Asia, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE being the biggest customers. Late last year, the US signed one of the biggest deals with Saudi Arabia. The 60 billion dollars deal includes the purchase of advanced military aircraft, helicopters, missiles and bombs. Between 2001 and 2008, figures compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI) and the UN, the Saudi Kingdom spent 34.9 billion dollars in military purchases, twice more than the defence procurements of China and India combined during that period. A significant amount of the profits the Saudi state generates from the oil bonanza is ploughed back into the pockets of US companies through multi-billion dollar deals. Robert Baer, a former CIA officer with considerable experience in West Asia, has written that a “tacit part” of the US-Saudi relations was “that the Americans would buy Saudi oil and would provide the Saudis with protection and security.” The US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Andrew Shapiro stated recently that the sale of sophisticated military equipment to the Saudis was meant to further align the Kingdom’s military relationship with the United States and allow the kingdom to better protect its oil infrastructure “which is critical to our economic interests.”  


This “recycling” of petrodollars back to the West has now been profitably extended by Washington to states like the UAE and recently to Libya after the West rehabilitated Moammar Gaddafi on the world stage. The European Union states alone provided Gaddafi with weapons worth more than 474 million dollars in 2009. The West’s embargo on arms sales to Libya was lifted in 2004. Now NATO has imposed a “no fly zone” over Libya and bombing the country following the take over of the Eastern part of the country by rebel forces. An economic and arms embargo has been put on the Gaddafi led government in Tripoli while arms and money are being funnelled to the rebels holed up in Benghazi.  The alliance between the West and the authoritarian rulers has meant excellent profits for the armaments industry. Citing “national interests,” the British government had stepped in to stop a probe against the arms manufacturer BAE in 2006 for bribing Saudi officials to sweeten a multi-billion dollar deal.




Many of the more than 1000 US military bases around the world are located in the volatile West Asia region. Gaddafi had kicked out the American from their military bases in Libya soon after the ousting of the Libyan monarch, King Idris, in a military coup in 1969. But the foothold the Pentagon had lost in North Africa was more than compensated with the permanent bases it has established in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and many Gulf states since then. The military bases the US has set up in the region after the two Gulf Wars are among the biggest in the region. The public resentment against the American military presence near Islam’s holiest places in Saudi Arabia in the nineties was a highly emotive issue in the Arab world. Most of those involved in the September 11 attacks were Saudi nationals. In the last week of February, another Saudi citizen was arrested in the US for allegedly planning terror attacks. Although the US has pulled out a large number of its troops from Saudi Arabia, many US troops still remain in secret micro-bases near the capital Riyadh. In Oman, the US uses the base on Masirah Island for its military activities in the region.


The US military bases in neighbouring Kuwait host around 15,000 troops. In Iraq, the occupying American military of course has an unspecified number of military bases. Washington has indicated that after the planned withdrawal of the bulk of the US forces from the country, it would like to hold on to five big military bases. Bahrain hosts one of the biggest American naval bases. Its strategic location astride the Straits of Hormuz abutting Iran is crucial to the American game plan of dominating the region militarily. It also explains why the Obama administration is treating the ruling Khalifa dynasty there with kid gloves while waiving the big stick at Gaddafi. Obama is continuing the policy of his predecessor, George W Bush, who saw the West Asian regimes as a bulwark against America’s current bete noire in the region --- Iran. Washington’s goal in the region was to transform the Arab-Israeli conflict into one between the Arabs and Iran. By overstating Teheran’s nuclear ambitions, the West sought to drive between Iran and its neighbours. With the Arab world now caught up in the vortex of revolutionary change, Iran may no longer be seen as a threat by the new governments that are likely to emerge.  


The US Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar played a crucial role in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some years ago the US agreed to sell 80 advanced F-16’s to the UAE in a deal worth around $15 billion. In return, the US was allowed to build military bases there with access to the only deep water port capable of accommodating aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. The US Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) released in 2010 noted that the US is “a global power with global responsibilities”. The US has 400,000 soldiers rotationally deployed around the world.


Gen David Petraeus, the head of the Central Command (CENTCOM), had told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that the Arabian Peninsula commands significant US attention and focus because of the importance of our interests and the potential for insecurity.” He described the countries in the region as “key partners.” Petraeus said that the Obama administration is also planning a build up of expensive missile defence systems in the Gulf region. The Obama administration announced in November last that it plans to sell Patriot Interceptor missiles worth more than 900 million dollars to Kuwait. “All of these cooperative efforts are facilitated  by the critical base and port facilities that Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and others provide for US forces”, said Petraeus. The US has deep security relations with Jordan, which is also witnessing serious protests. While speaking at the opening of the King Abdullah 11 Special Operations Training Centre (KASOTC) built with American financing, General Petraeus lauded Jordan as “a key partner which has placed itself at the forefront of police and military training for regional security forces.” The present popular upsurge in the Arab world, especially in the oil producing hubs where the American military presence is most visible, is sending jitters down the spine of US.




Washington is not only worried about the fate of its bases but also about the sophisticated weaponry it has supplied to the states in the region. Regime change in Iran in 1979 saw American weapons fall into the hands of a radical regime. Iran under the Shah had assumed the role of a regional policeman on behalf of the Americans. The US government had given the Shah the state of the art weaponry available at the time. The weapons were duly inherited by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran was immediately but under an arms embargo by the US, making it very difficult for Teheran to get spare parts for the F-14 jets and other US made weapons of war.   


Egypt under Mubarak was among the staunchest US allies in the region and the recipient of American military largesse. The military leadership which has taken over after Mubarak remains close to the US. But the Obama administration is fearful about the future. A democratically elected government in Egypt will find it difficult to play a subservient role to the US in the region and also peacefully coexist with Israel that keeps on trampling on Palestinian rights. American military analysts are in fact arguing that the Obama administration should continue with the policy of underwriting military aid for Egypt, arguing that this will continue to give Washington a say in the promotion of a post-Mubarak political system beneficial to its interests.


The Arab street will have a different take on the matter. In their eyes, the arming of authoritarian rulers and the building of bases on their territory by the US is an affront to their dignity and nationhood. The blowback against the US starting with the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt may have just begun.