The United States has long been the main provider of security aid, weapons, and training to the Middle East. Its interest in arming Israel and Arab allies has grown over the years—spurred by domestic political and economic imperatives, a desire to challenge Iran’s influence in the Levant, security concerns about non-state actors and extremist groups, and a general wariness of expending US assets to protect American interests in the region. From their side, Arab leaders have sought to arm themselves—whether because of concerns about the military capabilities and intentions of Israel or Iran, or as a way to build internal legitimacy and face domestic political challenges—and the United States has proven most responsive in satisfying their needs.
Today, under the leadership of President Donald Trump, the Arab world may be poised for increased militarization as it experiences numerous domestic and regional challenges. First, President Trump is generally considered to be more inward focused and hesitant to use US personnel or equipment to protect America’s long-held security interests abroad. In fact, he operates with an expectation that other countries should contribute to mutual security efforts, if not take them over completely. Second, the president has a transactional approach and believes that allied states should be paying more for American guarantees of security. Third, and most important, President Trump is almost singularly focused on the US economy; his seemingly limited understanding of geopolitical and military policies is further narrowed by the economic lens through which he perceives the world.
Despite these considerations, it is important to remember that the United States has a history of arming its allies in the Middle East and North Africa. President Trump’s position may seem as the most unconventional take on such a policy compared to those of his predecessors, but it is not inherently unique. Indeed, the Trump Administration’s policies toward securing deals with Arab allies for weapons and equipment, security cooperation and training, and even nuclear technology are simply the latest iterations of a long-running trend dating back to the height of the Cold War.
The period 2016-2017, which spanned the administrations of both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, is a useful case study for understanding the United States’ role in arming its Arab allies. It was record setting in terms of American Foreign Military Sales (FMSs). The State Department, in conjunction with the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), is responsible for approving weapons purchase agreements, and it cleared nearly $76 billion in proposed arms sales between October 2016 and September 2017 alone, roughly $50 billion of which went to Arab states. But an FMS is just one mechanism by which the US government can provide arms to other states; other ways include issuing grants through Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and approving permits for Direct Commercial Sales (DCSs) between a US company and a foreign government. The president and executive branch officials also can provide military equipment and training by reorganizing funds that have already been appropriated by Congress or reallocating equipment that is already in the US government’s possession. This can include “reprogramming,” “drawdowns,” the dispersal of Excess Defense Articles (EDAs), or using the Pentagon’s Global Train and Equip Fund (GTEF).
To better understand what these processes actually produced during 2016-2017, and what they can bear in the future, below is a list—albeit not an exhaustive one—that illustrates the continuing arms buildup in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states were the leading FMS customers, while states like Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon are included to illustrate how the United States provides arms and services as security aid. The lists were compiled, in part, by reviewing the DSCA notifications for calendar years 2016 and 2017 as well as miscellaneous media reports and press releases.
- Saudi Arabia: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the United States’ leading FMS customer as of 2017. The proposed $110-$350 billion deal in May 2017, which made international headlines, illustrates how complicated and lengthy the arms sale process can be (for example, in 2017 the Saudis finally started receiving tranches of new F-15SA jets that were part of a $60 billion deal approved in 2010). The allocation of the May 2017 figures, should they reach the maximum amounts, will be a result of agreements reached under both the Obama and Trump Administrations. They consist of the following components:
- The approximate amount of $24 billion can actually be delivered to the Saudis by the Trump Administration because it was formulated by the Obama Administration and approved by the relevant agencies, and Congress did not object to the deal. It includes various munitions, helicopters, tanks, armored vehicles, and other equipment intended to modernize the Saudi military.
- The approximate amount of $86 billion could come to fruition, including a $15 billion purchase of a missile defense system known as the THAAD and billions of dollars’ worth of munitions, aircraft, and support elements.
- The rest ($240 billion) of the maximum $350 billion could be delivered over ten years as weapons, maintenance, training, and support for the new equipment.
- Qatar: In 2016, the DCSA notified Congress that Qatar was approved to purchase a $21.1 billion package that includes aircraft, training, and parts as well as other deals worth millions of dollars more in patrol boats, munitions, and training. By the end of 2017, Qatar secured a deal to follow through on its purchase of 36 of the approved 72 F-15QA jets from the US-based Boeing Company. The jets are not expected to be delivered until 2022, however.
- United Arab Emirates (UAE): Between 2016 and 2017, the UAE was approved to purchase weaponry and training that includes $3.5 billion in Apache helicopters and $2 billion in large missiles. By the end of 2017, however, there was little indication that the UAE had reached any deals with US companies to fill its missile request and it still had not reached a final deal with Boeing for the Apache helicopters.
- Bahrain: President Trump approved nearly $4 billion in sales to Bahrain that the Obama Administration put on hold due to concerns over Bahrain’s human rights record. The US government approved the sale of up to 19 F-16s, upgrades for older model F-16s Bahrain already has, new patrol boats, and missiles. Months later, Bahrain reached a deal with US-based Lockheed Martin Corporation for the full amount, though it only included 16 of the new jets. No expected delivery date has been announced.
Egypt and the Levant
- Egypt is the Arab country that receives the highest amount of security aid from the United States, usually in the form of FMF grants. Egypt is also eligible to receive EDA dispersals.
- Congress typically appropriates about $1.3 billion per year in FMF grants, with 15 percent contingent on certifications that Egypt’s human rights record is up to congressional standards. The Departments of State and Defense administer the FMF grants to facilitate FMSs.
- In 2016, Egypt used FMF funds to purchase radar systems, underwater missiles, and miscellaneous services and training.
- Jordan: Like Cairo, Amman receives FMF grants, as appropriated by Congress, and it, too, is eligible for EDAs. Jordan received $450 and $470 million in FMF funding for 2016 and 2017, respectively.
- Recently, Jordan has been able to obtain quality military equipment without using FMF grants. Because of this, the DCSA only notified Congress of one approved FMS for Jordan in 2016 and 2017. This sale was approved for roughly $115 million worth of F-16 engine repairs and services.
- Instead, Jordan received Blackhawk helicopters, howitzer cannons, miscellaneous small arms and ammunition, and more through the GTEF.
- Lebanon: Lebanon is said to be the fifth largest recipient of FMF grants from the United States, but there is no record of Lebanon requesting or being approved for an FMS in the selected time frame. However, between 2016 and 2017, the Department of Defense provided the Lebanese Armed Forces with roughly $381 million in vehicles, aircraft, ammunition, training, and more through a budget set aside for such aid. In addition, the Trump Administration notified Congress at the end of 2017 of its intention to grant Lebanon $120 million more through the GTEF.
- Iraq: Because Iraq’s fight with the Islamic State has required expanded military action over the last few years, the United States has provided Baghdad with large amounts of FMF funding and security aid, including $250 million in FMF grants in 2017 alone and millions more in presidential drawdowns and Train and Equip Funds. Notably large deals include:
These statistics illustrate the immensity of the US defense-export industry in the Arab world. Early in the Trump Administration, the United States has seen an uptick in arms sales, which is noteworthy because the Obama Administration had brokered more weapons deals than any other presidential administration since World War II. Since the “war on terror” began, in particular, and threats proliferated in the Middle East and other hotspots around the world, global investments in more advanced weapons and defense capabilities have increased steadily. The Arab states have continued to look to the United States—the world’s leading defense exporter—to meet their rising demands in arms purchases.
A Possible Trump Effect?
President Trump has characterized his presidency by an economy-first approach to both domestic and foreign affairs. Because he is hyper-focused on the country’s economic performance, some expect the arms trade business to continue to expand under his administration. Therefore, there are arguments to be made for the idea that the financial benefits of the arms trade could drive US interests in arming its Arab allies—known as “economic determinism.” Conversely, critics of the argument note that the gargantuan bureaucracies that oversee the arms sales approval processes are relatively immune to the political and economic considerations that may motivate a president to strike an arms deal with other states.
However immune the bureaucracies may be, the president, as the commander-in-chief and leading executive official of the US government, has the ability to set the government’s priorities. With the allure of securing billion-dollar deals looming large, President Trump is likely to pressure his staff to focus more on the money and jobs aspects of arms sales and less on other factors. Indeed, his administration has already encouraged the agencies to relax their normally strenuous review requirements (though there are some laws in place that could be hard to skirt) and otherwise change the way they operate. For example, the Trump Administration has urged officials at the Departments of State and Defense to generate a “whole-of-government” approach to brokering more weapons sales. There will likely be more incentives to approve weapons deals as wealthy Arab states flood the State and Defense Departments with FMS requests in an effort to curry favor with the president.
The Trump Administration is also notably indifferent to the human rights records of Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; at best, it barely addresses the dismal human rights conditions in other parts of the region. It is likely that the president and his surrogates will encourage the approval of weapons deals regardless of a country’s human rights record. Congress could step in to counter these efforts, but history provides some salient examples of policy disagreements between the White House and Congress, when the White House had the final say—such as President Ronald Reagan’s successful sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia in 1981, despite strong congressional opposition.
In other ways, Trump’s very nature could directly or indirectly fuel an arms buildup in the Middle East. He is perceived as an unpredictable leader, so Arab heads of state and high officials who feel they are in his good graces are cognizant of the fact that one piece of negative news coverage or one perceived slight could change their fortunes. This could prompt Arab leaders to secure as much weaponry as they can to protect against any future falling-out with this president—or with future administrations. In this regard, it is important to recall that major arms deals normally include a significant amount of training and/or maintenance provided by the US government or US contractors, meaning that Arab allies often maintain at least a working relationship with the United States for some years after their weapons are delivered.
Trump’s unpredictability could also inadvertently spur traditional Arab allies to buy more arms elsewhere—this time at the American worker’s expense. Longtime allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as other regional actors, have moved to explore major arms deals with other states like Russia, China, and France. A fear of falling out of favor with President Trump, or of his possible disengagement from the region, has made Arab states eager to cultivate new security relationships. Russia and China appear to be favorable partners in this arrangement because they set fewer preconditions for weapons and equipment sales than the United States. In fact, General Joseph Votel, Commander of the US Central Command, voiced those very concerns in testimony before Congress recently.
Finally, it is worth noting that a number of arms transfers are facilitated by using funds appropriated by Congress ahead of time; after notifying lawmakers, the Executive Branch can make decisions on these arrangements as it sees fit. For example, the GTEF works as a kind of slush fund for the Pentagon; it was intended to allow the Department of Defense to react quickly and finance weapons for allies in the face of urgent threats. Now, it is considerably easier to procure weapons for allies through the Pentagon rather than to wait for the State Department to approve sales. Because President Trump has sought to devolve the decision-making process to military officials in the field, it is plausible that, with more authority than it has previously enjoyed, the Department of Defense could forego the lengthy process and arm allies more quickly on its own.
In Business Terms, What Is America’s Return on Investment?
In the years to come, it is clear that past deals for fighter aircraft, tanks, missiles, and missile defense systems will substantially increase the Arab states’ military capacities. Will the arms race in the Middle East and North Africa prove to be fruitful for the United States? Will well-armed Arab allies fulfill the mutual defense goals the United States has envisioned for the Gulf? The recent split in the GCC proves that outsourcing security to allies that are often skeptical of, and reluctant to work with, one another does not guarantee mutual peace and security. Indeed, the limited interoperability among the Gulf states has proved ineffective in countering Iran in the region, requiring a US presence in the Gulf to possibly contain the Islamic Republic’s ambitions.
Even for all the successes in building US-Arab counterterrorism capabilities—often considered the crown jewel of US engagement in the region—there are lasting questions about the form of US security aid. Many in the region face unconventional threats from both non-state actors and Iran, yet they field conventional military capabilities that do not serve as the necessary tools for maintaining security.
The United States would do well to consider whether arming Arab allies will truly achieve the goals of securing peace and stability in the region and building capable partners. As protests swept through Arab capitals in 2011, some autocratic regimes leaned on their militaries to crush peaceful protests, using US weaponry. Non-state actors in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq have also acquired US equipment, contributing to the instability in the region. Such developments highlight that the reality of weapons proliferation, without an effective strategy for building reliable security mechanisms, could actually harm US interests in the region.
Previous administrations have at least attempted to craft cogent reasons for providing arms and security assistance to the Middle East. Their frameworks were often misguided or poorly executed, or some combination of the two, but they were undergirded by certain guiding principles. The current administration has yet to formulate a strategy that develops well-functioning and versatile security partners in its Arab allies, and not one that merely expands their arsenals and conventional military capabilities. If Trump is largely interested in funneling major weapons packages to wealthy Arab allies in return for economic benefits, then it is unlikely that his administration would temper what has long been the US government’s worst instincts when it comes to saturating the region—and indeed, many parts of the world—with lethal weaponry.
The years 2016 and 2017 extended the era of increasingly militarized Arab states. Although many arms packages will not bear fruit for years, the Trump Administration’s willingness to facilitate the demand for weapons with little scrutiny and without a coherent strategy does not necessarily bode well for peace and security in the region. President Trump’s position on militarizing the Arab world is perhaps more visible, but it is not necessarily new; he is simply carrying forth the trend started by previous administrations. As in the president’s career in real estate, the “Trump effect” here simply involves adding his name and personal flare to a practice that was already underway. This will surely allow him to take credit for arms sales that will affect the performance of the US economy positively.