Bush in Saudi Arabia: Arms in Arms

It took only one paragraph in the President’s Abu Dhabi speech, the only major foreign policy speech of his Middle East tour, to display the bankruptcy of the Bush non-proliferation strategy. Opening with the familiar evils of terrorism, he quickly turned to Iran. Besides deploring its support for terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine, he repeated the other familiar charge that Iran “defies the United Nations and destabilizes the region by refusing to be open and transparent about its nuclear programs and ambitions.”

And the remedy? “The United States,” he explained, “is strengthening our longstanding security commitments with our friends in the Gulf — and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late.”(1) And since “weapon” is the primary word for strength and security in the Bush lexicon, he came prepared with a $20 billion arms deal.

It’s not as if this kind of deal is anything new for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors. In the last eight years, as in the decade before that, Saudi Arabia has, by a large margin, been the world’s leading weapons importer – averaging almost $6 billion per year since 1999.(2) Other Gulf States, notably the three visited by the president, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, are of course much smaller but also well within the top 20 weapons recipients.

The US, of course, is not the only arms supplier to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Fully two-thirds of their acquisitions come from Europe, and we can be sure that the new $20 billion American deal will be more than matched by other eager suppliers.

There is only one problem. The radical militarization of regional security arrangements is not a deterrent to nuclear proliferation, but is in fact its chief driver. States are not threatened into disarmament, nor will Iran be.

For the moment Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear technology for civilian energy production, but it has made a point of using that drive to acquire dual use technologies – technologies like uranium enrichment that can also be used to build weapons – precisely to keep its options open in the face of what it perceives as growing regional threats.

Iran, in other words, is following the Japan model, gradually, but inevitably, developing the knowledge and skills needed to build nuclear weapons. And the only way to persuade Iran, again much like Japan, not to weaponize its nuclear technology will be to persuade it that it lives in a safe neighborhood. But the strategy that Mr. Bush paraded around the Gulf is designed to do the opposite – to persuade Iran it lives in a hostile neighborhood – and the result will be heightened proliferation pressures in Iran.

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia’s massive and still expanding military is not only a threat to Iran – it is a threat to the House of Saud itself. King Abdullah heads a calcified monarchy whose management of an oil-rich economy consists largely of ignoring crisis-level unemployment while brandishing the world’s most ostentatious displays of private wealth – all that in a region saddled with chronic and multilayered conflict, deeply rooted underdevelopment, and broad swaths of debilitating poverty.

As a result, the King and his extended family remain vulnerable to any internal opposition that stands a chance of winning the support of lavishly funded armed forces. Of course, the Royals have not survived this long by ignoring the obvious. The King has in fact taken care to employ divide and rule tactics to create a splintered military, tactics that have included building up the Saudi Arabia National Guard as a tribal force to protect the Royal family from both internal rebellion and the regular Saudi Army.(3) And Canada, by the way, has been a faithful supplier of armored vehicles to that same National Guard for more than a decade.(4)

Terrorism has many and complex roots, but one thing is clear, the Bush-Saudi formula – the unrestrained arming of a “Muslim” oligarchy that hordes what should be public resource wealth and that stays in power by overtly catering to the interests of the “Christian” West – is an al Qaeda recruiter’s dream. Thus, not only has there been an increase in terror attacks within Saudi Arabia, but, as attacks in the US, Europe, Indonesia and well beyond obviously demonstrate, Saudi terror recruits and their international partners now criss-cross the globe.

The threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is intensified by a heightened threat environment, and the threat of global terrorism is unfortunately bolstered by the West’s deepening alliance with Middle East regimes that brazenly defy the rights and well-being of the people they rule. President Bush’s aggressive arming and public coddling of King Abdullah last week made the world more dangerous, on both counts.


1. “President Bush Discusses Importance of Freedom in the Middle East,” Emirates Palace Hotel,
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, January 13, 2008),
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/01/20080113-1.html.

2. Richard F. Grimmett, Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1999-2006, Congressional Research Service Report to Congress (Document RL34187), September 26, 2007.

3. GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/gulf/sang.htm; Mark Silverberg, “Bush’a Folly,” The International Analyst Network, January 16, http://www.analyst-network.com/article.php?art_id=1605.

4. See, December 23, 2007 posting: “Why is Canada Arming the House of Saud” ( whyiscan).

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