When, on September
28, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker announced that the White House had finally
cleared the way for the long awaited
military sales to Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, the news was met with a mixed reaction.
This was a hard pill to swallow for Israel, who had especially objected to the
sale to Qatar, a long-standing U.S. ally while at the same time a notorious patron of Sunni extremist movements with a long track record
of material and financial support to terrorist organizations, including Israel’s archenemy Hamas. It was celebrated
by others, from U.S. lawmakers determined to get to the bottom of the deal no matter the political cost for U.S.-Israel relations, to Boeing, whose sale to
Qatar and Kuwait now extends the life of the
production line of the F-15 and of the Super Hornets into the 2020s contrary to previous expectations for
a 2019 shut-down. The timing of the approval
of the multi-billion dollar deal conveniently fits the timeline of the U.S. presidential
campaign - saving and extending the
fighter production line of a major American corporation is “exactly the sort of
news that incumbents running for re-election love to take credit for,” 24/7 Wall St contributor
Paul Ausick recently commented. Yet, on the other hand, the U.S. is walking a
fine line at playing conflicting interests that may influence fragile balances in
the Middle East and push the region into further chaos.
For the three
countries, which are heavily dependent on foreign supplies to boost their
fledging air force, the package was worth the wait. From Boeing, Qatar is
purchasing 72 F-15E Strike Eagles while Kuwait received authorization to buy 18
E/F Super Hornets – two transactions approximately valued around $7 billion. As for Bahrain, the country’s deal with Lockheed
Martin Corp. includes a $5 billion sale of 19 F-16s, but could entail an additional $20
billion in long-term maintenance. Technically, the military deal with the three
Gulf countries will be formalized after completion of the 40-day notification
process, and will be followed by a 30-day period during which lawmakers will
again be in the position of blocking the sale – a procedure that Reuters describes as rare and unlikely.
Although the U.S.
State Department is prohibited from expressing comments on arms sales between
governments that are still in the making, indiscretions that transpired over
the past two years revealed that both the Pentagon and the State Department had cleared the deal some time ago. The White House’s
reluctance to move forward with the talks was widely ascribed to the significant geopolitical implications of the sale at a time of critical re-assessment of
alliances in the Middle East. Ultimately, the U.S.’s efforts to draw their Gulf
allies closer – and maybe to mildly address their resentment after the nuclear
deal with Iran and its unfolding consequences – have prevailed over other political considerations.
Israeli officials, traditionally
aligned with the U.S.’s interests in
the Middle East, have often voiced concerns that the Gulf States may employ
U.S.-provided weapons to hurt Israeli interests. Israel’s apprehension is not
misplaced; both Qatar and Kuwait have bolstered their military spending after
the Sunni-Shia divide started to take on palpable defense implications in the
Middle East with the Saudi Arabia-Iran proxy war escalating in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Moreover, the new deal
seems to suggest that the U.S. is willing to irritate Israel to the extent that
their commitment to guarantee Israel’s “qualitative military edge” has not stopped the approval of the sales.
considerations aside, the new military deal may come with an even higher price
tag. Reports from the Yemeni battlefield confirmed that chances that U.S.
equipment could be put to use to further a civil war that is causing major
humanitarian devastations were high. Only in early
August the State Department approved a $1.15 billion military deal with Saudi Arabia for the sale of 130 Abraham battle tanks, 20 armored
vehicles, and other equipment that many fear will be employed in the Saudi-led
front in Yemen. By filling up the arsenals of states with controversial records
when it comes to advancing extremism and terrorism in the Middle East – such as
Qatar and Kuwait – the U.S. seem to be willing to take that chance again.
As pointed out in
previous pieces, both countries do little to punish Qatar and Kuwait-based supporters of extremist and terrorist groups – from al-Qaeda, to Jabhat
Fateh al-Sham (the former “al-Nusra Front”), to ISIS. Qatar’s support to al-Nusra
has been conspicuous and continuous over the past three years, and is expected to evolve in
light of the group’s recent rebranding operation and formal severence of ties
from al-Qaeda. In general, however, Kuwait and Qatar-based financiers have
produced some of the most creative and enduring fundraising solutions for al-Nusra. Although incomparable in scale, with Qatar’s support
for Hamas assimilable to a state-patronage, both countries have a history with Hamas. Both Qatar and Kuwait also share a long-term
commitment to support the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, as well as to
finance their own attempts to spread the most conservative version of Islam by funding mosques and religious institutions across the globe.
Two days after
Senator Corker announced the sales approval,
Bloomberg reported that a draft notification of the pending sale sent to
Congress included a condition for the approval for Bahrain’s purchase: the Gulf
state is apparently obliged to demonstrate progress on a number of domestic
issues, including the government’s crackdown on dissent and human rights
writ large. But why did the
military deal come with “strings attached” only for Bahrain? Leveraging
military sales as a bargaining chip with Qatar and Kuwait as well, in exchange
for more credible efforts to counter terrorism financing, may be a good place