Consortium Against Terrorist Financing Oct. 7, 2016, 11:18am

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.

Strategic 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 to start.

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