Arms Deals in the Gulf – Sinking in Quicksand?

The Story

On Thursday, May 14, President Barack Obama hosted a one-day summit at his Camp David retreat for U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf. Drawing senior government officials from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, the summit was organized against the backdrop of a looming deal between the United States, European Union, and Iran on the Persian country’s nuclear program. While America’s Sunni-dominated Arab allies were reportedly seeking a closer defence alliance to balance Shiite Iran’s rising influence, the United States instead sought to reassure the Gulf countries through increasing military aid, including air defence missiles and improved radar equipment for fighter jets. Notably, recently-enthroned Saudi King Salman did not make the trip to Camp David, sending surrogates to meet with President Obama and the White House team.

Meanwhile, Canada’s government has signed an additional $15 billion (CAD) arms deal with Saudi Arabia, largely coming in the form of light armoured vehicles such as tanks. Thus far, there is no evidence that Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs has conducted a review of the Saudi kingdom’s human rights record, which is mandatory under Canadian law for sales of arms to countries with persistent human rights concerns.


These arm sales coincide with an intensifying Saudi-backed campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has included the use of American-made cluster bombs against the rebels and local population. (Local Yemeni media are reportedly calling this campaign a “U.S.-Saudi war on Yemen”.) Some observers are also concerned that weapons provided by the United States and Canada to Gulf states could one day be used against those countries’ own populations, if and when they rise up against the Gulf’s aging monarchies. The Bahrain uprising of 2011, which continues to stir unrest in the region, has already provided one notable example of the extent to which the monarchies are prepared to suppress any resistance.

Background Articles

Key Quote

 This is exactly what Obama wanted to avoid when it came down to pledging [U.S.] military assistance to these countries, which quite frankly have very poor track records when it comes to civil liberties.” – John Hudson, Foreign Policy


The United States’ and Canada’s arms deals to the Persian Gulf come amidst changing power dynamics in the Greater Middle East. Even prior to the latest round of nuclear negotiations, Iran had already began playing a more influential role in shaping power struggles across the region. Most notably, it has taken advantage of the power vacuum in Iraq to become the Shiite-led government’s principal ally, and its military generals are actively helping the country’s Shiite militias in the fight against the Islamic State. Some observers also suspect that Iran is at least partially behind the Houthis’ rebellion in Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s backdoor, though the extent of coordination between them is unclear.


Against this backdrop of rising Iranian influence, the potentially imminent deal over Iran’s nuclear program is unnerving to Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni-based Gulf countries. Though the intent of the deal is to restrict Iran’s ability to manufacture a nuclear bomb, at least for the next 10-15 years, Gulf countries worry that an agreement between Iran and the United States would weaken America’s commitment to siding with them in future struggles with Iran. As well, the deal proposes a lifting of economic sanctions against Iran – a potentially significant net exporter of oil – which could disrupt an already-fragile oil market that is crucial to the viability of the Gulf regimes and would further strengthen Iranian influence.


Paradoxically, the U.S. arms deal to the Gulf countries likely reflects an attempt to slowly extricate itself from heavy involvement in the region. The Obama Administration has long talked about the need for an “Asian pivot” in U.S. foreign policy, given the mounting economic and geopolitical significance of that region. At the same time, the boom in U.S. energy production means that America is closing in on being a net exporter of oil, rather than a net importer – removing a key geopolitical reason for continued involvement in the Middle East. A successful deal on Iran’s nuclear program could potentially remove yet another tie currently binding the United States to the region. Providing weapons systems to Gulf allies, rather than committing to a defence pact, can therefore be seen as an attempt to continue influencing events in the region through local proxies – a more low-cost alternative to the “boots on the ground” approach in Iraq over the last 10 years.


HouthiHowever, fighting wars by proxy can be a dangerous illusion for a major power like the United States. From a systems theory perspective, the United States is fundamentally increasing the instability of the Middle East over the long-term by increasing the amount of weapons to the region. Should frustrated citizens rebel against their repressive regimes in the coming years, there is the very real possibility that U.S. and Canadian weapons would be used in an attempt to crush protestors, with all the risks of “guilt-by-association” that this response would bring. Furthermore, arming proxies to fight one’s wars has historically strengthened those intermediate groups to one day grow into strong regional actors that may come to oppose the initial powers that armed them. (This was the case with the mujahadeen fighters in Afghanistan, who were supported by the West against the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, only to later serve as the precursor to groups like Al-Qaeda.)


Ultimately, one has to ask why the United States (and to a lesser extent, Canada) continues to involve itself in Middle Eastern affairs, given the stated preference for an Asian pivot. One explanation is that playing the role of a global superpower may imply a certain amount of inertia – the more a country has invested resources in a region, the more difficult it is to withdraw from the region without causing pain to allies who have come to depend on the superpower, and who might revert to more extreme actions to secure themselves. Despite all the talk of a pivot, the United States may find itself wading through quicksand as it tries to extricate itself from its long historical entanglements in the Middle East.


Suggested Discussion Questions

  • What are the potential ramifications of arming Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in the near term? What are the potential long-term consequences?
  • What would happen if the United States and Canada did not continue to maintain close military ties with these countries?
  • What interests do the United States and Canada have in maintaining influence in the Persian Gulf?

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