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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Emerging Market for Arms




A new war in the Persian Gulf seems to have been averted. United Nations arms experts were reported this week to have finished inspecting many of the eight palace compounds of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Jayantha Dhanapala, head of the diplomatic corps that is accompanying the inspectors, characterized Iraq's cooperation as "positive."


The arms buying frenzy, however, that the rich oil-exporting Arab kingdoms have been engaging in since the war in 1991 goes on unabated.


Many of these monarchies have more weapons than leading members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Saudi Arabia has, for example, 1,021 tanks, while France has only 906. The French army could only afford to order 266 Leclerc tanks -- France's most advanced tank -- and has to date received 140. The United Arab Emirates have ordered 390 Leclerc tanks and 46 Leclerc armored recovery vehicles for $3.6 billion. Two hundred Leclerc tanks have already been delivered to the Emirates.


The oil-rich Arab monarchies are scarcely populated countries. Of the United Arab Emirates' population of 2.4 million, only 25 percent are citizens, or "nationals," as they are known officially, who can serve in the army. The rest are guest workers from mostly poor Asian and Arab countries.


The Third World workers are underpaid, by Western standards, and are not allowed to bring in their wives or family. They work for years without ever visiting home. The sex ratio there in the 20 to 40 age bracket is four men for every woman. Naturalization is impossible even through marriage, and the state discourages marriage with noncitizens in any case.


Prostitutes from Commonwealth of Independent States discovered some time ago an emerging market of desperate males in the United Arab Emirates. But Russian arms traders were there first. Since 1993, two contracts were signed to sell the country 700 BMP-3 armored vehicles, which are classified as personnel carriers. BMP-3 is a light tank, armed with a long-barrel 100 mm gun and a 30 mm automatic gun.


The Soviet Union did not have the resources to begin mass production of the BMP-3. Neither does Russia. The army today has fewer than 50 BMP-3 tanks. Only the United Arab Emirates' order allowed Russia to begin mass production of the BMP-3 in Kurgan.


Western powers are no less desperate than Russia to sell their newest weapons to the Gulf and to find new markets for their arms industry, which has been depressed since the end of the Cold War.


The Gulf Arab armies are heavily armed, but small in size. Saudi Arabia has a land force of 70,000; the United Arab Emirates has 40,000; and Kuwait has 16,000. All soldiers of these armies are Gulf-based nationals who consider government service a form of handouts of oil wealth. Their ability to absorb and effectively use the most modern Western and Russian weapons is questionable.


Still the sheiks are procuring new, probably unneeded weapons with the self-confidence of the late Shah of Iran, who spent billions to buy modern Western weapons in the '70s. In the end, it turned out that the West was arming not the Shah, but the Islamic Republic of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Today, Western democracies are offering their best products for sale to feudal monarchies in the Gulf with the same enthusiasm.


Last month, British Defense Secretary George Robertson came to the Tridex-98 arms show in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to sign the Defense Cooperation Accord and discuss possible sales of British defense equipment. At a news conference in Abu Dhabi, Robertson said: "The Gulf is one of the most unstable regions in the world. So we mobilized our forces to confront Saddam. Now additional shipments of our arms -- which are some of the best in the world -- will further increase stability."


Robertson also said he "does not think the Gulf states will decrease their defense efforts and buy fewer arms because of falling oil prices."


Robertson's efforts to coax the Arabs were much helped by the staunch anti-Israeli stand of British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who was in Jerusalem at the same time. British Aerospace clinched a deal to sell the United Arab Emirates 12 new Hawker trainer jets.


The British are also competing to sell the United Arab Emirates 80 new Eurofighter EF-2000 jets in fierce competition with Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Dassault Aviation's Rafale. Who will be the real end user of all these weapons in several years is anybody's guess.


Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security affairs editor of Segodnya.