In the course of a March 1991 “victory tour” of the Middle East after the US-led defeat of Iraq, James Baker, then secretary of state, piously proclaimed the hope that Desert Storm might be “the last great battle” in the region. Whatever credence this forecast may get from recent agreements between Israel, the PLO and Jordan, it is hard to reconcile with the mind-boggling pace of militarization that continues, especially in the Persian Gulf. According to a March 1994 US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) report, the first to cover world military spending patterns since Desert Storm, the Middle East still ranks highest in military expenditures as a percentage of gross national product (20.1 percent) and of total government expenditures (54.8 percent). Middle East force ratios — the number of persons under arms per thousand population — stand at 13.5, compared with 7.4 for the industrialized countries and 4.1 for the rest of the South. [1]

As before the 1990-1991 Gulf war, arms imports are a significant piece of military expenditures in the region, and serve as a window on the role of outside powers in modulating the pace and extent of militarization in the Middle East. Arms export markets have declined overall, including in the Middle East, with the end of the Cold War and the impact of global economic recession. And the United Nations’ embargo on Iraq, has, for now at least, deleted that country from the list of importers of major weapons systems.

According to ACDA, the Middle East’s share of the world arms market had risen from 35.9 percent in 1981 to 41.4 percent in 1991. [2] In the Third World arms market, Middle East countries have steadily accounted for 56 percent of total transfers. [3] The impact of these sales is being felt only now, as deliveries commence for weapons systems contracted in the wake of the Gulf war. It was only in late 1994, for example, that Kuwait took delivery of the first of 218 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks ordered in 1992 from the US firm of General Dynamics — at a price tag of $5 million per tank.

The most startling change in the overall Middle East arms trade picture since the Gulf war is on the supplier side. The latest reports on conventional arms transfers by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) show that the US share of arms agreements with Third World countries had climbed, with increasing momentum, from 10 percent in 1986 to an astounding 60.5 percent in 1993 before dropping to just over 24 percent of the total in 1994. [4] In dollar terms, the drop was from $15.4 billion in 1993 to $6.1 billion in 1994. France, in a performance the CRS termed “extraordinary,” sold $11.4 billion worth of arms to Third World markets, for nearly 45 percent of the total. Not surprisingly, French totals were boosted by a strong showing in the Middle East — $3.5 billion sale of two frigates to Saudi Arabia, Mirage fighter-bombers to Qatar for $1.3 billion and three submarines to Pakistan worth $950 million. Russian sales also rebounded in 1994, nearly tripling over the year before to $4.6 billion mainly to China and Malaysia.

The end of the Cold War affected demand for major weapons, as wars in the Third World wound down from exhaustion and from an end to superpower patronage. It also affected the market from the supply side, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. US analysts, of course, have historically tended to inflate the dollar value of Soviet transfers, so that the US percentages for the late 1980s may be exaggeratedly low. Nevertheless, the overall trend is unmistakable. Russia and China (“others”), have been relatively negligible players in the larger arms market in the 1990s, both globally and in the Middle East. Their importance resides solely in the fact that their one remaining Middle East market of any significance is Iran, which has been shut out of Western arms supermarkets under Washington’s “dual containment” policy. Iran’s economic troubles, though, have reduced its military procurement to “a fraction of what they wanted.” [5]

France’s eclipse of US sales in 1994 is especially noticeable because it goes against a trend of significant decline in the share of major Western European suppliers. One ingredient here was the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Iraq in particular had been an enormously important market for French and other European manufacturers. A second factor was the relative availability to Britain and France of Saudi and other Arab arms buyers at a time when US sales to those countries were increasingly hampered by opposition from partisans of Israel in the US Congress. The 1990-1991 Gulf war has almost completely transformed those dynamics, with the result that the Arabian Peninsula has now become an almost exclusively American preserve in the domain of military sales.

Brief Restraint

The rush to war in the fall and winter of 1990-1991 brought with it occasional acknowledgment by US and other Western policymakers that the unrestrained supply of arms-on-demand to the countries of the Middle East bore some relation to the unfolding crisis. “The time has come to try to change the destructive pattern of military competition and proliferation in this region and to reduce the arms flow into an area that is already very over-militarized,” Secretary of State Baker told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in early February 1991. The CRS reported in July 1991 that no less than 30 bills relating to arms control had been introduced into the House and Senate during and immediately after Desert Storm. The most far-reaching of these proposed a temporary unilateral moratorium on all US arms sales to the Middle East.

The Bush administration and the arms industry vigorously opposed any such measure. The administration countered with a proposal of its own on May 29, 1991, in a commencement speech by President George Bush at the US Air Force Academy. In addition to provisions directed at nuclear and chemical weapons, the Bush speech proposed freezing the purchase, production and testing of surface-to-surface missiles. Acknowledging that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council were also by far the largest purveyors of the most dangerous and destructive “conventional” weapons systems, Bush proposed talks among the “Perm Five” to reduce the flow of arms into the region.

The Perm Five met three times — in July 1991 in Paris, in October 1991 in London and in May 1992 in Washington, but they failed to move beyond insipid communiques about the need to curb sales. Practical steps eluded them completely, and the talks fell apart when the Chinese withdrew to protest Washington’s September 1992 decision to sell 160 F-16 warplanes to Taiwan. The only concrete measure from the Perm Five talks was an agreement out of the London session to notify one another of major sales to the Middle East, though there was no agreement as to whether notification should proceed or could follow the actual sales agreements. Meanwhile, arms sales continued, with the US well in the lead. Over the brief period when arms trade restraint was “politically correct” in Washington, from the end of Desert Storm through the beginning of June 1992, Congress cleared arms sales to the Middle East (including Turkey) worth some $18 billion. [6] In 1992, the only new law passed by Congress relating to arms exports was the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act, banning all sales to those two “rogue states.”

The arms trade restraint effort collapsed completely as the 1992 presidential campaign got underway, around a long-standing proposal to sell three squadrons of F-15s to Saudi Arabia. Candidates George Bush and Bill Clinton both agreed that the sale of the 72 F-15s to Saudi Arabia should go through. The question had been reframed politically to one of domestic economy and employment. McDonnell-Douglas, prime contractor for the F-15, launched an unprecedented lobby campaign which it packaged as the “Jobs Now Coalition.”

The Saudi F-15 deal was initially estimated to be worth between $4 and $5 billion; when the Bush administration sent sale notification to Congress on September 14, 1992, the price tag — including spare engines, targeting pods, 1,500 missiles, 600 cluster bombs, 700 laser-guided bombs, technical documentation and logistics training — had climbed to $9 billion. That same day, the administration also formally notified Congress of its intent to sell the F-16s to Taiwan, a mammoth $5.8 billion deal in its own right. In one day, the Bush administration sold nearly $15 billion in arms to just two countries — three times the total sales of Russia to the Third World in 1991! [7]

Cashing in the Chips of War

The Third World arms market contracted a great deal over the last eight years, from a high of $62 billion in 1988 to just over $25 billion in 1993 and 1994. In the face of this radical shrinkage, the United States, until 1994, had been able to maintain its absolute dollar amount of weapons sales at a level of around $15 billion each year, an amount that is approximately double what it was in the late 1980s. (These values are cited in constant dollars, but proportions are substantially the same when reckoned in current dollars.)

In regional terms, the Middle East comprises the major Third World market for the arms producers — about 56 percent of total transfers. Many observers see Asia — with increasingly affluent states like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore — as the major growth market. But for now the biggest market remains the Middle East. The Middle East accounted for more than 72 percent of total US arms transfers to the Third World from 1990 to 1993 — up from 61 percent over the previous four years, while the position of every other major arms supplier dropped significantly. In 1994, even without major purchases from the US, Saudi Arabia was the leading buyer by far, at $9.5 billion. China was a distant second, at $2.5 billion, followed by Israel, Qatar and Pakistan.

From Washington’s point of view, a dominant position as arms supplier in a strategically important region is important for reasons that go beyond commercial considerations. First, arms sales represent an aspect of political alliance, particularly with the military leaderships in buyer countries. Such relationships can have consequences that also go beyond the military realm. This works for buyers as well. Kuwait, for example, has done most of its post-war arms shopping in the US, but has ladled out occasional contracts to the French and even the Russians with the aim of securing their participation in any future coalition defense against Iraq. “Protection is the friends you have,” commented Kuwaiti Defense Minister ‘Ali Sabah al-Salim Al Sabah, “not the weapons you have.” [8]

Second, in a region such as the Persian Gulf, which US military strategists have designated as the most likely site of any future major US military deployment, there is the question of interoperability. There is a strategic benefit, in military terms, to having US-manufactured systems on the ground, systems on which US technicians and troops have been trained and with which they are intimately familiar. This has become increasingly important in an era of AirLand Battle Doctrine, where US air, ground and naval capabilities have been integrated to an unprecedented degree. Anthony Cordesman, in a review of the military lessons of Desert Storm, commented that battlefield command and control coordination of US and Saudi forces exceeded that of US forces with NATO allies, including Britain. [9]

A third dimension of the competition for sales of major weapons systems relates to the sharp downturn not just of weapons export markets but of Western countries’ defense sectors across the board. In the words of the Pentagon’s Defense Conversion Commission, “Increasing exports will be an important strategy for some companies as they adjust to smaller US purchases.” [10] Saudi Arabia, by one estimate, is likely to purchase more main battle tanks over the rest of this decade than will the US Army. The last several years have seen major restructuring of defense industries in all major arms-exporting countries, including smaller ones such as Israel. Employment in US military industries fell from 1.35 million in 1989 to 800,000 in 1994. Industrial giants like Ford, IBM and General Electric have sold off their weapons subsidiaries, while large firms specializing in arms manufacturing have engaged in mergers and buyouts. Northrop took over Grumman earlier in 1994, and in August 1994 Martin Marietta and Lockheed divulged plans to merge. [11]

“Aggressive” export strategies have accompanied industrial consolidation, and the weapons companies have openly enlisted the direct assistance of their respective states. In the US, both the Bush and Clinton administrations, including the two presidents themselves, have publicly joined in the selling efforts. So have Britain’s John Major and France’s Edouard Balladur and Jacques Chirac. But the Americans, unless 1994 proves to be more than an aberration, have been considerably more successful. Sen. Christopher Bond, Democrat of Missouri (home of McDonnell-Douglas), argued in overly grandiose but illustrative terms that capturing the Saudi market for advanced fighter-bombers could have implications far beyond that very lucrative sale alone. “If the Saudis are allowed to purchase the F-15 aircraft they have requested,” Bond said, “we are likely to see the Tornado line in Britain close and the EFA [European fighter] program canceled. Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Spain — as well as Saudi Arabia — all will still need to replace their aging fighters and will have few places to turn…. [T]hey will almost certainly buy American as will every other Western buyer for the next several decades.” [12]

Recriminations on the part of US allies have sometimes been bitter. After Kuwait had selected the Abrams M1A tank over the British Challenger 2 model, liberal British commentator Martin Woollacott complained that the Middle East had become “a single, huge near-monopoly market for the American arms industry.” Sure, Woollacott wrote, US arms packages are competitive, “but in the main it is coming about as a result of a ruthless cashing in of the chips that the US won during the Gulf war…. We British will have to be content with the Emir’s $1 million donation to the London Zoo and Mrs. Thatcher’s doctorate of letters from Kuwait University.” [13]

There is no doubt about it: The gloves have come off. “Whether you like it or not,” commented one Clinton administration official, “weapons are a significant export earner and one where the United States remains quite competitive.” [14] It was a lot easier for George Bush to persuade the Kuwaitis to buy the Abrams tank than it was for him to persuade the Japanese to import more US automobiles. Bill Clinton’s interventions have shown similar results. A Wall Street Journal news feature crowed that 1993’s record $34 billion in US arms sales “hark back to the days of overall US export leadership, before the Japanese and lower-cost Third World producers helped create this nation’s huge trade deficits in areas such as autos and electronics.” [15] The biggest threat to this bonanza is the serious cash flow problems that Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf customers have experienced, forcing them to rewrite existing purchase contracts and casting a cloud over the weapons industry forecasts of Middle East markets worth up to $100 billion over the rest of this decade.

“Undesirable” Proliferation

When the Clinton administration took office in January 1993, key national security appointees such as Defense Secretary Les Aspin and CIA chief James Woolsey repeatedly cited weapons proliferation as posing the most serious security threat to US interests. None of this, though, has been allowed to interfere with the corporate-government drive for maximum sales of weapons abroad.

One technique has been to define the proliferation threat narrowly in terms of “weapons of mass destruction” — nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. When President Clinton delivered his first pronouncement on the subject, in his address to the UN General Assembly in September 1993, he spoke eloquently about the human toll and devastation wreaked by wars, and of the greatly increased demand for UN peacekeeping missions, but offered no words at all on the question of proliferation of so-called “conventional” weapons. His administration, meanwhile, has renamed the Foreign Assistance Act, under which military aid is distributed, the Prosperity and Democracy Act, while Security Assistance has become Assistance for Promoting Peace and Democracy. Military aid to Israel and Egypt — 87 percent of the total, with most of the rest going to Turkey — is classified as “Middle East Peace Assistance.”

The White House “fact sheet” distributed to the media at the time of Clinton’s UN address promised a conventional arms policy review that would take into account “national security, arms control, trade, budgetary and economic competitiveness.” [16] A year later, the National Security Council had finally compiled an options paper (Presidential Review Document 41) and, with the State Department, drafted a Presidential Decision Directive which Clinton signed in February 1995. The opening paragraph of this final document claims to “promote restraint,” but goes on to endorse “responsible” exports, i.e., to those countries in US favor.

The Clinton administration has adapted a line congenial to the interests of the weapons manufacturers, and customers like Israel and Saudi Arabia: The problem is not arms exports but “rogue states.” This is the equivalent of the slogan of the National Rifle Association in the US gun control debate — “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” “Arms sales are appropriate to responsible allies,” testified Lynn Davis, undersecretary of state for international security affairs and a chief administration spokesperson on arms trade policy. [17] Ethan Kapstein, co-director of Harvard University’s Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, makes the fantastic claim that US arms trade dominance is desirable because “countries that rely on American arms are less likely to start wars.” [18]

The Clinton administration has taken no steps to resuscitate the Perm Five talks broken off in mid-1992. In early 1994, the Western allies terminated the Cold War-era Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls, through which high-technology sales with possible weapons applications to Soviet bloc countries had been screened and controlled. In its place the administration is proposing a “liberalized” export environment: Restrictions would apply only in the case of “the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere where the dangers are greatest, particularly in Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea.” [19] All 17 industrialized democracies agree with this focus, according to Undersecretary Davis, “though they prefer that this understanding not be accentuated in public.”

As a logical extension of this trend, the Clinton administration has supplanted a non-proliferation strategy with what the Pentagon calls a “Counterproliferation Initiative.” Unveiled in a December 1993 speech by then-Secretary of Defense Aspin, “counterproliferation” assumes that export controls on weapons and dual-use technologies simply will not work. The answer is a military research and procurement budget that can equip the US military with high-cost systems like ballistic missile defenses and “improved non-nuclear penetrating munitions.” “We need to have more tools in our toolbox,” says Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. [20]

One has to wonder if it is mere coincidence that the most likely to profit from developing the components for Gen. Shalikashvili’s toolbox will be the high-tech industries of California’s Silicon Valley, who were among the earliest corporate backers of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. As arms control advocate Lora Lumpe observed, this is a strategy that effectively promotes “bombing as arms control.” [21]


[1] US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers, 1991-1992 (Washington, DC, 1994), pp. 6-7, 22-23.
[2] ACDA, p. 8.
[3] In this and in almost all such compilations, Turkey is counted with Europe rather than with the Middle East. Because Turkey is consistently among the top ten recipients of arms transfers — around $3 billion in 1994 from the US alone — these percentages significantly understate the actual arms import profile of the region.
[4] Congressional Research Service, Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1987-1994 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, August 1995), p. 51. In the previous year’s report, the CRS had calculated the US share in 1993 at 72.6 percent.
[5] According to Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. WINEP, like other pro-Israel organizations, had been among the loudest in raising the alarm about an Iranian military behemoth in the Gulf. Washington Post, November 18, 1995.
[6] Federation of American Scientists, Public Interest Report 45/6 (1992).
[7] Such inconvenient facts, of course, have not deterred the likes of Samuel Huntington from citing the “Confucian-Islamic” arms trade as the gravest threat to world peace. See “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72/3 (Summer 1993), pp. 45-48.
[8] The Middle East (July 1992).
[9] In remarks at the Smithsonian Institutions Woodrow Wilson International Center, September 27, 1994. By contrast, the failure of the Gulf Cooperation Council states to standardize and rationalize military purchases has contributed to making their “joint military exercises” futile to the point of embarrassment. This, of course, suits Western arms peddlers, and probably the Saudis, just fine.
[10] Arms Sales Monitor 19 (March 1993), p. 7.
[11] Bernard Gray, “The Harsh Effects of Peace,” Financial Times, September 30, 1994.
[12] Inside the Pentagon, July 9, 1992, cited in Arms Sales Monitor 16 (July 1992).
[13] Guardian, October 17, 1992.
[14] Washington Post, February 28, 1994.
[15] Wall Street Journal, January 28, 1994.
[16] Arms Sales Monitor 22 (September 1993).
[17] Testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, November 10, 1993.
[18] “America’s Arms Trade Monopoly,” Foreign Affairs (May-June 1994), p. 13.
[19] Testimony to the House Foreign Affairs, November 10, 1993.
[20] Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1994.
[21] Arms Sales Monitor 24 (March 1994).

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "The Middle East Arms Bazaar After the Gulf War," Middle East Report 197 (November/December 1995).

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