What does US-Arab arms deal bring for the region and Pakistan?

By Sadia Kazmi

As the US President Donald Trump signs the deal worth US $350bn with the Saudis, the world watches with the bated breath. Not just because this multibillion arms deal with the Saudis is the single largest deal in the US history but also because it doesn’t come without regional and global implications. As per the plan the deal worth US $110bn is to take effect immediately while the remaining will be implemented over the period of 10 years.

For the US and KSA the benefits are huge and obvious. It is worth noticing that this agreement is being explicitly appreciated by the US and Saudi Arabia for bolstering the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region “in the face of Iranian threats”, while also bolstering the Kingdom’s ability to contribute to counter terrorism operations across the region. The US Department of State in a statement expressed hope that this arrangement will help KSA become more self sufficient and it will also reduce burden on the US military forces. For the US it brings massive amount of money and major uplift of its economic landscape. Along with that the US $ 250bn commercial investment is hoped to create thousands of Jobs. The Military Industrial Complex (MIC) has once again managed to come for the rescue of US GDP by the sale of arms and generating revenues unhindered for at least a decade. According to the reports some of the weapons machinery KSA is going to receive includes tanks, artillery, helicopters, light closer air support, intelligence-gathering aircraft, and systems such as Patriot and THAAD. Saudi Arab will hire US companies and the US will also provide extensive training to their Saudi counterpart. Overall the sale includes deal in five categories that cover border and coastal security, cybersecurity, air force modernization, and air and missile defence.

This show of strategic cooperation between the two old partners sends out a clear message to the regional states as well as to the international community and to the friends and foes alike. The unprecedented arms sale and investment has given a fresh thrust to the long term alliance and conveys that the US is looking forward to having an “Arab NATO” in this part of the world and a common defence against a common enemy. Here the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson specifically mentioned in the news briefing that the threats to the region are being allegedly posed by Iran. Hence highlighting Iran as a common enemy of the two states and of the whole region. However the idea of Arab NATO has been floating around since long where the US military and political leadership have been working on it for years now. One of the reasons as to why US is looking for a military based alliance in this part of the region is because within Europe there is an ever growing weariness and waning of interest regarding the US war prone ambitions.

This would be quite in contrast to the stance by former US President Barack Obama vis a vis the Arab states with regards to its West Asia policy. In the last month of his term in office, former President Obama halted the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia over concerns that the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) was targeting civilians in Yemen.

But now the arms package includes a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system from Lockheed Martin, similar to the one being made operational in South Korea, which costs around $1 billion. A software system, a package of satellite capabilities, as well as fighting and artillery vehicles are also reportedly part of the negotiations. More than $1 billion worth of munitions, including armor-piercing Penetrator Warheads and Paveway laser-guided bombs made by Raytheon, might also be included in the package. The International human rights organizations have been critical of Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which they believe has violated the rules of law as its military actions include indiscriminatory attacks against the civilian population including hospitals, markets, schools, and religious centers. Saudi Arabia’s prime target is Houthi rebels that support former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. It is also believed that Houthis are being allegedly backed by Iran.

It looks quite obvious that both US and KSA are making all the efforts to keep US in, Iran down and Russia out of the region by disabling and neutralizing Iran, and simultaneously building up military strength of the US and the Arab world.

However one can also understand that it doesn’t remain about the KSA, Iran and the US anymore, but a larger spectrum of regional politics is to be taken into account. Russia and Syria for instance cannot be taken out of this scenario. Russia despite being the extra regional state has been actively involved in the regional politics by putting up a strong fight against terrorists long the borders of Syria. Not only does this arms deal raise alarms for Iran but Russia too is very much concerned about the multibillion military cooperation. This may further fuel crisis in Syria as apparently both Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime and are fighting against US and KSA backed terrorists in Syria.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, being a close ally of the KSA and having historically good relations with Iran, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Pakistan to adopt a balanced approach towards both countries. At the same time it cannot afford to further alienate the US than it already is. Added to all this is the fact that Russia is warming up to Pakistan, which should not be taken for granted by Pakistan. Hence for Pakistan the Middle Eastern region presents a dilemma where only a neutral policy would be the only wise step in the right direction. Otherwise the regional arrangements with sectarian undertones will not only lead Pakistan to take sides with one against the other but will also fan the sectarian elements within its own borders. Since the arms deal is openly against Iran, it is important for Pakistan to think twice before formally being part of KSA led Islamic Military Alliance against Iran, Syria, and Yemen. In fact the Foreign office spokesperson Nafees Zakria indicated that Pakistan is yet to take a final decision on the Saudi alliance. Similarly Defence Minister Khawaja Asif on the floor of National Assembly assured that Pakistan would withdraw if the Saudi alliance turns out to be sectarian in nature. Pakistan should not let the urge to join the biggest Muslim alliance overshadow and undermine its ties with neighboring Iran.

Although with the former COAS Gen (R) Raheel Shareef leading the 41 nation counter-alliance, it was speculated that Pakistan has accepted to be part of this alliance. However that is yet to be decided as is clear from the statements of Pakistan government officials. In fact in an effort to resolve serious issues between KSA and Iran, the mediatory efforts by Pakistan cannot be ignored. There has to be a realization on the part of Pakistan that the country cannot afford to antagonize Afghanistan, India and Iran at the same time. As in case of any conflict with Iran, India can badly damage Pakistani interests at eastern borders or vice versa.

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Sadia Kazmi

Sadia Kazmi works as a Senior Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute in Islamabad. She is a PhD candidate at the National Defense University

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