The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Why do the Saudis need so many helicopters anyway?

From the news that the Bush-era deal for the sale of $60bn of weapons to Saudi Arabia:

The arms package includes 84 new F-15 fighter jets and upgrades to 70 more F-15s that the Saudis already have, as well as three types of helicopters: 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds. Saudi Arabia would also get versions of a satellite-guided "smart bomb" system, plus anti-ship and anti-radar missiles.

What will they use all of these helicopters for? Future incursions into Yemen? Riot control in Dhahran province? Counter-terrorism in the Empty Quarter? Helicopters, unlike F-15s, are not really for engaging another state (like Iran) in the case of a major regional conflict.

In any case, the US Government Accountability Office thinks the deal has not been justified by the Pentagon and State, notes Matthew Reed at the Mezze:

Just recently a GAO report reached some very disconcerting conclusions about the recent influx of arms sales to the Middle East, particularly the Persian Gulf. As the report stated, ”[The] State [Department] and DOD [Department of Defense] did not consistently document how arms transfers to Gulf countries advanced U.S. foreign policy and national security goals for GAO selected cases.” According to the GAO, US policy in the Gulf is fuzzy and weapons won’t necessarily make it any clearer. One can presume what US policy might be but neither the Bush or Obama administrations have felt compelled to articulate it. Real goals, approved means, and ultimate ends are absent by the GAO’s measure.

The report’s conclusions are surprising because the US has historically prioritized the Gulf more so than many other regions. US presidents have appropriated exceptional—even existential—value to the Persian Gulf because of its prized oil reserves: Eisenhower viewed it as a communist-capitalist chessboard; Carter claimed it was a strategic asset the US wouldn’t let foreigners threaten; and Reagan reserved the right to intervene if local enemies challenged the status quo. Apparently Bush and Obama—whose presidencies were/are consumed by Gulf concerns such as Iran’s nuclear program—never armed governments agencies with a policy that could rationalize massive arms sales. The paradox is obvious: the US certainly has a de facto Persian Gulf policy dedicated to curbing Iranian influence. But, by the GAO’s account, this very real policy remains intangible in Foggy Bottom and Arlington.

I'd be interested to hear what the new threat estimations to Saudi Arabia are — and would argue they are more likely to be about internal dissent and Saudi power projection into Yemen (as during the Huthi uprising) — than about a Saudi-Iran face-off. And, of course, it may be about the bottom line for Boeing and Raytheon more than any of that.