Echoes of past mistakes
By S. Hesam Houryaband*
Over a year and a half now, the Middle East region has been undergoing turmoil and massive change as socio-political revolts and revolutions have been knocking on the doors of many of the Arab countries in the region from Bahrain, to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Most of these uprisings are aimed at the mostly despotic, dictatorial regimes which have been suppressing and oppressing their respective populations. Most importantly, almost all of these regimes and their rulers are allies of the West. Therefore, it is not surprising to see how the situation on the ground in these countries can be so embarrassing for Western capitals. Hence, once in a while, we hear a muted call for change or criticism, mostly due to internal pressures from the constituencies of the Western leaders and politicians.
Then, as things heat up on the other side of the globe, be it trampling of protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, or to shooting of demonstrators in Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain, the empty calls for respect for human rights and show of restraint is amplified, more so to subdue the criticisms of inaction, than to actually create any results on the ground. For, as it is famously said, actions speak louder than words alone.
Therefore, it would not only be shocking, but also, purely contradictory and hypocritical to learn that not only was pressure not applied to the rulers of those countries, but that they were in fact “rewarded” too with huge weapons deals and packages. The list of supplying and recipient countries and the individual arms deals are numerous, to say the least. But to offer the reader a gist of the tip of the iceberg, the following elephants stick out:
- During the course of the previous year, the British government sold more than £1 million of weapons to the Bahraini government. The newly publicized deal included, but was not limited to gun silencers, rifles, artillery, and military aircraft.
- In the same time period, the UK also supplied Saudi Arabia and Egypt with more than £1 million of arms, respectively.
- Last summer, there were rumours of a deal between Germany and Saudi Arabia for the purchasing of 200 German tanks.
- The US government announced in mid-February 2012, that it is going ahead with a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, which had been held due to political reasons on the ground in Manama.
- The United States will also be supplying Saudi Arabia with $30 billion worth of weapons and arms, in a deal that was announced in the last days of 2011, which is part of a 10-year, $60 billion package, approved by the US Congress.
- Finally, the US is also set to supply the United Arab Emirates with weapons, in a deal announced late last year that is worth $3.5 billion.
The problem with the above news is several fold. Firstly, what is amiss from the minds of the current Western leaders in their rush to sell weapons to these despotic allies is history, and one which is reminiscent of the actions of their predecessors. Some 30 something years ago, in the mid and late 1970s, the Shah of Iran, who coincidentally was a steadfast ally of the West, was the recipient of billions of dollars of their arms and weapons, all at a time when internally, Iranian society was undergoing heavy turmoil and change, much like what is happening today in the region’s Arab countries. And much like today, despite the Shah’s violent oppression and crackdown on his people, the West kept supplying him with more and more weapons, because they thought he could eventually weather out the domestic turmoil, and would prove to hold in check the Soviets and the rowdy actors in the region, such as Iraq and Egypt. However, as time showed, the Shah fell and after the 1979 Revolution, the Iranian people and their new leaders remembered all the arms deals of the West to the Shah’s and eventually turned against Western interests.
Today, too, the West is ignoring that same historic lesson and mistake, and is supplying billions of dollars worth of weapons and equipment to a bunch of unstable, undemocratic nations in the region, turning a blind eye to the popular revolts inside these countries for the wishful thinking that the rulers of these nations will pass the storm and stand to keep Iran in check. But the reality is that the West has to be ready when all of these regimes collapse one by one, and their people will remember how the West gave empty words of support to the people, and guns full of bullets to their rulers.
And these guns will eventually turn on Western interests. Two recent examples stand out, with Egypt and Libya, where the fundamentalists, who are not so friendly to the West, are rising up the political ladders, and are creating headaches for the Western capitals. The collapse of regimes in places such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will also mean trouble for the West. In Saudi Arabia, a civil war will ensue between Shiites and Sunnis, and the West will not be safe from either a Shiite government aligned with Iran, or a radical Sunni government aligned with the Al Qaeda and terrorists. In Bahrain as well, the scenario will not be much different than that of Iraq, where the oppressed majority will gain control and lash out at the previous ruling minority and their foreign supporters.
Secondly, it is all too evident that the West’s actions, embodied in the abovementioned weapons deals, along with a recently unveiled plan by the Obama administration to supply several other Arab states such as Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, with a $10 billion arms deal, are creating an arms race in the region, which will be beneficial to no one. By supplying billions of dollars of weapons to the Arab countries, the West, and the US specifically, wrongly think that they will create a balance and a counterweight to the perceived threat from Iran. This will in turn motivate the Iranians to acquire more weapons and build up their defensive and offensive capabilities just to be able to keep in pace with their neighbours. And let’s not forget about Israel, which is already receiving about $2.4 billion in military aid from the US.
The actions of the West will help create and fuel a vicious and endless cycle. And in the event of an unforeseen calamity, all the arms sitting around in these countries, right in Israel’s backyard, are going to be much more dangerous than any threat previously posed by Iran. And again, as history showed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Iraqi missiles that Saddam had acquired from Europe and the US, eventually rained down on Israel.
One thing that the West needs to understand and learn from the cases of Libya and Egypt is that, unlike Iran, where the fundamentalist government is opposed to the West, the majority of the population is favourable and friendly to the West and the US, whereas in many of the same allied Arab nations of the region, the situation is a reverse, where the ruling elite are the ones aligned with the West and the US, and it is the population that is more fundamentalist, and sees their government as corrupt and too close to the West. Therefore, any arms sales, especially at this juncture in Middle Eastern political life, should be seriously reconsidered in Western capitals.
*Political and International Affairs Analyst