US accused of fuelling arms race with $20bn Arab weapons sale,,2137576,00.html

Dan Glaister in Los Angeles
Monday July 30, 2007
The Guardian

The Bush administration is facing claims that it is fuelling an arms race in the Middle East following the disclosure of a plan to sell $20bn (£9.8bn) of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

The plan, which will be announced today, will be balanced by a 25% increase in US military and defence aid to Israel. A further $13bn will be pledged to Egypt.

"This administration does not have an arms sales policy, except to sell, sell, sell," said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association. "That approach in the Middle East can be like throwing gasoline on a brush fire."

The plan, which Pentagon officials outlined to members of Congress last week, more than doubles what officials had estimated when the plan first became public in the spring. The $20bn, spread over 10 years, aims to provide Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates with advanced satellite-guided bombs, upgrades to its fighters and new naval vessels.

US defence secretary Robert Gates and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice are due to arrive in the region today. The visit comes as the US strives to build support among its Arab allies for its opposition to Iran. The administration is also keen to reassure Gulf states of its long-term commitment to the region. An administration official said Mr Gates would reassure the Saudis "regardless of what happens in the near term in Iraq, that our commitment in the region remains firm, remains steadfast and that, in fact, we are looking to enhance and develop it".

It appears that Israeli acquiescence to the deal was secured last month on a visit to Washington by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with a pledge to preserve Israel's "qualitative advantage".

"Other than the increase in aid, we received an explicit and detailed commitment to guarantee Israel's qualitative advantage over other Arab states," Mr Olmert said yesterday. "We understand the US's desire to help moderate states which stand at a united front with the US and Israel in the struggle against Iran."

But it is the role of Saudi Arabia in Iraq that seems most likely to fuel political opposition to the deal in the US. Major arms deals require Congressional approval, and several members yesterday pledged to oppose the plan.

Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, who plans to introduce a resolution to block the deal, told the Washington Post that there would be broad opposition: "The reputation of the Saudis has taken quite a beating since 9/11," he said. "And despite the fact that the administration has done everything to portray them as part of the moderate Arab world, members of Congress of both parties are increasingly sceptical."

Another Democrat, Tom Lantos, criticised the build-up of arms in the region. "This is not a sale at Macy's that you go in and buy a bunch of stuff."