Late last summer, for a time, the United States seemed on the brink of being able to contemplate realistically disentangling itself from the Middle East. A number of factors came together to make the moment. The United States surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production. Alternative energy sources of all kinds continued to make impressive strides. And, perhaps most importantly, world financial markets seemed largely inured to Middle East turmoil. The aftershocks of the Arab Spring still rumbling in Egypt, Libya and Syria did not rattle Wall Street, and the U.S. economic recovery continued.
All of this taken together created an emerging strategic reality for anyone in Washington willing to ponder it. That is, the United States needed the Middle East less than ever. Yes, of course, the oil still there mattered to the world economy. Yes, of course, America’s involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict created shackles uneasily broken. But the beginnings of a U.S. untethering from the Middle East nonetheless appeared for the first time since the 1970s, when U.S. dependency on oil from the region sent America headlong into decades of military interventionism that continues today.
The oil picture has not changed since last year. All of the above still holds true. But another new reality has become apparent in the most recent violence from the region at the same time. The Middle East has gone from an exporter of massive amounts of oil to an importer of massive amounts of weapons as well. To be sure the Middle East has always provided weapons manufactures around the world with a vibrant market. And U.S. weapons manufacturers have long done well with sales to the region, particularly to the monarchies of the Persian Gulf flush with petro dollars. But the Middle East has produced staggering market growth for the arms industry recently even by historically high standards.
Military exports to the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the coalition Saudi Arabia now leads in the Yemen intervention, have risen 71 percent in just the last four years, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. All told the arms market for the region annually totals about $200 billion, an expansion of nearly 60 percent since 2005. In other words, it’s not just about the oil anymore.
U.S. interests, specifically American weapons manufacturers, have a stake in preserving and expanding this $200 billion market and their share of it. Already the United States accounts for about 47 percent of the total arms supply to the region. But the unrelenting demand for corporate growth pushes weapons manufacturers to seek more sales, especially in light of declining outlays from the Pentagon.
Hundreds if not thousands of jobs at places like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northup Grumman and General Dynamics, to name a few big employers, depend on expanding arms sales to the Middle East. And this is to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate profits involved as well. Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Officer Marillyn Hewson for one has been candid about the company’s expansion of overseas sales, with the Middle East clearly the region doing the most buying. Wall Street likes the strategy. The company’s shares were up by almost 22 percent earlier this year.
Arms peddlers often kid themselves, and others, about the role they play in conflicts. Weapons can deter wars, arms dealers argue. And people living in volatile regions deserve the means to protect themselves. Selling weapons, then, is often seen by those who do it as a kind of public service. This is not entirely untrue. Many nations have perfectly legitimate reasons for arming themselves. But the weapons U.S. manufacturers tend to sell to the Middle East, chiefly expensive aircraft, bombs and soon drones, are not offering a deterrence or helping anyone win wars. Saudi Arabia’s air campaign against Yemen has changed nothing on the ground. Neither has America’s air campaign against the Islamic State. The wars of the Middle East today will be won and lost in ugly, up-close ground fighting over long periods of time. No investment in aerospace technology will change that. And the fact that expanding U.S. arms sales in the Middle East is impractical makes it immoral.