Gun Merchants Seek Profit in Mideast Peace the US Has Emerged as the Largest Arms Supplier to Middle East Countries, but Other Nations Are Now Trying to Catch Up

Article excerpt

DESPITE progress toward Mideast peace, the region has become embattled by fierce competition among the world's leading arms suppliers -- the US, Germany, Russia, France, Britain, and China.

The launch last week of a sophisticated spy satellite was the latest effort in Israel's quest to retain a strategic advantage over its heavily militarized Arab neighbors.

Ofek-3, part of an ongoing Israeli satellite program using components from the United States, will soon beam back photographs of neighboring Arab countries that will make it possible to read automobile license plates in Baghdad.

War for weapons

The headlong contest to acquire more modern and effective weapons systems -- once driven mainly by the prospect of war with Israel -- is being fueled now by tensions among Muslim-run states, security concerns triggered by the Gulf war and, ironically, by the side effects of rewarding Arab states that sign peace accords with Israel with arms.

Last year, some 26 percent of the world's arms sales were concluded with Middle Eastern countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States -- United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. The US was by far the largest arms supplier to the region.

In 1993, the US sealed 72.6 percent of all new arms transfers of weapons to poorer countries. The bulk of these transfers were to the Middle East, which bucked the global trend of falling arms sales since the end of the cold war.

"There are such huge forces driving the arms race that it is difficult to pass moral judgment on the countries in the Middle East that are buying the weapons," says Zeev Eytan, co-author of the Middle East Military Balance, published by Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

"I have become accustomed to it. It is like a bad way of life," Mr. Eytan says, pointing out that the arms race is being driven by major suppliers that are trying to catch up with the US.

The US emerged as the world's greatest arms supplier after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a global shift away from ideology as a determinant of international relations. In February, the US adopted an arms--sales policy that puts commercial considerations first and is free of the ideological restraint associated with the cold war period.

So, when the US appeals to Russia to halt its sale of sophisticated weapons and a military reactor to Iran, it cuts little ice with Moscow.

"We have no moral standing to tell the Russians and the Chinese not to sell arms to rogue states because we out-competed them in sales to the nonrogue states of the Middle East," says Lawrence Korb, a defense specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

The seemingly insatiable Middle Eastern appetite for sophisticated weaponry and defense systems was highlighted at an arms bazaar extravaganza held in mid-March in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi, fast becoming a compulsory venue for international arms manufacturers.

"The Abu Dhabi arms bazaar has assumed tremendous importance among arms suppliers," says Joanna Spear, research fellow at Harvard's Center for Science and International Affairs. "It seems to be the place to take your best and latest weaponry."

Attended by some 600 companies from nearly 50 nations, the bazaar exhibited a dazzling array of military technology including a wide selection of naval gunships, attack helicopters, ground-to-air and sea-to-air missiles, and weapons systems.

Arab officials from more than a dozen countries sat transfixed in a large auditorium as demonstrations of ground-to-air missiles and other weaponry flashed by on triple audio-visual units accompanied by racy sales commentaries.

The organizer of the conference, the UAE's Brig. Gen. Sultan Suwaidi, predicted that Arab states would purchase more than $60 billion of arms and hi-tech military equipment over the next five years. …