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
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
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