For Russia, new Middle East will be a tough arms market

Moscow makes first-ever to sale to Bahrain in effort to capitalize on Arab Spring, but West likely to retain biggest customers.

By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE
September 5, 2011 10:07
Libyan rebels assemble weapons in Misrata

Libyan Rebels Misrata 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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For the first time ever, Russia is selling weapons to Bahrain, whose government has been given the cold shoulder by the West for a violent crackdown on anti-government protests, as part of an effort by Moscow to capitalize on the Arab Spring to increase arms sales in the lucrative Middle East market.

An unnamed official in Russia’s Defense Ministry told Bloomberg News this week that Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-owned arms dealer, is selling Bahrain tens of millions of dollars of AK103 Kalashnikov rifles, together with grenade launchers and ammunition. It quoted a Bahraini government spokesman as saying the two countries’ relations are “getting stronger.”

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But analysts say it is unlikely Moscow – or Beijing, another potential weapons supplier to the region – will make much headway, even as serial human rights violations by governments resisting mass protests and rebellions have forced the West to hold back on many weapons sales to the Middle East.

“Yes, Bahrain is a country that Western countries are less likely to supply, but Bahrain is only a very small recipient of arms in the region. And, when it comes to major weapons, even Bahrain is likely to remain a significant client for the US,” said Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

“The major customers [in the Gulf] are the UAE [United Arab Emirates] and Saudi Arabia, and I don’t see any reason that there will be major change there,” he told The Media Line.

Lethal crackdowns across the Middle East by governments like Bahrain’s have created a conundrum for the US and other Western governments: On the one hand, they want to ensure political stability; on the other, they don’t want to be seen helping regimes engaged in wholesale killings and arrests. Russia has fewer qualms about selling weapons to violators, such as Syria’s Bashar Assad and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

“Russia has much thicker skin over the perceived violations of human rights. They conduct a realpolitik arms sales policy. Russia is also very anxious to expand its market share in the Middle East because, like bank robbers say: ‘That’s where the money is’,” Ariel Cohen, a Senior Research Fellow, at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.



Bahrain is a US ally and home to its Navy’s Fifth Fleet, but in June Washington put the island kingdom on its list of human rights violators after it put down a rebellion earlier this year at the cost of 30 or more lives and mass arrests.

No one knows the value of the Middle East arms market, because many sales are never reported and ones that are publicized may never go through. But SIPRI estimates that Gulf states, like Bahrain, alone have agree to buy some $123 billion in arms over the next decade.

Four United Nations arms embargoes are currently in force in the Middle East and North Africa, targeting Libya and Iran as well as non-government forces in Lebanon and Iraq. A European Union embargo is also in place against Syria. Since January 2011, more than 160 export licenses for Middle East countries have been revoked by Britain, mainly for Libya and Bahrain.

But Rosoboronexport said on August 17 it would maintain arms sales to Syria even after six months of unrest have led to some 2,200 deaths at the hands of security forces. Russia defended its decision on the grounds that the UN had not formally imposed sanctions on the regime. Days earlier, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton challenged Moscow to "get on the right side of history" and stop the sales.

Bahrain aside, however, analysts said Russia or China would find it difficult to capture new markets. Wezeman said the one small opening for them might be for anti-riot gear, which the West would be the most hesitant to sell regimes as long as there is widespread domestic unrest in the region.

The US and Europe have the most important markets – Saudi Arabia and Egypt – sewn up through long-standing alliances and aid programs, while traditional customers for Russian arms like Syria and Libya may switch suppliers in the wake of region change.

Russia and China have sold Egypt “second line equipment,” such as trainer aircraft from China and surface-to-air missiles from Russia, but Cairo receives some $1.3 billion in US military aid annually and won’t be changing its main supplier so quickly, analysts said.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is closely tied with the West and its weapons systems are entirely based on Western technology. Riyadh depends on US backing to maintain a strategic balance with Iran, its foe across the Gulf. The US has contracts to sell Saudi Arabia advanced weaponry worth some $67 billion over the next decade, making it the biggest arms deal in US history.

Germany agreed in July to sell Saudi Arabia 200 Leopard 2A7+ main battle tanks for $2.85 billion.

Although the West began selling some arms to the regime of Gaddafi after an embargo was lifted in 2004, sales were relatively small. By contrast, Russia's Interfax news agency quoted military sources as saying that Russia had as much as $3.8 billion in confirmed or possible orders to Gaddafi before civil war broke out in February.

With a new rebel-led government in power, the tables may turn in Libya. The country’s transitional leaders made clear shortly after they toppled Gaddafi that they would favor the NATO countries that played a decisive role in the civil war on the opposition’s side. Their remarks related to future oil contracts, but analysts said they could just as easily apply to arms. Russia is estimated to have lost some $4 billion over the cancellation of contracts with Libya

“The EU and US have taken a strong stand in support of rebels,” said Wezeman. “If the country stabilizes they will be in need of new weaponry and its looks as if European countries and the US would be first in line.”

Cohen of the Heritage Foundation said Russia’s insistence of continuing to sell arms to the Assad regime in Syria could cost it another major customer. The Russians have signed contracts to sell weaponry, but they could argue the force majeure of a months’ long rebellion to back out, he said.

“The Syrian regime is past the point of no return and is on its way to slow bloody and painful collapse,” Cohen told The Media Line. “They have a gravy train there in place that encourages people to grab the money and deliver the weapons.”

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