Bush delivers major arms sale on visit to Saudi Arabia

Administration notifies Congress it will offer nation "smart bomb" technology.

bush saudi 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
bush saudi 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
US President George W. Bush, on his first visit to this oil-rich kingdom, delivered a major arms sale Monday to a key ally in a region where the US casts neighboring Iran as a menace to stability. Bush's talks with Saudi King Abdullah, which began over dinner and were continuing with late-night meetings, also were expected to cover peace between Israelis and Palestinians and democracy in the Middle East. Coinciding with Bush's trip, the Bush administration in Washington notified Congress on Monday that it would offer Saudi Arabia the chance to buy sophisticated Joint Direct Attack Munitions - or "smart bomb" - technology and related equipment, the State Department said. The administration envisions the transfer of 900 of the precision-guided bomb kits, worth US$123 million, that would give the kingdom's armed forces highly accurate targeting abilities. The proposed deal follows notification of five other packages to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, bringing to US$11.5 billion the amount of advanced US weaponry, including Patriot missiles, that the administration has announced it will provide to friendly Arab nations, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Administration officials say the total amount of eventual sales as part of the Gulf Security Dialogue is estimated at $20 billion, a figure subject to actual purchases. The arms packages are an important part of the US strategy to bolster the defenses of oil-producing Gulf nations, such as Saudi Arabia, against threats from Iran. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which have majority Sunni Muslim populations, harbor deep suspicions about Shiite Iran's apparent designs to establish itself as a major power. Congress already has been briefed on all the packages, which also include the sale of the Navy's Littoral Combat system. Lawmakers mostly see the deals as critical to maintaining relations with war-on-terror allies. Some are opposed to the JDAMs portion out of concern that it gives Saudi Arabia the ability to attack Israel, but are unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority needed, within an allowed 30-day period, to block the sales. The administration has assured lawmakers in closed briefings in recent months that there would be proper restrictions on the JDAMs sales to ensure they would not threaten to Israel. Israel, which has been sold JDAMs technology by the US as well, also has said it does not oppose the deal. White House counselor Ed Gillespie said he did not know if the president and the king had discussed rising oil prices, but he said the subject has come up on this trip, particularly in terms of Bush's goals for developing alternate fuels and sources of energy, including nuclear power. The Saudis are responsible for almost one-third of OPEC's total output. Gillespie said Mideast leaders "talked about the nature of the market and the vast demand that's on the world market today for oil," something he called "a legitimate and accurate point." Another item for possible discussion were the democratic principles Bush has promoted during his trip. While Abdullah has tried to push some reforms on education and women's rights and there have been limited municipal council elections, the king has been cautious and limited in his efforts. He apparently has been hampered by others in the royal family worried that fast changes could upset the country's conservative clerics and citizens. After arriving Monday afternoon in Riyadh from Dubai, Bush expected to hear Abdullah urge him to keep up the pressure on Israel to halt settlements in Palestinian territories. The administration was able to persuade the Saudis to participate in the US-sponsored Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., in November.