It has been a momentous few weeks in the Middle East. The announcement of a deal to normalize relations first between Israel and the UAE and now Bahrain – note: it’s not a “peace deal”; neither of the two Arab countries was at war with Israel – has dramatically transformed the region’s geostrategic balance. It should, by rights, also alter America’s policy in regard to arming its Arab allies in the region.
The new and overt relationship – as opposed to the previous less-than-public ties – between Israel and the UAE underlines the fact that these two close allies of the US both share a common enemy: Iran. And the announcement comes just as Iran is about to undergo a sea-change in its ability to arm itself. UN sanctions preventing Iran from buying and selling major military weapons and platforms are due to expire on October 18. Suddenly, Iran will be able under international law to buy as many tanks, fighter aircraft and warships as it can afford. China and Russia, Iran’s traditional defense allies, are already lining up to supply as much as they can.
For Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors, the possibility of a rearmed Iran is a major concern. Tehran has not tempered any of its aggressive policies in the region, such as the use of proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere, or reduced attacks on international shipping in the Gulf and Saudi oil infrastructure. These all involve the use of asymmetric capabilities, as the Iranian military has been underfunded and poorly equipped for decades. But the purchase of major weapons systems means that a belligerent state may soon be fielding a competent military force just 50 kilometers away over the Gulf.
For Gulf states, one of the best ways to try and deter Iranian aggression is through arms procurement. As a result, Gulf Arab states have been some of the biggest importers of weapons in recent years, buying in particular from the US and Europe. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute claims that Saudi Arabia was the largest arms importer in the world between 2015 and 2019. The UAE was eighth and Qatar 10th.
But these states also have been limited in the kinds of weapons they can buy, particularly from the US. Since the mid-1960s, the US has tacitly undertaken a policy called “Qualitative Military Edge.” Although never clearly defined in US strategic documents, the QME policy seeks to ensure Israel can sustain a credible military advantage over its neighbors that will effectively deter any regional rival and, if necessary, allow for battlefield dominance in conflict. This policy does not limit the amount of arms the US can sell to other states in the region – hence the billions of dollars of fighter aircraft sold to the Saudis over the years – but it does mean that the latest kit, such as the F-35 fighter, will only be sold to Israel and not America’s Gulf allies.
This policy has long been a source of contention among Arab states and now there is even less justification for maintaining it. When first implemented more than 50 years ago, Israel faced credible threats from a number of Arab states; the wars in 1969 and 1973 were testament to that fact. But today, the strategic picture is much changed; most Arab states may not have any official relations with Israel, but neither are they eager to engage in a conflict for the sake of the Palestinians.
The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said as much in a public address to the Atlantic Council on August 20, when he noted that the agreement with Israel effectively removes any justification for QME that rested on the notion of the possibility of conflict with Arab states.
The US therefore now faces a region with numerous US allies, no substantial prospect of military conflict between them and a common adversary for all in the shape of Iran. Given this strategic picture, it would seem sensible to provide to Gulf Arab states – particularly those with a close defense relationship with the US – the advanced technology they have been seeking for years.
Iran is not the only reason for the US to abandon QME in its own self-interest. In the absence of some US advanced equipment, in particular unmanned combat aerial vehicles, or drones, regional states have turned to other suppliers. China has been a leading beneficiary: Riyadh even agreed with China to develop a manufacturing facility in Saudi Arabia to build CH-4 drones.
Given Washington’s current effort to limit China’s burgeoning influence in regions such as the Middle East, particularly with some of its closest allies, allowing advanced military technology into Gulf states would remove a key competitive advantage that Beijing currently has.
QME need not be abandoned wholesale or completely. The US can indicate it is willing to send F-35s to the UAE should the normalization agreement be solidified with a number of diplomatic steps, but not to sell the aircraft to Riyadh until a similar policy is enacted.
Nevertheless, the strategic argument in favor of ending QME is now robust. It will strengthen US allies and improve Washington’s relationship with key states in the region, while preventing a further shift away from the US and toward China in strategic partnerships. Israel may not agree, but the US has a chance to further shape the region to its advantage.
Christian Le Miere is the founder of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London and The Hague. Previously he was a senior advisor to an entity in Abu Dhabi and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. @c_lemiere