US strikes major arms deal with Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia agrees one of the world's largest ever arms deals; Sweeping constitutional reform in Turkey challenges military; US attack drones under the spotlight once again in Pakistan; Large-scale personnel changes for Nigeria's security services; More drug arrests, as Obama contradicts Clinton over Mexico; US considers how to deal with homegrown terrorism. All this and more in today's briefing.
Luke Heighton
14 September 2010

The US has all but concluded an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth up to $60 billion, it was announced this week. The deal is understood to be the largest of its kind ever. The plan, which will see the sale of both advanced fighter jets and military helicopters, and includes potential naval and missile-defence upgrades potentially worth tens of billions of dollars more, is expected to support at least 75,000 US jobs at companies such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Sikorsky. In total the Saudis will be authorised to buy as many as 84 new F-15’s and upgrade a further 70, as well as to purchase 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Bird helicopters. A further $30 billion package to upgrade Saudia Arabia’s naval forces is also said to be under discussion, as part of what one official described as “discreet, bilateral discussions”. Both deals could still come unstuck, however, if they are opposed in Congress. In any case, the sheer size and complexity of the deal(s) is expected to mean some change to their current outline is inevitable, and it is possible that Saudi Arabia may yet purchase only half the value of the hardware being quoted.

In 2007 Saudi Arabia also agreed to purchase a number of Eurofighter planes, and has been actively widening its acquisitions base for several years. In June of this year an article appeared in the Washington Post's Spy Talk blog carrying what its source (although not the Post) claimed was comprehensive ‘evidence’ that China supplied turn-key nuclear missiles to Saudi Arabia during the period of George W Bush’s administration. According to former CIA officer Jonathan Scherk, the White House subsequently covered up the deal (or deals) so as not to damage relations with a major ally and oil supplier, not least because of the US’s continued involvement in Iraq. 

It’s an intriguing claim, though not one without its sceptics. Over at, Jeffrey Lewis, pours a certain amount of scorn on the notion that China sold Saudi Arabia nuclear weapons of any kind, whilst at the same arguing that the even if a deal for conventional ballistic missiles had taken place this would hardly be “a big deal”. Lewis does, however, think the timing – “no later than December 2003” – could well make sense, even if he’s far from convinced as to its the overall veracity or accuracy of Scherk’s claims. The timing is broadly consistent with other information —in 2002, at least one press report suggested that Saudi Arabia was modernizing the bases that housed the missiles. 

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Gala Riani, a middle east analyst at IHS Global Insight, said the latest round of deals are similarly unsurprising given the US’s strategic aims in the middle east: "At the heart of this, the US is seeking to build and strengthen its allies in the region. Perhaps it has something to do with the US economy, but the shared threat from Iran is definitely a motivating factor." Concerns have already been raised over the US's decision to sell weapons to a country with as poor a human rights record as Saudi Arabia, as well as over how Israel might perceive such a move. Over the past twelve months Riyadh has found itself amongst the world’s top arms buyers, behind only Brazil and Venezuela. In 2008 its defence purchases were estimated at close to $9 billion, making it the second highest spender after the United Arab Emirates. Israel, meanwhile, is expected to take delivery of around 20 more advanced American-made F-35 fighter jets around the same time the Saudis receive their F-15s, in approximately five to ten years’ time.

Turkish military threatened by constitutional reform

In a move which received immediate backing from both the US and European Union, a popular referendum in Turkey has resulted in a vote for widespread constitutional reforms, which many believe will result in greater civil and judicial freedoms. Turnout in the referendum is estimated to have been nearly 80% The changes proposed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supported by around 58% of voters, are, however, being seen as a particular blow to Turkey’s hugely powerful military, which had fiercely opposed them. In all, the reform package introduces 26 amendments to the 1982 constitution, itself drawn up in the wake of the military coup that seized power in 1980, exactly 30 years before the date of the referendum. 

Henceforth, it will be possible to try military personnel accused of crimes against the state in civilian courts, while sacked military officers will have the same recourse to civil courts should they wish to challenge their dismissal. Stefan Fuele, the EU's enlargement commissioner, said that the "reforms are a step in the right direction" to complying with the EU’s accession criteria. Previously the European Commission had accused the government of stifling public debate over the proposals, while backing Ankara's attempt to reorganise the judiciary. The result is also expected to provide Erdogan and his pious, socially-conservative AKP party with a much-needed boost in popularity ahead of elections in the New Year, though there will be continued opposition from critics who believe the Prime Minister is overseeing Turkey’s sleepwalk towards becoming an Islamic state.

For the army it represents an extremely difficult time, not least because it comes after investigations into its involvement in a series of assassinations, coup plots, the sponsoring of death squads and more. Many of the generals are known to believe the reforms are designed to secure Turkish membership of the EU at the expense of Turkish self-determination, whilst taking umbrage at what they see as successive attempts to undermine the status as well as the power of an institution they regard as the supreme embodiment of the Turkish nation. At the same time, weakened as it now is, it would appear the Turkish military’s appetite for violent intervention has waned significantly, and its capacity to do so, even if desired, is called into doubt. Moreover, as a recent visit from Washington’s Chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, served to emphasise, Turkish military-strategic and security interests in the region are in practice probably far closer to those of the US and EU than any amount of patriotic rhetoric can disguise.

US drone strike again in Pakistan

On Sunday a US drone (also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV), was reported to have killed ‘six militants’ in Pakistan, near the north-western tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. A number of civilians were injured, though reports did not say how seriously, and were taken to hospital. There has been a sharp increase in the number of drone strikes in the areas in recent weeks, following a surge in suicide attacks and bombings elsewhere in Pakistan. Last week some 24 people were killed by US drones in the same area in 24 hours

The latest drone strike took place in the Datta Khel area near Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan. It is understood to have fired two missiles, which struck the village of Newey Adda. The type of UAVs commonly used are the MQ-1 Predator and more recently the MQ-9 Reaper, firing AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Among the six militants reported as having been killed were two ‘guests’, suspected foreign-born fighters. No senior Taliban or al Qaeda commanders have been reported killed in the strike, and the target of the attack is not known.

On Tuesday Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Azam Tariq told Agence France Presse that his group would continue to target Pakistani security forces with suicide attacks in revenge for US drone strikes. The US military does not as a rule confirm drone attacks, but its armed forces and the Central Intelligence Agency operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy pilotless drones in the region, operated remotely from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.

In June this year a senior UN official called on the United States to halt the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan. Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva examining the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by the US, Russia and Israel. Their use, he concluded, constitutes a form of “targeted killing”. This in itself is not illegal under international law. However, Alston said, "It is an essential requirement of international law that States using targeted killings demonstrate that they are complying with the various rules governing their use in situations of armed conflict [....]The greatest challenge to this principle today comes from the program operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency [...] The international community does not know when and where the CIA is authorized to kill, the criteria for individuals who may be killed, how it ensures killings are legal, and what follow-up there is when civilians are illegally killed." Alston also raised as a potential problem the issue of personnel involved in drone killings being prosecuted as “unlawful combatants”, thus risking exposure to charges of having committed war crimes.

How to deal with homegrown terrorism

The complex legal position and the moral issues associated with drone attacks received further, albeit not directly related, coverage last week in an editorial appearing in the Washington Post; a belated response to State Department legal adviser Harold Koh’s defense of their use. The question, as the Post saw it, was not whether the use of drones is permitted in law (including their use outside traditional battlefields), but rather if US citizens could be the targets of such strikes. The occasion for the discussion was news that at least one American, Anwar al-Aulaqi, a cleric living in Yemen who is alleged to have been involved in the Foot Hood massacre in November 2009, the foiled Detroit ‘underwear bomber’ attack on Christmas Day, 2009, of which 23 year-old US citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused, and the attempted Times Square car bomb in April 2009, to which Pakistani-born US citizen Faisal Shahzad subsequently admitted. The Post piece concentrates almost entirely on the issue what action can or should be taken against American citizens abroad, be they in ‘friendly’ or 'unfriendly’ countries, without the support of the US’s allies.

Also published last week was a report that seeks to address the problem of ‘homegrown’ US terrorism. Compiled by the former heads of the September 11th Commission, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, it says US authorities failed to realize that Somali-American youths travelling from Minnesota to Mogadishu in 2008 to join extremists were not alone, and that there is evidence of a broader, more diverse, and growing terrorist threat from within the United States’ borders. "Our long-held belief that homegrown terrorism couldn't happen here has thus created a situation where we are today stumbling blindly through the legal, operational and organizational minefield of countering terrorist radicalization and recruitment occurring in the United States," said the report.

US officials are increasingly targeting the radicalisation of US citizens, despite numerous criticisms of similar strategies in operation in the UK and elsewhere, and the White House this year added combating homegrown terrorism to its national security strategy. According to Denis McDonough, the chief of staff of the president's National Security Council, speaking in an interview with Associated Press in June, the National Counterterrorism Center and a National Security Council interagency group of representatives from thirteen federal agencies and offices have taken the lead in looking at ways to counter violent extremism within the US and abroad. 

Major upheavals across Nigerian security services

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has conducted a widespread reorganisation of Nigeria’s state security chiefs, promoting former Chief of Air Staff Air Marshall Oluseyi Petinrin to Chief of Defence Staff and firing all other service chiefs. Jonathan also removed the Inspector General of Police, Ogbonna Onovo and the Director General of the Nigerian intelligence agency – the State Security Service (SSS) – Afakriya Gadzam. The appointment of Major-General Onyeabor Azubike Ihejirika as Chief of Army Staff represents the first time anyone from the southeastern Igbo ethnic group has held the top post in the most powerful branch of the armed forces since the 1967-70 Civil War. Such moves are not thought to be a direct response to events in Bauchi, and have instead attracted criticism from those who believe Jonathan is using such sweeping changes to gain direct control over the security forces in the buidlup to next year’s election. Jonathan has faced concerted opposition from the Governors of several Nigerian states, and despite recently gaining the qualified support of some of his country’s most powerful neighbours has yet to achieve the same levels of enthusiasm from many Nigerians. In an interesting later development, it emerged that one of Jonathan’s erstwhile allies, National Security Advisor Lt-Gen Aliyu Gusau, plans to challenge him in January.

On Monday of this week SSS are reported to have stormed the campaign headquarters of former military president and presidential aspirant, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). It is believed the men entered the building in order to formally request that the director-general of the campaign organisation, Chief Raymond Dokpesi, come and explain his allegation against President Goodluck Jonathan, following his refusal to honour a previous oral invitation from the SSS. Dopkesi claimed last week that his life was at risk.

The American oil company Chevron, meanwhile, has succeeded in upholding a 2008 decision relating to the company’s drilling activities in the Niger delta made by a Northern Californian court. An attempt by Nigerian villagers to hold Chevron financially responsible for a clash between Nigerian state forces and protesters which took place on its Parable oil platform 9 miles off Nigeria’s coast in 1998 was formally denied when the original court decision was upheld on Friday by the US Court of Appeals. The appeals court also found that the Torture Victim Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1992, does not apply to corporations.

More arrests (and escapes) in Mexico

Sergio Villareal Barragán, alleged to be a key figure in one of Mexico's most powerful criminal organisations, the Beltrán Leyva drugs cartel, was captured in an effort involving 30 Mexican naval marines, five vehicles and a helicopter on Sunday. The raid, which took place in the central Mexican state of Puebla, is described by President Felipe Calderon’s government as a major setback for organised crime in the country and the region.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, has moved to quell suggestions that rising levels of drug-related violence in Mexico has left the country in a situation similar to the Colombia of 20 years ago. The president's remarks, which were made on Friday, came in response to the fallout following comments made by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton the day before. Speaking after giving a major speech to US foreign policy officials at the Council of Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think-tank, Clinton commented that in her view Mexico’s drug cartels “are showing more and more indices of insurgencies”, and were in some cases “morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico and in Central America”. 

Clinton stopped short, however, of suggesting the situation was rapidly deteriorating beyond the capacity of the Mexican authorities to deal with it. At the same time, she expressed concern that “the small countries in Central America do not have that capacity”. Speaking a day later, President Obama told the Los Angeles-based Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion that the analogy was a false one: “Mexico is a vast and progressive democracy”, he said, “with a growing economy, and as a result you cannot compare what is happening in Mexico with what happened in Colombia 20 years ago”.

Mexico’s already overcrowded penal system is struggling to cope under the pressure of newly incarcerated violent offenders. At dawn on Friday more than 85 prisoners – many of whom are believed to be members of Mexico’s drug gangs, escaped from the prison at Reynosa in Tamaulipas state, after they used ladders to scale the exterior fence. In recent months Tamaulipas has been at the centre of clashes between rival cartels battling for control over US-destined smuggling routes. Last month 40 more prisoners escaped from nearby Matamoros prison. Allegations of corruption among police, prison guards and officials are common, with the government estimating it has fired almost 10% of the federal police force in the last year in an attempt to improve matters.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData