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US arms sale to Bahrain raises questions about sustainability

The $3.8 billion sale of jets and patrol boats dwarfs the tiny emirate’s annual defense budget.
A F-16 fighter jet takes off during the Bahrain International Air Show in Sakir Base, south of Manama, January 17, 2014. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed (BAHRAIN - Tags: TRANSPORT MILITARY BUSINESS) - GM1EA1I071V01

The State Department’s approval of a $3.8 billon weapons sale to Bahrain is raising questions about the sustainability of a surge in US military deals with the Gulf.

Announced on Friday, the deal includes the sale of 19 upgraded F-16V fighter jets, 35 fast patrol boats and more than 200 anti-tank missiles. The sales had been held up by the Barack Obama administration due to human rights concerns.

A US official said the deal would help Bahrain’s armed forces better integrate with American forces, including the 5th Fleet out of Manama, which is home to two aircraft carriers, 20 smaller ships and as many as 20,000 sailors. Bahrain is a major non-NATO ally, meaning that the US government gives it preference for approving arms sales and other military assistance.

Bahrain's air force has also flown bombing missions in Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-backed military campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and also provides assistance to Saudi Arabia’s fight in Yemen. The Trump administration first announced plans to approve the F-16 deal in March.

During the Obama administration, US companies sold armored Humvees, anti-tank missiles and F-16 equipment to Manama. The new deal gives Manama a boost in its effort to replace the last of its aging F-5 fighters, which were last produced in the 1980s.  

“This is a big issue of national pride,” David Des Roches, a former White House and Defense Department official who now serves as an associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington, told Al-Monitor. “Everyone wants to have a jet that goes vroom at their national parade."

Yet with a defense budget of little more than $1.5 billion in 2016 — less than half of the proposed US sale — it’s not clear Bahrain will be able to sustain those purchases. With just 1.3 million people, the tiny Gulf kingdom is one of the smallest countries in the world to fly modern fighter jets.

And the F-16 might not be particularly well suited to Bahrain’s military. The country’s more than 8,000 troops are primarily focused on homeland security missions, such as protecting the Sunni monarchy from being overthrown by the Shiite majority and countering Iranian interference.

"The country is so small that there’s a question of whether they’ll be able to exercise the full lifetime performance of [the F-16],” said Des Roches. “They might bankrupt themselves for something of dubious military efficacy.”

The sale comes as Congress has held back on weapons deals to the Gulf, as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates remain engaged in a diplomatic standoff with Qatar over its alleged support for Islamists.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., informed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that he would block future arms sales to the region pending a resolution to the crisis, which has persisted since June 5. A Corker aide told Al-Monitor that the chairman cleared the Bahrain sales prior to withholding consent on future Gulf sales in response to the ongoing dispute, but confirmed that the policy remains in effect.

Congress could yet decide to push back against the sale on the basis of human rights concerns. In June, the Senate approved a $510 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia by a close 53-47 vote amid criticism of the civilian death toll in Yemen.

Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family has been criticized by Washington for minimizing dissent and protests by its vocal Shiite majority. Recently, the State Department issued a statement condemning the sentencing of Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab.

“The US-Bahrain security relationship was complicated under Obama because vetoes were being exercised over human rights concerns,” Des Roches said. “What the Trump administration is saying is security is security and human rights is human rights, we’re not going to sacrifice one for the other.”

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