Gulf states, wary of Iran, add to their arsenals
as neighbors also widen military cooperation

By Hassan M. Fattah
International Herald Tribune

ABU DHABI — As fears grow over the escalating confrontation between Iran and the West, Arab states across the Gulf have begun a rare show of muscle-flexing, publicly advertising a shopping spree for new weapons and openly discussing their security concerns.

The recent display is rare for the typically secretive Gulf nations, which have long planned upgrades to their armed forces but are now speaking openly about it. U.S. military officials say the countries, normally prone to squabbling, have also increased their military cooperation and opened lines of communication to the U.S. military here.

Patriot missile batteries capable of striking down ballistic missiles have been readied in several Gulf countries, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, analysts say, and, increasingly, the states have sought to emphasize their unanimity against Iranian nuclear ambitions.

"There has always been an acknowledgment of the threat in the region, but the volume of the debate has now risen," said one United Arab Emirates official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject. "Now the message is there's a dialogue going on with Iran, but that doesn't mean I don't intend to defend myself."

The Gulf monarchies and sheikdoms, mostly small and vulnerable, have long relied on the United States to protect them. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, the U.S. Central Command is based in nearby Qatar, and the Navy has long relied on docking facilities in the United Arab Emirates, which has one of the region's deepest water ports at Jebel Ali.

The United States has also begun a significant expansion of forces in the Gulf, with a second U.S. aircraft carrier battle group led by the John C. Stennis now in the Gulf, with mine-sweeping ships.

Military officials from throughout the region descended this week on the IDEX military trade fair, a semiannual trade fair that has become the region's largest arms market, drawing nearly 900 weapons makers from around the world. Attendees came ready to update their military capacities and air and naval defenses. They also came armed with a veiled message of resolve.

"We believe there is a need for power to protect peace, and strong people with the capability to respond are the real protectors of peace," Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, said at the exposition. "That is why we are keen to maintain the efficiency of our armed forces."

The Gulf has been a lucrative market for arms. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman spend up to 10 percent of their gross domestic products on the military, amounting to nearly $21 billion, $4 billion and $2.7 billion, respectively, estimates John Kenkel, senior director of Jane's Strategic Advisory Services.

If they follow through on the deals announced recently, it is estimated that countries like the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia would spend up to $60 billion this year.

Atom work shadows talks

The confirmation by UN nuclear agency that Iran has expanded its uranium enrichment program set the stage for difficult negotiations on new UN sanctions, with the United States, Britain and France again likely to seek tougher measures than Russia and China will accept, The Associated Press reported from New York.

Senior diplomats from the five permanent Security Council nations and Germany will meet today in London over a new resolution to try to pressure Iran to suspend enrichment, which can lead to the production of nuclear weapons.

Some diplomats said the new measure might invoke travel bans, expand the list of technology and materials countries are banned from making available to Iran and create stiffer economic sanctions, among other options.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed Friday that Iran would defend its nuclear program, describing his country as a potential role model for others trying to develop advanced technology.

"The Iranian nation has resisted all bullies and corrupt powers and it will fully defend all its rights," Iranian state television quoted Ahmadinejad as saying in the northern Iranian town of Fuman.

Ahmadinejad, in an apparent reference to nuclear power, said Iran could become be a "role model."