Arms Sales and Military Spending by the US in the Greater Middle East

The Middle East is the most militarized region in the world, with most arms sales heading there.  In fact, the US has delivered more weapons to this region than any other region in the world. In 2007, the George W. Bush administration announced an unprecedented weapons deal worth at least $20 billion of sales to Saudi Arabia and five other oil-rich Persian Gulf states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (Rashidian). Furthermore, the US provides a great amount of monetary aid to the Middle East, specifically Israel, to help build their military, weapons, and provide security.  In a section of the book titled Another World is Possible, the author notes that

“The US justifies the nearly $3 billion in annual military aid to Israel on the grounds of protecting that country from its Arab neighbors, even though the United States supplies 80 percent of the arms to these Arab states. The 1978 Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt was in many ways more like a tripartite military pact than a peace agreement in that it has resulted in more than $5 billion is annual US arms transfers to those two countries. US weapons have been used repeatedly in attacks against civilians by Israel, Turkey and other countries” (Zunes).

With the common foe of Saudi Arabia and America—Iran— suspected of developing a nuclear weapons program as of late, President Obama struck a ten-year $60 billion weapons deal solely with Saudi Arabia in 2010 in an effort to deter Iran’s ambitions or, in case of an Iranian attack, allow Saudi Arabia to defend themselves (Shanker and Sanger). The conventional weapons in the deal include attack and troop-transport helicopters and fighter jets with “the latest air-to-air missiles and precision-guided air-to-ground missiles, enabling them to strike ships and radar facilities day or night and in any weather” (ibid). However, no nuclear weapons are part of the deal, for the US does not want to threaten Israel’s advanced military position in the Middle East by providing another country with nuclear weapons.

The New York Times cited a few main reasons for such an enormous weapons deal with Saudi Arabia:
1.    “Since coming to office, Mr. Obama and his top officials have hinted at extending the American defense umbrella over much of the Persian Gulf in hopes of preventing other states in the region, including Saudi Arabia, from seeking nuclear arms of their own. The sale of conventional weapons, the theory goes, helps persuade Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that they could deter Iranian ambitions, even without their own nuclear capability.
2.    There is an added benefit for the American military, in addition to helping regional partners bolster their defenses with weapons that cannot be matched by Iran. The purchase of these American combat systems and related military support, including American trainers, would allow the United States armed forces to operate seamlessly in that part of the world, according to Pentagon officials” (Shanker and Sanger).
3.    With the US [pulling] out of Iraq, the Obama administration is eager to demonstrate it will remain a presence in the region and is committed to the defense of its allies in the Gulf, especially those seeking to contain Iran’s nuclear program in an attempt to promote stability (that is, a nuclear weapons-free Iran) across the Middle East (Landler and Myers).

Finally, let us take a look at some of the countries in the Middle East that are among the world’s top ten recipients of US aid, according to a February 2012 report by the International Business Times.

Israel: As mentioned earlier, Israel receives nearly $3 billion annually solely for military aid from the US, making it the number one recipient of US military aid. In 2011 alone, the country collected $190 million in assistance from USAID (an agency that provides economic, development, and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of the foreign policy goals of the US). Journalist Daniel Tovrov mentions that “As the United States’ most important ally in the Middle East, America is invested in making Israel’s army a ‘capable, professional force.’” Afghanistan: In an effort to build the country’s economy and to establish security, the U.S. doles out more than $4 billion a year. About half of that is devoted only to training and equipping Afghan troops; another $1.5 billion comes from USAID programs.

Iraq: In 2010, Iraq received $1.1 billion for reconstruction and security efforts.  Aid requests for FY2012 were double the 2010 figure due to US troop withdrawal (Tovrov). In addition, the FY2012 budget included roughly $9 billion for Iraq for ongoing military operations (Cost of War).

Pakistan: In FY2010, Pakistan received $1.3 billion in USAID. In addition, the country is given $1.6 billion in military aid, although funding for Pakistan has become controversial. Some believe the Pakistani government is using that money to fund America’s enemies, especially since Osama bin Laden was found there in 2011. Overall, the US has given Pakistan over $20 billion since September 11, 2001.

Egypt: Following the January 2011 revolution in Egypt, the US government sent $100 million for an economic development program that aimed to promote job creation and poverty alleviation, and another $65 million for democracy building initiatives. On top of that, Egypt also receives $1.3 billion in military aid (Tovrov).

The Presence of US Military Bases & Fleets

Aside from financial support and weapons provided by the US, the Middle East still harbors a rather large presence of US troops, even a decade after the wars started. While The Pentagon has not given an exact number, it has been estimated that there are anywhere from 700 to over 1,000 overseas US military bases around the world (Johnson). At the height of the war in Iraq, more than 170,000 U.S. troops were stationed there at more than 500 bases. By December 2011, it was said that only 150 troops would remain in Iraq as part of a “training and cooperation mission at the huge U.S. embassy on the banks of the Tigris river” (Logan).

In 2010, there were “400 US and coalition bases in Afghanistan, including camps, forward operating bases, and combat outposts.  In addition, there are at least 300 Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) bases, most of them built, maintained, or supported by the US” (Turse). Although we saw a huge decrease in the number of troops in Iraq at the end of 2011, some forget to realize that there was a surge of troops into Afghanistan instead, with money and soldiers simply being relocated instead of brought home.

The US Naval Fleet also has numerous locations around the world. The Fifth Fleet, located in the Middle East, is comprised of more than 20 ships, 1,000 people ashore, and 15,000 afloat.

Due to the high number of US military bases in the Middle East, the Transnational Institute assessed what the ramifications were for civilians living near the bases. Two main problems with foreign bases are as follows:
1.    “All these facilities are integral to preparations for war, and as such undermine international peace and security. Without the bases in Turkey, Germany, Diego Garcia, Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf States, the Iraq invasion could not have happened. The bases serve to proliferate weapons, increase violence, and undermine international instability.
2.    Bases cause social and environmental problems at a local level. Communities living around the bases often experience high levels of rapes committed by foreign soldiers, violent crimes, loss of land or livelihood, and pollution and health hazards caused by the testing of conventional or non-conventional weapons. In many countries the agreement that permitted the base stipulates that foreign soldiers who perpetrate crimes cannot be held accountable, since they are granted immunity” (van der Zeijden).

While the Transnational Institute researched the problems with all foreign military bases in general, we must take notice of how those problems have become a reality for those in Iraq and Afghanistan. For instance:
•    In 2004, news spread about the torture and abuse at the US detention facility Abu Ghraib in Iraq. It was found that a number of female detainees were raped by US soldiers, and some became pregnant. Many female detainees were forced to strip in front of soldiers as well, an act considered humiliating for modest Iraqi women. In addition, one Iraqi woman recounts being held at a US base at al-Kharkh, where she was raped by several American soldiers and injured while trying to fight them off (Harding).
•    War-related pollution has affected the health of Iraqis living near US bases. In cities like Fallujah, Iraq, where fighting was the heaviest and US bases were established, a survey was conducted on cancer, birth defects, and infant mortality. “Significantly higher rates of cancer in 2005-2009 compared to rates in Egypt and Jordan were found.  The infant mortality rate in Fallujah was 80 deaths per 1000 live births, significantly higher than rates of 20 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan and 10 in Kuwait.  The ratio of male births to female births in the 0-4 age cohort was 860 to 1000 compared to the expected 1050 per 1000. This suggested that there have been grave mutation-related health problems in Fallujah with the US siege” (Costs of War).
•    In 2010 in Afghanistan, it was found that on almost all US bases, there were open-air trash sites operating 24 hours a day incinerating trash. Such trash included “plastic bottles, paint, petroleum products, unexploded ordinance, hazardous materials, even amputated limbs and medical waste. Their smoke plumes belch dioxin, carbon monoxide and other toxins skyward, producing a toxic fog that hangs over living and working areas” (Nasuti).
•    In March 2012, US soldier Robert Bales walked about 800 yards away from his base to a nearby village in Afghanistan and, without reason, killed 16 Afghan civilians in their homes, with some of the victims being as young as two years old (Peter).

The Human and Financial Cost of War on the US Front

It is estimated that as of 2011, 6,051 American soldiers had been killed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—a number much higher than the amount of American lives lost on 9/11. By the year 2011, it was reported that 99,065 American soldiers had been physically wounded (Watson Institute p. 3-4). For the survivors of war, many soldiers come back home only to suffer from PTSD and other psychological disorders, commit suicide, and face homelessness.
Since the war’s inception in 2001 through the end of FY2012, the US will have spent $1.38 trillion, with $807.4 billion to Iraq and $570.9 billion to Afghanistan for military and non-military spending such as reconstruction. In addition, as of 2011

“Even as the wars wind down, costs are rising. It now costs the US $694,000 to keep each service member in Afghanistan for a year, up from $667,000 in 2009. In Iraq, the cost has gone from $512,000 in 2007 to $802,000 in 2011”


Meanwhile across the US, there has been a significant cutback in employment and wages for workers resulting from non-military industries sending their factories to countries where they could pay lower wages.

Did you know?
In New York State alone, taxpayers have paid $117.7 billion in total war spending in Iraq and Afghanistan since FY2001. With that money, 47.4 million children could have received healthcare for one year; 1.4 million elementary school teachers could have been hired; 56.2 million individuals would have been able to buy groceries for one year; and 19.6 million scholarships could have been provided to university students (

The Human and Financial Cost of War on the Middle East Front

It is estimated that 11,000-13,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, while a staggering 125,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives due to direct war-related instances since the start of the wars.
•    Iraqi civilians wounded: 109,558; Afghan civilians wounded: 17,544

The suffering does not stop there, however. A total of 2,900,000 Afghan civilians have become refugees, with an extra 415,000 internally displaced, totaling 3,315,000 people. The number is higher for Iraqis, with 1,800,000 civilian refugees and 1,700,000 internally displaced people, leading to a total of 3.5 million displaced Iraqis (Watson Institute p. 3-5).

Billions of US dollars have been used for aid in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the money does not benefit the majority of the people in desperate need. Post-war development has focused on only a few particular areas in each country, leaving millions without adequate healthcare, housing, and jobs. Since men in each country have been the ones to go to the frontlines of war, women at home have found it increasingly difficult to support their families. Some women have resorted to prostitution and selling their children for extra income.

As of 2008, due to the wars, 25% of Iraqis lived below the poverty line. Between 2008 and 2009, 36% of Afghan’s lived below the poverty line. (According to The World Bank, in 2005 Afghanistan’s poverty headcount was 33 percent; by 2007 it jumped to 42 percent, then back down to 36 percent in 2008). Due to a lack of economic, political, and social stability, Afghanistan ranks very poorly on the Human Development Index, while Iraq fares slightly better (CIA World Factbook: Iraq and Afghanistan).

The Impact of US Militarization on the Middle Eastern Environment

Let us take a look at how the war has affected Afghan farmers, the environment, and people’s means of income. In Afghanistan, 78.6% of the population works in the agricultural labor force. However, since the war started, 35% of the Afghan population has dealt with unemployment (CIA World Factbook).

Afghanistan suffers from some of the worst air and water pollution in the world. Add to this the decade-long war, and the air and water supply became worse. In addition to the gases released into the air by bombs, “The military vehicles used in both Iraq and Afghanistan produced many hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, hydrocarbons, and sulfur dioxide in addition to CO2” (Watson Institute p. 11). When tested at clinics, Afghan citizens have found lead and other chemicals in their blood due to breathing in the toxic air. The tainted air affects the growth of crops on farms as well.

A lack of adequate water supply plagues the citizens of Afghanistan on a daily basis. Millions of people are without a source for water, and for those who do have access, the water is not necessarily safe. Prior to the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2000, UNICEF found that 54 percent of the urban population and 43 percent of the rural population did not have improved water sources (UNICEF). By 2006, after five years of war, it was found that 80 percent of the people in rural areas and 70 percent of those living in cities did not have safe drinking water (IRIN). The water supply has been further contaminated by oil from military vehicles and depleted uranium from ammunition. Not only does the adulterated water harm those drinking it, but it damages crops that are typically a means of income for families and their only way to provide food for themselves. Furthermore, the depleted uranium used in US ammunition contaminates both soil and water, and with “a half-life of 4.5 billion years, it is deeply persistent and carcinogenic” (Costs of War).

US Militarization of the Middle East is Forcing the Already Divided and Conflicting Countries into an Arms Race

With the astonishingly high presence of the US military in the Middle East, it is no wonder why some countries in that region feel threatened and seek to develop their own weapons. With the recent talk of Iran possibly building its own nuclear weapons, the US media has made it seem like the US and Israel will be in imminent danger if Iran does create nuclear weapons and that action needs to be taken to prevent Iran from doing so. On the other hand, no one seems to take notice, or be concerned with, the number of US troops and weaponry overseas, acting as police-states to Arab nations.

The majority of nations in possession of nuclear weapons have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a treaty which seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and technology and foster cooperation to reach its goal. Israel, although widely suspected of harboring a nuclear arsenal ranging from 100-200 nuclear warheads, has never officially acknowledged such possessions and has maintained it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Israel refuses to sign the NPT on the basis that the resolution is “deeply flawed and hypocritical. It ignores the realities of the Middle East and the real threats facing the region and the entire world” (Nasr).

The Arms Control and Proliferation profile of Israel on the Arms Control Association website states that:

“Israel fields an arsenal of nuclear-capable Jericho (ballistic) missiles…and the Israeli government operates an extensive and sophisticated biodefense program. It has not made public pronouncements on its biological weapons policy nor signed the Biological Weapons Convention, which is widely interpreted as an indication that Israel has some offensive capabilities…and Israel is active in defensive research regarding chemical weapons.”

While at war against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009, Israel used weapons which produced debilitating effects on its victims, effects that medical professionals had never previously seen. For example, “Corpses were found shrunken. Civilians had heavy lower limb damage requiring amputations. Nonetheless, unstoppable necrosis followed (death of cells and living tissue) followed by death…The Palestinian health ministry said Israel used a new type of explosive in Gaza,  containing toxins and radioactive materials. They burned and tore victims’ bodies from the inside and left long term deformations…In Gaza, white phosphorous was used, burning flesh to the bone” (Lendman).

Even more threatening to Arab nations and Iran is the fact that the US provides Israel with a staggering amount of monetary aid to Israel, although Israelis continue to build new settlements on Palestinian territories while Palestinians are left displaced and to suffer. Even with an annual budget of over $3 billion in aid per year to Israel—that is $8 million per day—Israel’s own military budget is over $16 billion, ranking behind Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the Greater Middle East (as of 2011) (SIPRI Military Expenditure Database). Due to such a high military budget and foreign aid received, Israel may have an advantage over its neighbors in terms a well-trained military, technological sophistication, and the ability to quickly mobilize human and material resources (Zunes). As mentioned before, if an Arab or Islamic nation were to do the same things Israel is able to with its resources, the US would threaten that nation with force and claim that nation is aiming to harm the interests of the US or Israel.

Despite the international arena calling for the recognition of the land of Palestine and Palestinian peoples over illegal Israeli settlements and violence, the US

“has traditionally rejected the international consensus and currently takes a position more closely resembling that of Israel’s right-wing government: supporting a Jerusalem under largely Israeli sovereignty, encouraging only partial withdrawal from the occupied territories, allowing for the confiscation of Palestinian land, and the construction of Jewish-only settlements and rejecting an independent state [Palestine] outside of Israeli strictures “ (ibid).

American aid to Israeli settlements with disregard to Palestinian territories is reminiscent of the displacement of Native Americans and seizure of their territories by the US government; the creation of Bantustans during the apartheid regime in South Africa, which forced the majority black population onto small, crowded, reserved pieces of land by the minority white population; and also of the ghetto camps created by the Nazi’s during WWII, with the government’s intent to take the Jewish populations’ property away and displace them. This may pose the question: “How can democratic America turn a blind eye and support such treatment of Palestinians?”

Military Budgets in the Greater Middle East, by Country

Country 2011 dollars
(in millions)
Saudi Arabia 48,531
Turkey 17,871
Israel 16,446
Pakistan 6,282
Iraq 5,845
Kuwait 5,640
Oman 4,291
Egypt 4,285
Syria 2,495
Lebanon 1,754
Jordan 1,368
Afghanistan 878
Bahrain 878
Iran N/A
Yemen N/A
Qatar N/A

Data from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

US-Saudi-Bahrain Relations

As noted earlier, the US carries out arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain—two of its allies. The US Fifth Fleet has its main base in Bahrain, undergirding diplomatic ties between the two nations. However, during the 2011 uprisings in Bahrain, the Bahrain and Saudi governments used violence and force against protestors which was briefly criticized by President Obama. Although President Obama criticized the handling of protestors in Bahrain, the US continues to sell millions of dollars in arms there. In October 2011, the Obama administration delayed a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain “pending the outcome of a local investigation into alleged human rights abuses since an uprising began in February 2011.” But in May 2012, the Obama administration resumed certain sales to Bahrain, although the administration would “maintain a hold on TOW missiles, Humvees and some other items for now” (Quinn). Fox News cites two reasons for a lack of US intervention, or at least a more vigorous (verbal) denunciation, regarding the handling of protestors in Bahrain: stability and timing. With Iran threatening to close of the Strait of Hormuz and to preemptively attack Israeli and American interests in the region, the US fleet must be ready to act swiftly in case of attack. If the fleet is preoccupied with quelling tensions in Bahrain, countering Iran’s acts may be difficult (Saidel).

Furthermore, the sectarian division between the Sunni’s and Shia’s in Bahrain is of concern to Saudi Arabia, as both wish to keep the Sunni’s in political power unlike their—and America’s—rival, Iran, which seeks a Shia majority as the ruling class. While President Obama criticized the use of force by the Bahrain military, he did not publicly criticize Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Bahrain, since Saudi Arabia plans to purchase up to $60 billion in arms from the US over the next decade. Having strained relations with Middle Eastern allies who are not in favor of Iran is not favorable for US interests or business, thus keeping the US from publicly condemning the violence by militaries and governments in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Ten Years Later, Trillions of Dollars Spent, and Hundreds of Thousands of Lives Lost on the American and Middle Eastern Front…Is it Possible to See a Democratic Middle East in the Future?

Democratic elections may have taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US is still eager to maintain business relations and send monetary aid to countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Pakistan, and Egypt, but the situation nevertheless remains bleak. Sectarian rivalries, corrupt governments, violence, violence against citizen uprisings, displacement and mistreatment of peoples, and updated weaponry being sent to the Middle East will continue to undermine any democratic-building or peace process the US (seemingly) desperately wants for the region.

The tribal warlords in the Afghan government are corrupt and have upheld the legal repression of women, including not being able to leave the home without a male. Saudi Arabia continues to treat its women as second-class citizens, restrict freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and serve unjust trials and punishments to its citizens (Human Rights Watch). Israel occupies and destroys Palestinian territories and limits Palestinians’ movements around the country, even when they are seeking medical help (Amnesty International USA). Pakistan harbored Osama bin Laden at the same time human rights and security were deteriorating, as militant and sectarian groups carried out bombings while the civilian government looked on helplessly (Human Rights Watch). Police officers who killed civilian protestors during the uprising in Egypt have been acquitted, while military and police abuses continued throughout 2012 (ibid). And yet, the US will continue to send weapons and military aid to these countries, so long as they cooperate with US foreign policy and business goals, despite such un-democratic events occurring.

With the 2012 presidential elections looming around the corner, we need to hear more of each candidate’s plans for the Greater Middle East and how the US, as a leading power in the world, can aid the Middle East in a more diplomatic way, promoting true democracy without business and weapons propositions clouding leaders’ judgments. Furthermore, we need to see if each candidate would ever be willing to plan to shift a significant amount of the money spent on military and foreign aid to conflicted regions—such as the $8 million per day to Israel—to our own country and feed our poor, create jobs, and maybe stabilize the US economy for the first time in years.

Works Cited

“Afghanistan: Water crisis a growing human tragedy.” IRIN. 08 Sep 2006. <>.

Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: Israel.” Arms Control Association. July 2012. <>.

CIA: The World Factbook: Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Environmental Costs of War.” Costs of War.

Harding, Luke. “The other prisoners.” The Guardian. 19 May 2004. <>.

Human Rights Watch: Pakistan, Egypt.

“Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Amnesty International USA. <>.

Johnson, Richard. “Graphic: Mapping a superpower-sized military.” National Post. 28 Oct 2011. <>.

Johnson, Robert. “What The Money Spent In Iraq And Afghanistan Could Have Bought At Home In America.” Business Insider. 16 Aug 2011.

Landler, Mark, and Steven Myers. “With $30 Billion Arms Deal, U.S. Bolsters Saudi Ties.” The New York Times. 29 Dec 2011.

Lendman, Stephen. “Israel’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.” The Nation. 21 May 2012. <>.

Logan, Joseph. “Last US troops leave Iraq, ending war.” Reuters. 18 Dec 2011. <>.

Nasr, Joseph. “Israel rejects call to join anti-nuclear treaty.” Reuters. 29 May 2010. <>.

Nasuti, Matthew. “The American Military is Creating an Environmental Disaster in Afghanistan.” Global Research. Kabul Press, 25 Apr 2010. <>.

Peter, Tom. “Afghans question US mission after shooting.” USA Today. 12 Mar 2012. <>.

“Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: 2012 Update.” UNICEF. 2012. <>.

Quinn, Andrew. “U.S. resumes Bahrain arms sales despite rights concerns.” Reuters. 11 May 2012. <>.

Rashidian, Jahanshah. “US Militarizes the Middle East.” 07 May 2008 <>.

Saidel, Nick. “U.S. needs to hold on to its few Middle East allies.” Fox News. 24 Feb 2012.  <>.

Shanker, Thom, and David Sanger. “Obama Is Said to Be Preparing to Seek Approval on Saudi Arms Sale.” The New York Times. 17 Sept 2010.

SIPRI Military Expenditure Database. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. <>

“The Costs of War Since 2001: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.” Watson Institute. Jun 2011: p. 3-5, 11. <>.

The World Bank: Afghanistan.

Tovrov, Daniel. “Top 10 Largest Recipients of U.S. Aid.” International Business Times. 06 Feb 2012. <>.

Turse, Nick. “Totally Occupied: 700 Military Bases Spread Across Afghanistan.” AlterNet. 10 Feb 2010. <>.

“World Report 2012: Saudi Arabia.” Human Rights Watch. January 2012.

Zeijden, Wilbert van der. “Foreign Military Bases and the Global Campaign to close them.” Transnational Institute. Jul 2009.

Zunes, Stephen. “Ten Things to Know About US Policy in the Middle East.” Another World is Possible. Subway and Elevated Press, 2001. <>.

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