Britain angry as US steals arms market

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AMERICAN attempts to take over the Middle East arms market have angered Britain. UK officials say that, since the Gulf war, the US has established a near monopoly over military contracts in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, while urging restraint on other suppliers to the region.

The officials point to the intense political pressure the Bush administration brought to bear in the lead-up to the election to sell its battle tanks to Kuwait and military aircraft to Saudi Arabia. Kuwait is to spend dollars 1bn ( pounds 650m) on buying 236 Abrams M-1A2 tanks, made by General Dynamics in the US, rather than Challenger tanks made by Vickers.

They also see the Saudis' delay in deciding whether to buy 48 Tornado strike aircraft and 60 Hawk trainers as the result of US political leverage in Riyadh. The contract may still go ahead, but Saudi Arabia is increasingly short of money and is now regularly late in making payments for US weapons already delivered.

The US effort has made the British and other weapons exporters sceptical of recent American denunciations of Iran as a threat to the security of the Gulf. Last month Robert Gates, the CIA director, said Iran had a military procurement budget of dollars 2bn a year and might be a threat in three to five years.

But experts such as Thomas McNaugher, of the Brookings Institution in Washington, say the Iranian threat has been inflated. 'Two to three billion dollars just doesn't buy you a lot of weapons,' says Mr McNaugher. Diplomats say that at the end of the Gulf war Iran secretly offered Saudi Arabia a moratorium on arms sales, but was rebuffed, probably because the Saudis did not trust Iranian promises.

The increase in US government pressure on potential customers to buy American arms preceded the Gulf war. In July 1990, on the eve of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Lawrence Eagleburger, then Deputy Secretary of State, sent a classified memo to all US embassies telling them to give more help to US companies selling weapons. US arms sales in 1989 had slipped to dollars 11.7bn and US defence companies were relieved to have somebody such as Mr Eagleburger, now acting Secretary of State, helping them. This year arms orders for the US are estimated at between dollars 35bn and dollars 40bn.

US calls for restraint in sales to Iran are unlikely to be heeded by Russia and China. Yegor Gaidar, acting Russian Prime Minister, went out of his way to stress to the Congress of People's Deputies in Moscow that Russia had recently signed arms contracts worth dollars 1bn with China, dollars 650m with India and dollars 600m with Iran.

China has always tried to balance its desire to earn money by selling arms in the Middle East against its fear of endangering its trade relations with the US, with which it has a trade surplus of dollars 15bn. Some arms proliferation specialists are convinced that, in order to circumvent US concerns, China exports some of its missiles through North Korea. They are then shipped on to Syria or Iran as if they had been manufactured by the Koreans. A more plausible explanation is that China simply asks North Korea to sell its own missiles to Chinese customers.

From January, Lawrence Eagleburger will no longer be head of the State Department. But the momentum of the new arms race in the Middle East which he helped to fuel is unlikely to falter. One industry source noted jubilantly that if the Iranians get more missiles from China or Russia, Saudi Arabia is likely finally to sign a contract for US- made Patriot anti-missile missiles.

With Saddam Hussein still in power in Iraq and Iran rebuilding its armed forces, the Arab oil states of the western Gulf will continue to buy high-technology weapons. The irony is that their armed forces, no matter how much is spent on them, are likely to prove effective against external attack. The lesson they drew from the Gulf war is that their real security lies in direct intervention by the American army, and awarding arms contracts to the US is the best way of ensuring a sympathetic hearing in Washington.

BAGHDAD - UN weapons inspectors, branded 'mad dogs' by a local newspaper, yesterday met Iraqi officials for the last time this year and said there were still points to be cleared up, Reuter reports. The team leader, Johan Santesson, said the list of suppliers for Iraq's chemical and biological weapons needed to be 'clarified'. The daily Babil condemned the inspectors after they searched the Iraqi Olympic Committee offices.

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