Australia’s misplaced move to become a major arms exporter to the Middle East

21 July 2017

It is geopolitically and ethically imperative for Australia not to add fuel to the volatility of the Middle East by seeking to join other arms exporters to the region.

Professor Amin Saikal, Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, analyses Australia's push to become a major arms exporter.

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne wants to elevate Australia to the position that Britain, Germany and France hold as major arms exporters. One of the regions of the world that he has targeted is the Middle East, with a view to balancing out Iranian influence in the area. Why has he chosen this particular region and how would Australian arms exports help the cause of stability there?

The Minister must know that the extremely volatile Middle East is awash with arms. The sale of arms by the United States and a number of its European allies as well as Russia have substantially contributed to many bloody conflicts in the region, from Iraq to Syria to Yemen and Libya, not to mention Afghanistan as part of the wider Middle East. It has caused a persistent arms race of gigantic proportions. Whilst the arms exporters have enormously benefited from their sales to recycle the revenues from the oil and gas-rich states of the region back into their domains, their actions have constantly proved to be a major catalyst in fuelling civil and inter-state conflicts, with either direct or indirect major power involvement.

Let us not forget that the US sale of billions of dollars worth of arms to the pro-Western autocratic regime of the Shah, and the French and Soviet provision of arms to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1970s, were largely responsible for the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). In the wake of the Iranian revolution of 1978/79, the Shah's regime was replaced by the Islamic Government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with its anti-US posture and aversion to America's Israeli and Arab allies in the region, and all the supplied arms to the two sides played a critical role in making the war the longest, bloodiest and most costly ever fought in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, as the Iranian Islamic regime was locked in hostility with neighbouring Arab states, Saudi Arabia in particular, as well as the United States and Israel, in varying degrees, the result has been continuous arms build-ups, rivalries and insecurity in the region. The US-led military interventions in 1991 to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, and in 2014 to defeat the so-called Islamic state (IS) in support of its geopolitical preferences, have had two major consequences. They have, in combination with one another and in the mode of cause and effect, resulted in increased instability and opened up opportunities not only for violent extremist groups, such as IS, to emerge, but also for regional rivals - Iran and Saudi Arabia - to conduct proxy conflicts, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

The recent signing of an agreement between the administration of President Donald Trump and the Saudi leadership to sell another US$110 billion worth of American weapon systems to Saudi Arabia, in addition to the sale of arms to other Saudi-led, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members against Iran can only prompt the latter to raise its military budget substantially. It has in fact announced that it will spend US$40 billion on purchasing arms, most likely from Russia, over the next few years. Given the Trump leadership's very hostile attitude towards Iran, despite its confirmation that Tehran has been abiding by the July 2015 nuclear agreement, and given its egging on of Saudi Arabia and Israel to take the lead in Washington's desire to contain Iran, the potential for a serious shooting conflict between Saudi Arabia (supported by some of its GCC partners, especially the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain), the US and Israel, and Iran (backed by Russia and China), cannot be ruled out.

The current crisis within the GCC over the Saudi-led isolation of one of its member states, Qatar, carries its own potential for such a conflict, as Doha has been prompted to look increasingly to Iran and Turkey for support - the two countries with which Saudi Arabia and its allies want Doha to downgrade its relations. In such an event, all those sources of arms supplies to the regional states will bear a serious responsibility for the devastation that the conflict could cause for the entire region, with serious global implications.

It is geopolitically and ethically imperative for Australia not to add fuel to the volatility of the Middle East by seeking to join other arms exporters to the region. As a middle power, Australia must realise that only a stable and secure Middle East, with which its trade and economic ties loom large, can serve its interests best. Any attempt to sell arms to the region and take sides in the Saudi-Iranian and Israeli-Iranian disputes will be counterproductive.

Minister Pyne's ambitions are totally misplaced in relation to the Middle East, and all concerned parties inside and outside of the government should resist such a miscalculated step. Canberra will do well to invest effort in helping the growth of conditions that could bring about cooperation rather than fuelling hostilities and adding firepower to the region.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.