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  March 7, 2017

Did UAE Buy $5 Billion in Arms Anticipating Intensified Regional Conflict?

Trump has added to tension in the region with his warmongering statements on Iran, says filmmaker Andrew Feinstein
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Andrew Feinstein is the Executive Director of Corruption Watch UK and author of 'The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade'. This book has recently has been turned into a film that explores the world's largest and most corrupt arms deals through those involved in perpetrating and investigating them. He also served the ANC under Nelson Mandela and his predecessor Thabo Mbeki.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The United Arab Emirates at an arms fair in Abu Dhabi recently spent $5 billion. That might not sound like much for a country, but the UAE is a tiny country in the Persian Gulf peninsula with a population of only 9 million people, where only 1.4 million of them are actually citizens. The rest are guest workers and their families and so forth.

The UAE is an ally of Saudi Arabia in the ongoing war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels and an ally of the US in the fight against ISIS, and is considered a bitter foe of Iran. It owns the 7th largest oil reserves in the world and the 17th largest reserves of natural gas.

To find out more of why such a small country needs to weaponize, I'm going to be speaking with Andrew Feinstein. Andrew is a South African and former ANC Member of Parliament where his political career came to an abrupt end when he insisted on exposing a corrupt $10 billion arms deal of former President Mbeki and the British BAE Systems to buy fighter planes, which South Africa did not need. The book that he wrote, Shadow World, which was published in 2011, is a comprehensive study of the world of arms dealers and the large weapon companies. We recently did a series of interviews about the film based on the book, and we'll provide a link for you below this to make a convenient for you to watch them all. They're very good.

Thanks for joining us, Andrew.


SHARMINI PERIES: Andrew, let's begin with why the United Arab Emirates need to be weaponized and be equipped to fight.

ANDREW FEINSTEIN: I think that the weaponization of the UAE is primarily a consequence of the situation in the region, in the Middle East. The UAE, as you mentioned, is part of the coalition with Saudi Arabia, that is bombing Yemen where we have seen over 4,000 innocent civilians die. The same coalition is stoking fires in Syria, has been supporting the royal family in Bahrain against citizen uprisings for over five years now. So the UAE is effectively flexing its military muscle as part of this coalition, but it's really a coalition in opposition to Iran.

The weaponization program that we're now seeing a continuation of started in earnest at the same time that former President Obama negotiated the nuclear peace deal with Iran. In order to placate American allies in the region, including crucially the UAE and Saudi, Obama sold the region tens of billions of dollars of American weaponry, effectively saying, "We're going to ensure that Iran is not a nuclear threat, but at the same time we're going to make you – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – militarily powerful."

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, various deals were signed with the British manufacturers, with American manufacturers, with Russian manufacturers. Give us an idea of how this $5 billion got spent, and on what, with whom.

ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Well, the main trades of this current deal have been with the United States, primarily for Apache helicopters amongst other things. The full details of the deals are not yet known. What we assume, though, is that in addition to that part of the deal, we think that the UAE has also been purchasing a number of other equipment, as you mentioned, from BAE, which is the main British arms company, who have been responsible for providing the coalition with the bombs and missiles that have been rained down on the Yemeni people by predominantly American and British-made jets. In addition to which it is also worth noting that British advisors have supposedly been assisting the coalition in their targeting in Yemen.

Now, again, to repeat as I mentioned that these targets have taken the lives of at least 4,000 innocent civilians, and according to a UN study at least one-third of the bombings have targeted civilian targets: schools, hospitals, places of worship, agricultural land.

We think that a lot of this equipment is probably going to re-supply the coalition with equipment that has been utilized in Yemen already, so effectively the United States and British companies, with the full support of their governments, are indirectly responsible for everything that is happening in Yemen today.

SHARMINI PERIES: Give us a sense of how US and Russian arms manufacturers come into the picture in terms of usually when you buy arms from the US – or US companies – it's a different stream of compatibility than from the Russians. Are they trying to buy influence here with both countries?

ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. I mean, we must understand that a lot of the military deals that are done with Middle Eastern countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia are not simply for the weaponry. Before the assault on Yemen, these people's involvement in Syria, their involvement in Bahrain before that, so around the time that I was researching the book, The Shadow World, it was estimated that there was somewhat upward of 70 jet fighters that the Saudi Arabians had bought but had done nothing more than rust in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. So these arms deals, a huge component of their purpose, their raison d'être, is to buy and to consolidate political alliances, historically with the United States and NATO countries, but more recently particularly Saudi Arabia and to some extent the UAE.

When former President Obama started negotiating work with Iran around a nuclear peace deal, the Saudis and others in the region started to buy from Russia, amongst others, as well as some other Eastern European countries. The purpose of that was simply to show the Americans and the NATO countries that if they weren't going to supply them with weaponry, these countries in the Middle East had other sources, and they were not sources that were particularly friendly to Russia(?).

Of course, since then, with the election of Donald Trump, geopolitics has changed somewhat. So, the relationship between the United States and Russia, particularly in the Middle East region where they are on opposite sides of an incredibly complex conflict in Syria, for instance, those dynamics aren't as clear as they once were.

So for the UAE, for Saudi Arabia, to be continuing to purchase weapons from Russia, rather than being almost a snub to the NATO countries including the United States, they might also be part now of a new geopolitical reality that we don't even fully understand yet.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, speaking of geopolitical reality, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, there's been a huge volume increase of arms sales to the Middle East. Does this amount to a preparedness or getting ready for some sort of a battle that might be more massive than things that are currently underway in terms of Syria? Or is this business as usual?

ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Well, I mean, to some extent it's business as usual in that the share of weaponry being bought by countries in the Middle East has always been high. I mean, to the countries that we've already spoken about we of course have to add Israel, which is one of the most weaponized countries on the planet and plays a crucial role in the region and in a strong but behind-the-scenes alliance with Saudi Arabia. Again, coming back to the Iranian peace negotiations, Israel and Saudi Arabia were vehemently opposed to those negotiations resulting in Israel being rewarded, when the Iranian peace deal was done, with $38 billion of American weaponry.

So the region which has been febrile for a long time now has always been a magnet for significant weapons sales over the past decade and a half. There is no doubt, though, that as the SIPRI figures that you mentioned have suggested, that that is accelerating further now. And I think, yes, this is a consequence of the tensions in Syria, in Yemen, and lingering tensions in Bahrain.

I think what we are seeing is a gearing up for an intensification of the conflict there, and the addition of the rhetoric and of course the additional defense spending that President Trump is promising has only added to tensions and is quite literally fuelling the fires in the region.

So, by for instance putting Iran on notice, making incredibly ...(?) statements about the peace deal that was achieved, there are a number of analysts who believe that the Trump administration wants to go to war with Iran. And if that is the case, we're going to see a massive increase and a massive intensification in conflict in the region and significantly more involvement from the United States and other NATO allies.

SHARMINI PERIES: Let's hope not, Andrew. We'll certainly be keeping an eye on this, especially given that President Trump just recently announced a $55 billion increase in defense spending and military spending. So I'm sure that we'll be what is a boondoggle for the arms industry. I'm sure you'll be keeping an eye on that, as well, and we hope to have you back. Thank you so much for joining us today.

ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Not at all. My pleasure. Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.




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