The release of these capabilities is obviously problematic from the viewpoint of America’s commitment to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME). Declining arms exports in combination with the pressures from Saudi Arabia, the UAE as well as from Lockheed Martin, is tilting the balance in favor of selling the F-35 fighter to the Arab countries. This could indeed contribute considerably to keeping the Middle East as a major arms market in the years to come.
Selling drones to the Middle East would also be a lucrative market. To date, the United States has sold the region unarmed tactical UAVs (e.g., the Raven) and medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (such as the Predator XP). In lieu of the U.S. release of armed UAVs, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, and Iraq are reported to have purchased Chinese-made Wing Loong armed drones. The review of the present restrictions on drone sales, including the intention to try and reform the MTCR, indicates that Washington may be leaning towards relaxing the restrictions on the sale of unarmed and armed drones to the Middle East.
The prospect that the Middle East market will continue to lead U.S. arms exports is far from a foregone conclusion. Overcoming capacity limits and arms diversification policies will depend on the release of attractive new lethal capabilities to the Middle East in the coming years. In turn, this will increase the controversy in Washington over the prudence of providing these countries such advanced military capabilities.
Shimon Arad is a retired colonel of the Israeli Defense Forces. His writings focus on regional security matters.