WASHINGTON – The U.S. government approved $200 million in military sales from American firms to Bahrain in 2010, months before the autocratic regime was rocked by instability amid a harsh crackdown on protesters, according to a State Department report.
The annual report, which provides totals of U.S.-authorized arms sale agreements between American defense firms and foreign governments, showed a $112 million rise in licensed defense sales to Bahrain between the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years. The U.S. had green-lighted $88 million in military exports to Bahrain in 2009.
Much of the flow of military hardware to Bahrain was for aircraft and military electronics, but the U.S. also licensed $760,000 in exports of rifles, shotguns and assault weapons in 2010. Since mid-February of this year, the Persian Gulf kingdom has confronted demonstrators with cordons of armed military and police firing live ammunition. At least 31 people have died and hundreds more injured in the clashes.
The possibility that American-built weapons might have been used against protesters roused by the region's pro-democracy movement raised questions in Congress and helped prompt a State Department decision in March to review its defense trade relationships with several Middle East nations. Some transactions are on hold and the review has broadened into a policy reassessment that could alter U.S. defense trade oversight.
"While the impact on our defense relations and the defense trade is uncertain, changes in the region may lead to changes in policy and therefore changes in how we do business," Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, said last month.
The State Department's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls approved more than $34 billion in total exports from American defense firms to foreign governments in 2010. The figures detail only proposed sales — not actual shipments. But they are a reliable gauge of private sales of everything from bullets to missile systems, but they do not include direct defense shipments from the U.S. to its allies — the clearest indicator of American military aid around the world.
A State Department report released earlier this year showed that $40 million in defense exports abroad had been approved in 2009 by the U.S. Despite the larger figure for 2009, a department official familiar with the reports said overall military trade authorizations held steady over both fiscal years because some of the 2009 total contained authorized sales that were held over from the previous year. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to provide background on the released report.
Bahrain has been a reliable ally in the Persian Gulf for decades, providing a base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and in recent years providing facilities and some forces for U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration has criticized the use of violence against dissenters by police and military units but has not exacted specific repercussions against Bahrain's government.
A military attache at the Bahrain Embassy in Washington would not detail the country's contracts with U.S. defense firms and referred a reporter to the State Department. State Department officials also would not discuss specifics of the military exports to Bahrain. Among Bahrain's recent military moves, the Congressional Research Service reported last March, were upgrading its small fleet of F-16 fighter jets and adding to its inventory of American-made helicopters.
A senior State official said that following recent clashes between Bahrain government forces and pro-democracy crowds, the department would review Bahrain's use of security and military units against peaceful demonstrators and "will take into account any evidence of gross violations of human rights."
The official, Assistant Secretary of State Miguel Rodriguez, told Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in a letter that the administration would be re-evaluating its procedures for reviewing American security assistance and "has specifically included Bahrain in this reassessment."
Anthony Cordesman, national security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist think tank in Washington, said the $760,000 in small arms licensed to Bahrain by the U.S. in 2010 was a pittance compared with what was sold in recent years to Mideast countries by European defense firms.
Britain has suspended private contracts from British defense firms that previously exported armored cars, tear gas and other crowd-control equipment to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which has sent in forces to quell the disturbances in the smaller Persian Gulf kingdom.
"Most of the equipment that Bahrain and other Mideast nations buy to deal with internal dissent is bought overseas because of U.S. restraints on its own exports," Cordesman said. "It's a fruitless exercise to concentrate on American exports with all the amount of available small arms floating around the world."
Jeff Abramson, deputy director of the Arms Control Association, countered that the "U.S. needs to be responsible for its own actions first." He added that "the Arab spring has brought to light the problems of providing arms to repressive regimes. The hope is we'll now begin to see a rethinking of the willingness to do that."
Unlike the surge of U.S. military exports to Bahrain, the new report showed that licensed U.S. defense sales to other Mideast and North African nations caught up in democracy protests remained mostly unchanged. Approved exports to Egypt dipped slightly, from $101 million in 2009 to $91 million in 2010. The latest amount included agreements to sell $1 million worth of rifles, shotguns and assault weapons to the Egyptian government headed by Hosni Mubarak in the months before he was unseated after street battles between police and demonstrators.
The U.S. also approved $17 million worth of military exports to Moammar Gadhafi's government in Libya in 2010 before turning on him following his crackdown on opposition forces this February.
The proposed sale would have provided at least $6 million for upgrading Libyan armored troop transports. But a full $77 million deal to upgrade the vehicles was scuttled late last year by congressional doubts and killed when the Obama administration suspended all military aid to the Gadhafi regime in March.