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Quantifying Arab support

Commentary, 1 April 2011
Middle East and North Africa
Other than grudging diplomatic and perhaps financial support, Arab and 'Muslim' support is primarily symbolic, not military. Relative to what could be provided, the Arab military hardware on show is vanishingly slight.

Other than grudging diplomatic and perhaps financial support, Arab and 'Muslim' support is primarily symbolic, not military. Relative to what could be provided, the Arab military hardware on show is vanishingly slight.

By Shashank Joshi for RUSI.org

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Arab Contribution, click for full view

UN Resolution 1973 would not have come into being were it not for the historic support of the Arab League and, to a lesser extent, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).But with military action only a week old, some uncomfortable truths about the nature and level of Arab support - described by William Hague as 'of huge importance' - are becoming clearer. [1]

Arab money

First, we do not yet know the financial contribution, private or public, from Gulf Arab states. In the First Gulf War, two-thirds of the $54 billion cost was paid for by Gulf states. The rest came largely from Japan and Germany. Thus far, the Libyan War will have cost the UK between £25m and £50m. That figure would be doubled at a stroke if even a single ground attack aircraft were downed - and one American F-15 has already crashed after mechanical failure. The rebels' military incoherence means that a stalemate will likely have to be policed by NATO for weeks or months rather than days, upping the costs to Britain and other major participants.

Arab guns

Second, Arab and 'Muslim' support is primarily symbolic, not military. Relative to what could be provided, the Arab military hardware on show is vanishingly slight. Consider that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have well over 1,000 combat-capable aircraft between them. Each possesses advanced American warplanes and well-trained pilots with experience of operating alongside NATO allies. And yet, each is watching from the sidelines, their leaders sometimes throwing barbed comments about NATO's overreach or (so far, almost non-existent) civilian casualties.

These are also three of the four most significant states in the region (the other is Iran).Their relative absence from military operations, excepting Turkey's meagre naval presence, greatly narrows the breadth and resilience of this coalition. The First Gulf War coalition, by contrast, included all three of these powers, as well as Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and Syria.

Above all, we should note that this coalition has gathered 350 aircraft from fifteen different states. This means that Arab aircraft account for a paltry 5 per cent of coalition airpower.

Arab opinion

Third, the minimal Arab role cannot be simply rectified by the UAE and Qatari presence. It is true that Qatar has supplied a full third of its combat-capable aircraft to the intervention. It has also been remarkably assertive in supporting the rebels, becoming the first Arab country to recognise the Benghazi-backed council and sell oil on its behalf. If oil production can be restored - something that seems unlikely with coastal refineries changing hands frequently - this could raise over a $1bn monthly.

Despite this admirable intervention, it is also worth remembering that the two have also been criticised. Both countries have sent troops as part of a GCC force to quell pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. It is true that both states have broadly pro-Western foreign policies and a level of civil liberties that exceeds those in, say, Saudi Arabia or Libya. But this representation, from two, small idiosyncratic and democratically unrepresentative Gulf states, is insufficient to guarantee popular Arab support for military intervention. As any military action becomes prolonged and results in prominent instances of civilian casualties, the need for that support becomes all the more important.

Arab symbolism

In recent weeks, Western diplomats have used the term 'legitimacy' to encompass a broad spectrum of values: legality, consensus, and regional sanction. It has not always been so. The interventions in Kosovo (1999) and Afghanistan (2001) were undertaken without explicit UN approval, but were confidently asserted - and firmly believed - to be legitimate. What explains the difference in interpretive choice?

The answer is Afghanistan and Iraq. Those two wars, one partially conceded and the other still raging, haunt the bureaucracies and armed forces of their belligerents. Each has illustrated how the symbolism of intervention is crucial.This war has been characterised by vocal support from regional powers, a scrupulous adherence to international law, and a public, legal commitment to rule out any occupation force. In these respects, the war is everything that Iraq was not. Nor is the symbolism of Qatari and UAE combat aircraft flying sorties over Libya's skies irrelevant. After all, this will be the first time that Arab and Western armed forces have engaged in joint action since the First Gulf War, two decades ago.

But none of this alters the underlying facts: that this is a coalition of the usual suspects; that NATO is a vehicle of convenience rather than conviction; that the Arab presence is a thin veneer over another transatlantic war, and that veneer is one that will be worn away further over time without a heroic diplomatic effort.

[1]http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/30/libyan-britain-clinton-un-rebels

 

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