Massive U.S.-Saudi arms deal seen as a foreign policy, security and economic boon

The Obama administration on Thursday hailed a new $30 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia as both a hedge against Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf and an economic windfall that could create thousands of U.S. jobs over the next decade.

The agreement to sell 84 top-of-the line F-15SA fighter jets to the Saudi air force also provided a needed boost to U.S. relations with the oil-rich kingdom after months of strain over the White House’s response to the Arab Spring uprisings, U.S. officials and Middle East analysts said.

The deal, which was finalized after more than a year of negotiations, was announced during a week of increased tensions with Iran, which has renewed its threat to block ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz in response to international economic sanctions. The administration has pursued a policy of supplying advanced weapons systems to friendly Arab states to keep Iran’s regional ambitions in check.

“This sale will send a strong message to countries in the region that the United States is committed to stability in the gulf and broader Middle East,” Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, told reporters.

The deal — outlines of which were disclosed to Congress last year — also calls for refurbishing 70 F-15s currently in Saudi Arabia’s fighter fleet, as well as providing munitions, spare parts and training for Saudi pilots and air crews.

The deal comes at a time when the Pentagon is considering supplying “bunker-buster” bombs and other munitions to another key gulf ally, the United Arab Emirates.

U.S. officials said the timing of the announcement was unrelated to Iran’s recent provocations.

“Clearly, one of the threats that [the Saudis] — that they face, as well as other countries in the region — is Iran,” Shapiro said. “But . . . this is not solely directed toward Iran. This is directed toward meeting our partner Saudi Arabia’s defense needs.”

While not the newest U.S. fighter jet, the model of the F-15 being acquired by Saudi Arabia will be equipped with the latest computers, radars and electronic warfare systems and will be “one of the most capable aircraft in the world,” said James Miller, the Defense Department’s principal deputy undersecretary for policy.

U.S. officials also touted the deal’s impact at home, saying the production of the Boeing-built F-15s would support 50,000 American jobs.

“It will engage 600 suppliers in 44 states and provide $3.5 billion in annual economic impact to the U.S. economy,” Shapiro said. “This will support jobs not only in the aerospace sector but also in our manufacturing base and support chain, which are all crucial for sustaining our national defense.”

Saudi Arabia, which has a predominantly Sunni Muslim population, is the key regional rival to Shiite-dominated Iran, as well as a vital U.S. ally.

The Obama administration has sought to smooth relations with Riyadh after months of strain over U.S. support for democratic uprisings in the Middle East. Saudi leaders were particularly angered when the White House criticized the crackdown on a Shiite-led movement in the neighboring kingdom of Bahrain.

The initial notification of the arms sale to Saudi Arabia, in 2010, prompted concern about security implications for Israel. U.S. officials have sought to allay those concerns and said Thursday that the sale would not degrade Israel’s military advantage.

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