A government report says the US approved $200mn in military sales from American companies to Bahrain in 2010, months before the pivotal Gulf Arab ally began a harsh crackdown on protesters.
The annual State Department report provides totals of authorised arms sale agreements between US defense companies and foreign governments.
The latest tally showed a $112mn rise in sales to Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, between the 2009 and 2010 budget years.
The US had cleared $88mn in military exports to Bahrain in 2009.
Much involved aircraft and military electronics, but the US also licensed $760,000 in exports of rifles, shotguns and assault weapons in 2010.
Since mid-February, the kingdom has confronted demonstrators with cordons of armed military and police firing live ammunition. At least 31 people have died and hundreds more have been injured in the clashes.
The possibility that American-built weapons might have been used against protesters has raised questions in the US Congress and led the department 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 US defence 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 $34bn in total exports from American defense companies to foreign governments in 2010. That compares with $40bn in 2009.
The total details only proposed sales, not actual shipments. It’s a reliable gauge of private sales of everything from bullets to missile systems, but doesn’t include direct defense shipments from the US to its allies.
Bahrain has been a reliable ally in the Gulf for decades, hosting the 5th Fleet and in recent years providing facilities and some forces for US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Obama administration has criticised 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 US defense companies and referred a reporter to the State Department.
Department officials 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 department official said that following recent clashes between Bahrain government forces and pro-democracy crowds, the US 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”.
Miguel Rodriguez, the assistant secretary of state, told Patrick Leahy, a Democrat senator for Vermont, in a letter that the administration would re-evaluate 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 US in 2010 was a pittance compared with what was sold in recent years to Middle Eastern countries by European defence companies.
Britain has suspended private contracts from British defense companies that previously exported armoured cars, tear gas and other crowd-control equipment to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has sent in forces to quell the disturbances in Bahrain.
“Most of the equipment that Bahrain and other Mideast nations buy to deal with internal dissent is bought overseas because of US 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 “US needs to be responsible for its own actions first”.
He added that the political upheaval across the Middle East “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”.
The new report showed that licensed US defence sales to other Middle East and North African nations caught up in democracy protests remained mostly unchanged.
Approved exports to Egypt dipped slightly, from $101mn in 2009 to $91mn in 2010. The latest amount included agreements to sell $1mn 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 US also approved $17mn worth of military exports to Muammar Gaddafi’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 $6mn for upgrading Libyan armoured troop transports. But a full $77mn deal to upgrade the vehicles was killed when the Obama administration suspended all military aid to Gaddafi’s government in March.