Warplanes: The High Cost Of Being Arab


March 3, 2013: Britain has been quite successful selling their new Typhoon fighter to Middle East nations. Two years ago Saudi Arabia bought 72 Typhoons from Britain. That was followed by an order for 12 from Oman and now the UAE (United Arab Emirates) is negotiating the purchase of 60 of these expensive aircraft. This is big money, as the aircraft have a basic price of $65 million each and there are many ways to greatly increase that. For warplanes sold to Arab Gulf states there is an additional bonanza. The biggest additional cost is providing support services and personnel to keep the aircraft operational. The Typhoon manufacturer, BAE Systems, is energetically recruiting qualified maintenance personnel to keep these aircraft flying. This is a much larger profit center for Arab customers than for anyone else. Few local Arabs will be recruited for this work and most of these technicians will come from the West. That is very expensive. Why can’t locals be found for these high paying jobs? The reason is simple, there are few Arabs qualified or even interested in such exacting work. This is a common problem in the Middle East.

For example, the unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia is 12 percent and many of those men are unemployed by choice. Not even counted are most women, who are barred from most jobs because they are women. Arab men tend to have a very high opinion of themselves and most jobs available, even to poorly educated young men, do not satisfy. Thus most Saudis prefer a government job, where the work is easy, the pay is good, the title is flattering, and life is boring. Thus 90 percent of employed Saudis work for the government. In the non-government sector of the economy, 90 percent of the jobs are performed by foreigners. These foreigners comprise 27 percent of the Saudi population, mostly to staff all the non-government jobs and actually make the economy work. This means most young Saudi men have few challenges. One might say that many of them are desperate for some test of their worth but a job in the competitive civilian economy does not do it, nor does the military.

The Saudi employment situation is not unique. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has foreigners occupying 99 percent of the non-government jobs. The unemployment rate is 23 percent, but only a tenth of those are actually looking for a job. A survey indicated that most of the unemployed are idle by choice. Kuwait is more entrepreneurial, with only 80 percent of the non-government jobs taken by foreigners. The other Gulf Arab states (which have less oil) have a similar situation.

While the thousands of aircraft, helicopters, armored vehicles, and other high-tech systems the Gulf States have bought in the last decade look impressive, the actual impact of all this lethal hardware depends a lot on the skill of those using it. In this department the Arab nations here have some serious problems. And it is generally very difficult to get Arabs to even discuss the situation.

Examples are widely available and seen daily by the thousands of Western technicians, specialists, and trainers hired by Arab states to keep their high-tech gear operational. For example, Arabs in general don't care for the Western custom of establishing minimum standards for, say, fighter pilots. It's long been known that it is very difficult to wash out an Arab pilot who is well connected (especially a member of a powerful local family). There are some very good Arab pilots but they are a minority. The rest get by. As long as they can take off and land, they can stay in a squadron. During combat exercises, especially with American squadrons, it's understood that the low overall performance of Arab pilots is not to be discussed with the Arabs, or anyone else. Junior American officers get irked by this but it is career suicide to disobey orders on this point. The Gulf Arabs do spend a lot of money on training and letting the pilots fly. For this reason, they are considered marginally better than other Arab air forces. But against the Iranians, who more enthusiastically accepted Western training methods, they would have problems. Iranian aircraft are older and less well equipped, but pilot quality would make up for a lot of that.

The problem extends to ground crews, who don't take responsibility seriously and have to be constantly hounded by their foreign advisors and specialists hired to make sure the aircraft are flyable. And when something goes wrong, the foreign experts are expected to take the blame. That's what the foreigners are there for. In many cases the foreigners simply do most of the work and let their Arab maintainers take very long coffee breaks.

Many Arab leaders are aware of the problem, especially those who have studied in the West or spent some time there. As a result, there are some very competent Arab doctors, scientists, and bankers. But this minority knows they are up against an ancient and well entrenched culture that does not seek out innovation and excellence as it is done in the West. The more insightful Arabs seek ways to work around these problems.

It comes down to a different cultural attitude towards taking responsibility for your actions. It's human nature to avoid failure or taking responsibility for a mistake. Thus we have the concept of "saving face." One reason the West has made such economic, cultural, military, and social progress in the last five hundred years is because they developed a habit of holding people responsible for their actions and giving out the rewards based on achievement. In the West, this sort of thing is taken for granted, even if it is not always practiced.

But in much of the rest of the world, especially the Arab world, things are different. Most Arab countries are a patchwork of different tribes and groups, and Arab leaders survive by playing one group off against another. Loyalty is to one's group, not the nation. Most countries are dominated by a single group that is usually a minority, as in Bedouins in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq (formerly), and Nejdis in Saudi Arabia. This means that officers are usually assigned not by merit but by loyalty and tribal affiliation.

Then there are the Islamic schools, which are so popular in Moslem countries, which favor rote memorization, especially of scripture. Most Islamic scholars are hostile to the concept of interpreting the Koran (considered the word of God as given to His prophet Mohammed). This has resulted in looking down on Western troops that will look something up that they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it and pretend it's all in their head. Improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Arab armies go by the book, Western armies constantly rewrite the book and thus usually win.

All of this makes it difficult to develop a real NCO corps. Officers and enlisted troops are treated like two different social castes and there is no effort to bridge the gap using career NCOs. Enlisted personnel are treated harshly. Training accidents that would end the careers of US officers are commonplace in Arab armies and nobody cares.

Arab officers often do not trust each other. While an American infantry officer can be reasonably confident that the artillery officers will conduct their bombardment on time and on target, Arab infantry officers seriously doubt that their artillery will do its job on time or on target. This is a fatal attitude in combat.

Arab military leaders consider it acceptable to lie to subordinates and allies in order to further their personal agenda. This had catastrophic consequences during all of the Arab-Israeli wars and continues to make peace difficult between Israelis and Palestinians. When called out on this behavior, Arabs will assert that they were "misunderstood."

American officers and NCOs are only too happy to impart their wisdom and skill to others (teaching is the ultimate expression of prestige), but Arab officers try to keep any technical information and manuals secret. To Arabs, the value and prestige of an individual is based not on what he can teach but on what he knows that no one else knows.

While Western officers thrive on competition among themselves, Arab officers avoid this as the loser would be humiliated; better for everyone to fail together than for competition to be allowed, even if it eventually benefits everyone.

Western troops are taught leadership and technology, Arabs are taught only technology. Leadership is given little attention as officers are assumed to know this by virtue of their social status as officers.

In Arab bureaucracies initiative is considered a dangerous trait. So subordinates prefer to fail rather than make an independent decision. Battles are micromanaged by senior generals, who prefer to suffer defeat rather than lose control of their subordinates. Even worse, an Arab officer will not tell an ally why he cannot make the decision (or even that he cannot make it), leaving Western officers angry and frustrated because the Arabs won't make a decision. The Arab officers simply will not admit that they do not have that authority.

This lack of initiative makes it difficult for Arab armies to maintain modern weapons. Complex modern weapons require on the spot maintenance, and that means delegating authority, information, and tools. Arab armies avoid doing this and prefer to use easier to control central repair shops (which makes the timely maintenance of weapons difficult). If you can afford it, as the Arab oil states can, you hire lots of foreign maintenance experts to keep equipment operational. All this is taken for granted inside these wealthy countries but looks quite strange to Westerners who encounter it for the first time.



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