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The recent news that British Aerospace was to win a $100 million contract to supply Kuwait with anti-ship missiles was the first sign that arms sales to the Persian Gulf are starting to pick up.

Arms makers, who have always had to live with feast and famine in the Gulf, have been going through a particularly lean patch.Following the end of the Gulf War, a grateful Kuwait and Saudi Arabia placed huge contracts with Western arms makers.

Saudi Arabia alone bought 72 more F-15 fighters from McDonnell Douglas, worth more than $5 billion, 48 Tornado bombers from British Aerospace for more than $3 billion as well as U.S. Abrams tanks and a host of other equipment.

Kuwait diplomatically bought substantial amounts of U.S. aircraft, French warships and British armored fighting vehicles.

But the cost of paying for the war and subsequent rearmament coincided with a sharp downturn in the oil price, and many Gulf states started to run up large budget deficits. Once the necessary gratitude to Western powers had been shown, arms sales dried up.

Now, however, twin forces are beginning to encourage renewed interest in military hardware. Gently rising oil prices and firm world demand have started to reduce, if not eliminate, government budget deficits. At the same time nervousness about Iran is increasing.

For all his history of starting conflicts, Iraq's Saddam Hussein is largely seen as a known and constrained quantity in the Gulf. While most states are wary, few think Iraq can marshall the resources to mount an offensive campaign in the foreseeable future.

Iran is regarded very differently. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are concerned about the developing relationship between Russia and Iran and the technologies which Russia could export to the fundamentalist state.

Russia, desperate for arms exports, has missile, fighter aircraft and nuclear technology which the Gulf states all fear.

In the front line of this potential confrontation is the United Arab Emirates. It has been looking for around 80 advanced combat jets, an order so large it has Western defense companies drooling. The rich but small Gulf state is easily able to afford the $6 billion-$8 billion initial price tag, as well as the substantial running costs, but the UAE has been reluctant to commit itself.

This is partly because none of the aircraft on offer exactly meets its needs, and partly because the aim of the exercise is political.

By bestowing huge contracts on Western companies, the UAE hopes to tie Western governments to come to its aid if trouble erupts. Significantly, any country which wants to win the contract is being required to sign onerous defense cooperation agreements.

The leading U.S. aircraft contender is the heavyweight F-15 fighter. However, even this powerful jet has a number of drawbacks. It lacks the range to strike at sites around Tehran without refueling and is unlikely to be supplied in a form which would allow it to carry long-range cruise missiles capable of destroying airfields or missile sites.

The lighter Lockheed F-16 would be useful for defending UAE airspace but lacks the punch for heavy ground attack.

France seems well placed, not least because its Mirage jets are already in service with the UAE air force.

France is also offering the UAE a version of its Apache cruise missile which could be fitted to the Dassault jets. However, the existing Mirage family is aging, while the latest generation Rafale will not be in service with the French air force for several years and the UAE may be reluctant to become the first customer for a new aircraft type.

Britain has offered a new version of its BAe Tornado GR4 bomber, which could strike at airfields from long ranges, but the UAE seems reluctant to take a smaller number of Tornados for the strike role and F-16s for air defense because of the high costs of maintaining many aircraft types.

Rumors swirl about when the UAE will decide. Some argue an order is imminent, and others say a decision will be delayed until aircraft such as the four-nation Eurofighter become available. In practice, the timing is likely to be decided by which country is prepared to offer the UAE the cruise missile technology it wants at a price it's prepared to pay.

Saudi Arabia is also looking at two large arms purchases. It will need to replace its Grumman F-5 light fighters in the next few years, and it's also looking to add another armored brigade to its ground forces.

Of the two, the ground forces order is closer, with a competition being held in the sweltering heat of the Saudi desert this August.

The prize is an order to provide tanks and armored fighting vehicles in an order which could be worth $2 billion-$3 billion.

In contention are the U.S. Abrams tank already in service with the Saudi army, the French Leclerc tank, which was bought by the UAE, and Britain's Challenger II, which has been selected by Oman.

Saudi Arabia has often tried to maintain two suppliers for its military equipment, partly to maintain competition and partly to give it several diplomatic ties to the West.

This tends to argue in favor of the Leclerc of the Challenger, but doesn't rule out the Abrams, which would have the benefit of commonality with the rest of the Saudi army. Given the teething problems Saudi Arabia has experienced with its current Abrams tanks, however, performance in the desert trials will be very important.

Britain has suffered in Saudi Arabia because of the dispute over dissident Mohammed al Massaari. However, the situation does seem to be improving slowly, and the Challenger has not been ruled out.

The Saudi light fighter order is less well advanced but seems to boil down to a choice between the F-16 and the BAe Hawk, with the F-16 the more likely choice.

Beyond these two large deals, the kingdom also has an interest in acquiring ballistic missile defenses against Scud attacks, more minesweepers and anti-submarine hunting helicopters to detect the Iranian Kilo-class submarines supplied by Russia.

However, the course of future Saudi orders may depend on how the succession to King Fahd is resolved.

Other Gulf states such as Qatar and Oman also have smaller defense requirements but seem in no rush to buy. How the succession issues are played out in the large Gulf states, and the diplomatic and defense leanings which follow change, are likely to be their guiding light.

For their part, Western arms salesmen accept that while the Gulf has often been fertile ground for military sales, it's a region built on permanently shifting political sands.

That makes it increasingly difficult to predict future sales and harder still to bank them.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)