This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
A billion dollars from the federal government: that kind of money could go a long way toward revitalizing a country's aging infrastructure. It could provide housing or better water and sewer systems. It could enhance a transportation network or develop an urban waterfront. It could provide local jobs. It could do any or all of these things. And, in fact, it did. It just happened to be in the Middle East, not the United States.
The Pentagon awarded $667.2 million in contracts in 2012, and more than $1 billion during Barack Obama's first term in office for construction projects in largely autocratic Middle Eastern nations, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by the US Army Corps of Engineers Middle East District (USACE-MED). More than $178 million in similar funding is already anticipated for 2013. These contracts represent a mix of projects, including expanding and upgrading military bases used by US troops in the region, building facilities for indigenous security forces, and launching infrastructure projects meant to improve the lives of local populations.
The figures are telling, but far from complete. They do not, for example, cover any of the billions spent on work at the more than 1,000 US and coalition bases, outposts, and other facilities in Afghanistan or the thousands more manned by local forces. They also leave out construction projects undertaken in the region by other military services like the US Air Force, as well as money spent at an unspecified number of bases in the Middle East that the Corps of Engineers "has no involvement with," according to Joan Kibler, chief of the Middle East District's public affairs office.
How many of these projects are obscured by a thick veil of secrecy is unknown, with US Central Command (CENTCOM) refusing to name or even offer a full count of all US bases in the region. On the record, CENTCOM will acknowledge only 10 bases as in its area of operations outside of Afghanistan, even though there are more than two dozen, according to a CENTCOM official who spoke to TomDispatch on the condition of anonymity. Exactly how many more and just where all US construction work in the region is taking place continues to be kept under tight wraps. Still, Army Corps of Engineers data, other official documents, and publicly available contract information offer a baseline indication of the way the Pentagon is garrisoning the Greater Middle East and which countries are becoming ever more integral allies.
Nation Building: Public Talk, Secret Action
In the final days of the presidential campaign, President Obama repeatedly assured Americans that it was time to reap a peace dividend as America's wars wind down. Nation-building here at home should, he insisted, be put on the agenda: "What we can now do is free up some resources, to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges."
Setting aside just how slipshod or even downright disastrous Washington's last decade of nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan have been, the president's proposal to rebuild roads, upgrade bridges, and retrofit the country's electrical grid sounds eminently sensible. After all, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives America's infrastructure a grade of "D." If, in the era of the $800 billion stimulus package, $1 billion at first sounds paltry, ask the mayors of Detroit, Belmar, New Jersey, or even New York City what that money would mean to their municipalities. America may need $2.2 trillion in repairs and maintenance according to ASCE, but $1 billion could radically change the fortunes of many a city.
Instead, that money is flowing into the oil-rich Middle East. Unknown to most Americans, thousands of State Department personnel, military advisors, and hired contractors remain at several large civilian bases in Iraq where nation-building projects are ongoing; hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been flowing into military construction projects in repressive Persian Gulf states like Bahrain and Qatar; and the Pentagon is expanding its construction program in Central Asia. All of this adds up to a multifaceted project that seems at odds with the president's rhetoric. (The White House did not respond to TomDispatch's repeated requests for comment.)
Increasing the Power of Airpower in Qatar
The tiny oil-rich emirate of Qatar has been the preeminent site of the Pentagon's Middle Eastern building boom in the Obama years. A significant percentage of its population is made up of migrant workers who, according to Human Rights Watch, are "vulnerable to exploitation and abuse," while "forced labor and human trafficking remain serious problems." The country even received a failing grade ("not free") from the US State Department-funded human rights organization Freedom House. Still, between 2009 and 2012, the US pumped nearly $400 million into Pentagon projects in the country, including troop barracks, munitions storage areas, a communications center, a training range, an aircraft operations center, an aircraft maintenance hangar, an aviation maintenance shop, a warehouse facility, and a vehicle maintenance shop, according to a list provided by the Corps of Engineers.
The Obama administration has continued a build-up in the country that accelerated after 9/11. In September 2001, US aircraft began to operate out of Qatar's Al Udeid Air Base. By 2002, the US had tanks, armored vehicles, dozens of warehouses, communications and computing equipment, and thousands of troops at and around the base. The next year, the US moved its major regional combat air operations center out of Saudi Arabia and into Al Udeid. Since then, it has served as a major command and logistics hub for US regional operations, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to figures provided to TomDispatch by USACE, at least 10 contracts for construction at Al Udeid, worth nearly $87 million, are anticipated in 2013. A review of official US government documents reveals a host of upcoming projects there, including a fuels laboratory, a cryogenics facility, a new center for the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations, an air defense maintenance facility, more parking space for fuel trucks, new roadways, and a precision measurement equipment laboratory where technicians will calibrate the sophisticated gear used in vehicle and weapons maintenance.
Waterfront Development in Bahrain
Despite a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 2011, which continues to this day, the oil-rich kingdom of Bahrain (also "not free" according to Freedom House) is a top US ally. In fact, over the last year, the Corps of Engineers awarded contracts for construction in the country worth more than $232 million, the most for any nation in any year of the Obama presidency so far. Since 2009, Bahrain has seen almost $326 million in USACE contract awards.