by William D. Hartung
According to a report released this week by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia have increased by an astonishing 279% between 2011 and 2015, compared with the prior five-year period. More then three quarters of the weaponry came from the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
There was a time when sales to the Saudis were more about money and politics than fighting actual conflicts. Multi-billion dollar sales from the Nixon administration onward were seen as a way to bolster U.S. weapons contractors and “recycle petrodollars”—earn back some of the funds that flowed out of the U.S. to purchase Saudi oil. It didn’t hurt that Saudi officials frequently skimmed off funds for their own use as part of these mega-deals.
Until recently, the military relevance of sending weapons to Saudi Arabia had less to do with the Saudis using U.S.-supplied arms than it did with cementing ties with Washington. The implicit understanding was that the purchase of large quantities of U.S. armaments was a form of payback for Washington’s commitment to come to the rescue of the Saudi regime in a crisis.
Ronald Reagan expressed this policy most openly in the wake of the Iranian revolution when he said, “Saudi Arabia . . . we will not allow to become another Iran.” Reagan backed up his words with action when he pushed a controversial deal for AWACS radar planes through the Senate by a narrow margin as part of an effort to make it easier for the United States to come to the Saudis’ aid in the event of a war. The deal made it easier for the Saudis to help coordinate U.S. air strikes to the region. But as Scott Armstrong of The Washington Post pointed out at the time, it also involved an extensive buildup of Saudi military and communications facilities that would make it easier for U.S. forces to use the kingdom as a base for intervention in the region.
The Conflict in Yemen
The idea that the Saudis were unlikely to use their U.S.-supplied arms went out the window with the 2015 intervention in Yemen. The Saudis are the key players in a coalition that has caused thousands of civilian casualties while bombing everything from hospitals and markets to water supply systems. Coupled with a naval blockade that has made it extremely difficult to get food and medicine into the country, the Saudi intervention has caused a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. And Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have described the use of U.S.-supplied cluster bombs in civilian neighborhoods by the Saudi coalition as possible war crimes.
The Saudis’ stated rationale for intervening in Yemen has been to block Iranian influence. This is a weak argument, however, given that the Houthi rebels that the Saudis are intervening against have longstanding grievances that have nothing to do with Iran. Moreover, Iranian involvement has been modest relative to the Saudi Arabia’s military overkill.
Last but not least, the Saudi-Houthi struggle has left al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State relatively unscathed, freeing these groups up to expand their presence in Yemen.
The Yemen case puts the lie to Washington’s claim that sales to Saudi Arabia help “promote stability” in the region. Although the Obama administration has called for diplomacy and restraint, these words ring hollow given the centrality of U.S. arms and logistical support to the Saudi military campaign.
Upsurge in Arms Exports
If anything, U.S. policy has come down firmly on the side of a more militarized Saudi policy. As a fact sheet put together by the Security Assistance Monitor has documented, U.S. arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia have increased by 96% compared to the Bush years. The Monitor also notes that in 2014 alone more than 2,500 Saudi military personnel received training in the United States.
Given its behavior in Yemen, the last thing the region needs is a more active military role in the region on the part of the Saudis and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council. But that’s just what the Saudis have pledged to do. In December, the Saudis announced the formation of a 34-nation anti-terror coalition, and earlier this month there was a 20-nation military exercise in the kingdom that the official Saudi news agency dubbed “the largest in the region’s history.”
How much of this newfound assertiveness is bluff remains to be seen. A number of the partners in the 34-nation coalition said that they had never discussed the issue with the Saudis. And getting that many countries to operate in a coordinated fashion would be no small feat. But, when added to its recent dispatch of military aircraft to Turkey for possible use in air strikes in Syria, the Saudi leadership is clearly seeking to make its country a region-wide military power.
All of the above brings us back to the question of whether it makes sense to arm Saudi Arabia given its current behavior. Last year Oxfam America led an unsuccessful effort to block a $1.29 billion offer of U.S. bombs and missiles to the kingdom. Oxfam has continued its work on the issue by pressing the Obama administration to call for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen and a negotiated settlement to the conflict. But the issue is unlikely to go away. And several members of Congress have begun to raise questions about how U.S. weapons are being used in Yemen.
Activists in Europe have also spoken out against arming the Saudi regime. In January the London-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade threatened to sue the UK government if it didn’t suspend existing and future licenses to sell arms to Saudi Arabia until it investigated whether the regime’s use of UK weapons in Yemen violated international humanitarian law and British government policy. And on February 25, the European Parliament called for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia over its bombing campaign and blockade of Yemen.
Common sense and simple justice demand that the United States and its European allies acknowledge the disastrous results of pumping up an increasingly aggressive Saudi regime. The next step is to stop arming it. The sooner this happens, the better it will be for the security of the region.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and a senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor.