by William D. Hartung
If the Saudi government is indeed behind the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi there should be consequences—political, military, economic, and reputational.
Unfortunately, President Trump begs to differ. His reaction to questions about whether the United States would cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia if Riyadh is proven to be behind the killing of Khashoggi has been to say that he does not want to jeopardize the alleged $110 billion in arms deals his administration has struck with the Saudi regime, and the U.S. jobs that come with them.
In his recent interview with CBS 60 Minutes, Trump specifically cites the needs of U.S. weapons manufacturers as reasons to keep U.S. arms flowing to the Saudi regime, even if it ends up being responsible for the murder of Khashoggi:
They are ordering military equipment. Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it, China wanted it, we wanted it…I tell you what I don’t wanna do. Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these [companies]…I don’t wanna hurt jobs. I don’t wanna lose an order like that.
Trump tells CBS’s Leslie Stahl that “there are other ways of punishing” Saudi Arabia without cutting of U.S. arms sales, but he fails to specify what those might be.
Regardless of what ultimately happened to Khashoggi, continuing U.S. arms sales and military support to Saudi Arabia under current circumstances is immoral. Jobs should not be an excuse to arm a murderous regime that not only may be behind the assassination of a U.S. resident and respected commentator but is responsible for thousands of civilian casualties in its three-and-one-half-year military intervention in Yemen—the majority killed with U.S-supplied bombs and combat aircraft and U.S. refueling and targeting assistance.
The Khashoggi case merely underscores the approach of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the power behind the throne in Riyadh who is the most ruthless and reckless leader in Saudi history. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), one of a growing list of congressional critics of the regime, has asserted that the actions of the Saudi/UAE coalition in Yemen “look like war crimes.” And the impacts go well beyond the indiscriminate air strikes that have targeted hospitals, civilian market places, funerals, a wedding, and most recently a school bus carrying 40 children. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also spearheading a partial blockade that has made it extremely difficult to get urgently need humanitarian assistance to Yemenis who desperately need it, putting millions of people on the brink of starvation. And their bombings of water treatment plants and other civilian infrastructure are responsible for the most serious outbreak of cholera in recent memory, a totally preventable consequence of the war.
Even if it were acceptable to favor jobs over human rights in this case, the economic benefits are in fact marginal. Trump strongly implies that if the United States were to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the $110 billion arms “deal” he has made with Riyadh would be in jeopardy. But as the fact checker for The Washington Post has pointed out, the idea that there ever was a $110 billion arms deal is “fake news.” It is a public relations figure cooked up by the Trump administration that combines offers made under the Obama administration, a few new deals, and a long wish list of sales that may never materialize.
In reality, since Trump took office, Saudi Arabia has signed commitments for about $14.5 billion in U.S. weaponry, only slightly more than 10% of the $110 billion figure Trump boasts about at every opportunity.
To cite one pertinent example, the precision-guided bomb sale to Saudi Arabia that the Trump administration green-lighted last year will support at most a few thousand jobs in an economy that employs over 125 million people.
Military procurement generates fewer jobs than virtually any other form of economic activity, and many of the jobs associated with U.S. arms sales are created overseas in the purchasing nation as a condition of the sale. For example, as part of Mohammed bin Salman’s much-touted economic plan, the goal is to have a full 50% of the work generated by Saudi arms imports done in the kingdom by 2030. U.S. firms are already jumping to comply with this mandate by setting up subsidiaries in Saudi Arabia and signing off on the assembly of U.S.-supplied weapons there.
Trump’s claim that Russia or China will quickly swoop in to grab any arms deal the United States declines to conclude with the Saudi regime is also suspect. The Saudi arsenal is heavily dependent on U.S.- and UK-supplied weaponry. It would take many years and tens of billions of dollars to change course in any meaningful way—money that Riyadh can ill afford as it hemorrhages money for its brutal war in Yemen and tries to cope with unstable oil prices. It’s always possible that the Saudi military would make a token purchase from Russia or China to send a signal, but the idea that the United States would lose out on a huge volume of arms sales as a result is unlikely in the extreme.
There are other ways to promote jobs in the United States that do not involve accepting blood money from the Saudi regime. Congress should not be dissuaded from doing the right thing due to false claims about the economic benefits of the U.S.-Saudi arms trade.
The ball is now in the congressional court, where bipartisan opposition to the Trump administration’s cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia is growing. Most recently the House is seeking to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen under the War Powers Resolution, an effort led by Mark Pocan (D-WI), Ro Khanna (D-CA), and Adam Smith (D-WA) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of dozens of their colleagues. There will also be strong opposition to a long-discussed sale of precision-guided U.S. bombs to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates once it comes up for formal consideration.
The case of Jamal Khashoggi is just one of many reasons for the United States to distance itself from the Saudi regime. The time to act is now.