by Laila Ujayli and Lizamaria Arias
Last week, circumventing objections from legislators on both sides of the aisle, Donald Trump declared an emergency to expedite more than eight billion dollars worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries. In doing so, Trump continues to place the interests of the Saudi government and arms contractors over the will of Congress, and in the process undermines the security of peoples in the Middle East, Saudis included.
Lawmakers had previously delayed arms sales to the Saudi and Emirati monarchies on account of their coalition’s devastating military intervention in Yemen, which has resulted in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and U.S. complicity in war crimes. The Saudi government in particular has drawn Congressional ire for its brutal murder of Washington Post contributor, and U.S. resident, Jamal Khashoggi. To complete the sale and bypass Congressional holds, the Trump administration was forced to utilize the emergency provision of the 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA) which allows the president to evade the mandatory 30-day congressional notification period for arms sales as long as he presents the security justification to Congress.
In yet another step in the administration’s march to war with Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the administration’s decision by arguing that the arms sales would somehow “enhance Middle East stability” by helping Saudi Arabia and others to “counter” Iran. Unsurprisingly, his argument falls flat, particularly as the Trump administration careens towards what would be a regionally catastrophic war. Moreover, if stability in the Middle East is the goal, it’s absurd to assume that a country that has fueled a destabilizing war in Yemen can be its broker.
The Trump administration’s work to prolong U.S. involvement in Yemen’s war and its sanctions campaign against Iran have been devastating to both Yemenis and Iranians. It should also go without saying that a war with Iran would not only undermine American interests, but also cause people in the region immeasurably more harm. And as panelists reminded attendees during an event in Washington DC last week on the Saudi government’s targeting of women’s rights activists, the Trump administration’s unwavering support of the Saudi government is not enhancing the security of Saudi citizens either.
One of the activists targeted by the Saudi government is Loujain al-Hathloul, a tireless advocate for an end to male guardianship and women’s right to drive. At the event, Loujain’s siblings, Walid and Lina al-Hathloul, spoke about their sister’s work and her subsequent imprisonment. Loujain was arrested before the announcement of the end of the female driving ban and has remained in government detention since. During a prison visit last December, Loujain disclosed to her family that she had been repeatedly tortured. And today, despite efforts to go through official channels for information, her siblings have no clear sense of her situation or wellbeing.
Meanwhile, Trump has routinely overlooked these gross violations of human rights and failed to hold Saudi Arabia to account. Consequently, both lawmakers and the American public at large must question the U.S. role in emboldening the Saudi government’s brutal policies. As journalist Safa al-Ahmad pointed out to the event’s audience, while the U.S. cannot force change in Saudi Arabia, it can curb its support for the monarchy and send a message that human rights abuses will not go unpunished. For the sake of true “stability” in the region, the United States must stop supporting dictators.
Undeniably, the U.S.’ history with human rights makes us a poor champion—and our domestic record proves we have a ways to go before the U.S. can become any sort of authority on the subject. But the least the administration can do is stop enabling those who violate the rights of Saudi citizens and bomb Yemeni civilians. The Trump administration must leverage the United States’ close relationship with the Saudi government to the benefit of human rights, not just to line the pockets of defense contractors.
By continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, the United States sends a clear signal that the Saudi government is free to continue its brutal torture and imprisonment of advocates like Lujain al-Hathloul, as well as its indiscriminate bombardment of civilians in Yemen, without incurring meaningful consequences. If Congress wants to disrupt this message, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle must push for legislation to “block the transfer, sale, or authorization for license of bombs and other offensive weapons” to Saudi Arabia and assert loudly that—despite the Trump administration’s best efforts—the blank check the U.S. has given to Saudi Arabia is approaching its expiration.
Lizamaria Arias is a Fall 2018 Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow focusing on the effects of emerging technologies on crisis stability. Follow her on twitter @lizamaria_arias.