by Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio and Jim Lobe
Activists who have been calling for a halt to US arms sales to Arab states in the Persian Gulf are praising Sen. Bob Corker’s hold on future weapons transfers to the region pending a resolution to the two-week-old crisis pitting Saudi Arabia and its closest regional allies against Qatar.
While the move by Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, apparently has little to do with human rights, activists claim it should help persuade Congress to focus more attention both on the catastrophic toll in lives and infrastructure resulting from the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the dangerous rise in tensions around the region.
“While the Trump administration continues to stoke the Qatar crisis and dole out blank checks for the Saudis and the UAE,” Kate Gould, a lobbyist with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, told LobeLog, “this message highlights that some in Congress are taking stock of how U.S. weapons sent to the Gulf are fueling more conflict, and can have devastating long-term implications for the region.”
“Withholding arms sales is a powerful tool in US diplomacy that can be deployed not just to settle disputes between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but also to increase the pressure to end the war in Yemen and protect human rights in Bahrain,” Cole Bockenfeld, deputy director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) noted in an email. “Our Gulf allies often engage in destabilizing, counterproductive behavior at home and abroad, while U.S. policymakers bemoan their lack of influence. Senator Corker and his colleagues have an important tool at their disposal in withholding arms sales, and shouldn’t hesitate to use it in the future.”
Corker, who announced his hold in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Monday, appeared to rule out consideration of additional arms sales to the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, until the current crisis is resolved.
“All countries in the region need to do more to combat terrorism, but recent disputes among the GCC countries only serve to hurt efforts to fight ISIS and counter Iran,” Corker explained in his letter.
“For these reasons, before we provide any further clearances during the informal review period on sales of lethal military equipment to the GCC states, we need a better understanding of the path to resolve the current dispute and reunify the GCC.”
Corker’s letter comes a month after Trump traveled to Riyadh for a meeting with GCC and Arab and Sunni Muslim heads of state in an apparent effort to align them behind US efforts to defeat the Islamic State (IS) and adopt a more confrontational policy toward Iran. During his visit, he confirmed new and pending arms deals with the kingdom worth an estimated $110 billion.
In an unexpectedly close vote two weeks ago, however, the Senate narrowly turned back a resolution to block a $500 million sale of munitions of the kind used in its air campaign in Yemen to Riyadh. Consistent with his long-standing support of arms sales to the GCC, Corker voted with 52 other senators – all but five of them Republicans — to reject the resolution, which was co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy, Al Franken, and Jeff Merkley, as well as Republican Sen. Rand Paul. Forty-seven senators, however, voted for the resolution, which was designed to reduce Washington’s complicity in what has become one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. That sale is not expected to be affected by Corker’s hold.
In Monday’s letter, however, Corker ignored the growing unease in Congress over the Saudi-led war in Yemen and focused instead on the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt against Qatar June 5 on the grounds that Doha was not cooperating with the GCC’s campaign against terrorist groups like IS or Al Qaeda and the failure to peacefully resolve what has become the worst crisis in the GCC’s history.
The Trump administration has sent very mixed signals about its own attitude toward the stand-off. Trump initially tweeted his full support for the Saudi-led action against Qatar. While in one tweet he accused Doha of funding terrorism at a “high level,” his administration approved a $12 billion arms sale – which apparently will also be exempt from Corker’s hold — to the tiny nation just one week later.
And while Trump and the White House are widely seen as backing the Saudis, both the Pentagon, which has some 11,000 military personnel deployed to Qatar’s Udeid air base from which they carry out all U.S. air missions from Iraq to Afghanistan, and the State Department have made little secret of their eagerness to quickly negotiate a diplomatic solution and impatience with the apparently lack of seriousness on the part of Riyadh and its allies in presenting reasonable demands to Doha.
In that respect, it appears that Corker’s move on Monday was designed to give greater leverage to both Pentagon chief James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in their efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia, whose new crown prince, 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, along with his UAE counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan bin Nahyan, is seen as the leader of the anti-Qatar campaign, to end the crisis. It may also have been designed to boost Tillerson’s influence with the White House whose messaging on this, as on so many issues, is often confused and inconsistent.
Thus, Corker, who was reportedly seriously considered by Trump for secretary of state before Tillerson got the nod, made a point of praising the president’s recent mission to Saudi Arabia, insisting that he “could not be more pleased” with the results. “The unity of the Gulf States and their commitment to security cooperation were welcome steps forward. We need to remain united in the face of rising threats from Iran and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS),” Corker wrote at the start of the letter.
Rights activists expressed some disappointment with Corker’s motivation.
“While it’s great to see Senator Corker acknowledge that arms sales are indeed a lever to be used as a tool of influence with Gulf allies,” Kate Kizerof the Yemen Peace Project, “it’s pretty unfortunate that he appears only willing to use U.S. weapon sales as leverage to change these allies’ actions on geopolitical matters, and not as leverage to change their behavior on human rights or prevent the misuse of US sold weapons against civilians in Yemen.”
“Either way,” she went on, “Senator Corker’s action should send a clear message to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that there are some limits on what the U.S. will tolerate in terms of their aggressive foreign policy in the Arabian Peninsula.”
“The seven million Yemenis starving to death from this war are seven million more reasons to stop U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” added Gould. “Any U.S. arms sent to these countries perpetuating the Yemen war should be regarded as weapons of mass starvation, and it’s high-time for Congress to stop ALL weapons sales to this war and support the unanimous call by the UN Security Council for a cessation of hostilities to save Yemen from cholera and famine.”
Giulia McDonnell Nieto Del Rio is a rising senior at Williams College in Massachusetts. She has written and worked for the human rights NGO Cultural Survival in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is currently an intern for LobeLog at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C.