by Giulia McDonnell Nieto Del Rio
In a remarkably close vote Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Senate rejected an effort by human rights and faith groups to block a major arms sale to Saudi Arabia, whose military campaign in Yemen has brought the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of catastrophe.
The legislation aimed to block the sale of $510 million of precision munition weapons to Saudi Arabia. President Obama had suspended the sale of these munitions in December 2016, and Donald Trump wanted the deal to go forward. Under U.S. law, Congress has 30 days to block any major arms from the date that the sitting administration gives notification.
Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Al Franken (D-MN), and Rand Paul (RKY) co-sponsored the resolution to block the sale. In the end, 47 senators voted in favor, while 53—virtually the entire Republican caucus—voted against.
Despite the outcome, the resolution’s supporters claimed victory. They stressed that the vote had focused Congressional and public attention more on the war in Yemen—which has killed more than 10,000 civilians, injured and displaced tens of thousands, and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure—as well as Washington’s complicity in its prosecution.
“After more than two years of US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s disastrous war in Yemen, the Senate is finally wising up,” said Kate Kizer of the Yemen Peace Project, a coalition of groups that have opposed Washington’s backing for the Saudi-led campaign, which has also included the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, and Sudan. “Today’s vote sent a clear message that US support to Saudi Arabia is not a blank check, and the Senate will not stand idly by while the Trump administration green-lights the killing of innocent civilians in Yemen by sending more bombs.”
Five Democratic senators voted to uphold the sale: Bill Nelson of Florida, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Mark Warner of Virginia. Three other Republicans— Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Todd C. Young of Indiana, and Dean Heller of Nevada—voted with Paul to block the resolution.
Supporters of the sale argued that precision-guided munitions were less likely to cause civilian collateral damage, despite the fact that many of the most deadly bombings by the Saudi-led forces used precision weapons. They also claimed that sale would sustain thousands of U.S. jobs, while Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among others, insisted that the deal “will help Saudi Arabia fight ISIS and serve as a check on Iran.”
Although Emirati forces, in particular, have targeted Islamic State forces in Yemen, numerous sources have reported that the local al-Qaeda affiliate, (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP), has fought alongside Saudi forces against the Houthis whose brand of Shia Islam is considered an apostasy.
Last September, only 27 senators voted to block a major tank sale to Saudi Arabia. According to several activists, the much closer vote Tuesday could signal a major change in Congressional attitudes towards U.S.-Saudi relations, particularly with respect to its Yemen campaign. Murphy, one of the strongest congressional critics of the Trump administration’s alignment with the Saudis, made precisely that point on Twitter shortly after the vote.
“My resolution halting $500m of Saudi arms sale failed 47-53,” he tweeted. “But 20 more votes than similar resolution last fall. Strong message to Saudis.”
“Today’s vote from the Senate is a clear message of unprecedented opposition to Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen: U.S. patience to bring an end to this war is running out fast, and support for the Saudis is reaching an end,” noted Cole Bockenfeld of the Project for Middle East Democracy (POMED). “The Saudi-led coalition and all players involved must negotiate an end to this war immediately, and begin the urgent process of reconciliation and reconstruction in Yemen.”
However, other critics, still warned that approval of the sale bodes ill for both Yemen and Washington’s moral standing.
“Although many senators stepped forward to challenge this sale, the majority decided to allow it to go forward. This decision is short sighted, and makes the United States complicit in Saudi attacks on civilians in Yemen,” according to Georgetown professor Natalie Goldring, Conventional Weapons representative at the British-based Acronym Institute.
The war has pitted the government of the now-exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi against Houthi rebels from the northern part of the country and forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president who was ousted from power in 2012. The Saudis and their Gulf allies intervened in 2015 in what has primarily been a bombing campaign after the rebel coalition took over the country’s capital, Sana’a. The Saudi-led coalition has claimed that Iran has provided training and arms to the insurgents. In addition to selling arms to the coalition, Washington has provided it with logistical and intelligence support.
Of Yemen’s population of 27.4 million, UNICEF estimates that 18.8 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, while two-thirds of the population lack access to safe drinking water or adequate sanitation. Nearly 125,000 cases of cholera have been reported in just the past few weeks, according to the World Health Organization.
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. Photo: Chris Murphy