The debate over US-Saudi arms sales
Saudi Arabia lives in a dangerous neighborhood. To its north, Iraq is in the midst of a military campaign to wrest control of territory that was lost to the terrorist group Daesh over the past two years. To its south, the internationally recognized government of Yemen is trying to regain control of its capital Sanaa, which was seized by force by Houthi rebels in late 2014.
On the domestic front, Daesh has vowed to create division and instability by targeting Saudi and foreign citizens and institutions. In addition, militants in the Eastern Province have attacked police stations and patrols over the last few years. Across the Arabian Gulf, Iran has done all it can to heighten these threats to Saudi security by supporting a diverse list of terrorist groups and militants.
No wonder the Kingdom spends a significant percentage of its budget annually on defending its borders and waters, and on securing its critical installations. To meet their security needs, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states have often looked to the US as the military partner of first resort. The US has provided Saudi Arabia with advanced weapons and training programs going back to the 1940s.
According to some accounts, the Kingdom bought more American weapons than any other developing nation between 2008 and 2015 — $93.5 billion worth. This happened at a time when its relations with the US under President Barak Obama was not as close as it had been under previous administrations.
During his visit to the Kingdom last month, President Donald Trump announced that the two countries had concluded military deals worth $110 billion. While some of the agreement had been in the pipeline for a long time and some are in their early stages, there is little doubt that the Trump administration appreciates the importance of this aspect of the relationship for more than one reason.
For starters, Trump and previous US administrations have repeatedly urged their allies and partners in the region and elsewhere to share more of the burden in terms of maintaining peace and stability. Saudi Arabia has demonstrated in word and deed that it is fully committed to playing a leading role in helping bring stability back to a region that has been ravaged by political violence and terrorist activities since 2011.
To that end, the Kingdom is supporting the internationally recognized Yemeni government as it tries to regain control of Sanaa and other territories captured by Iran-backed Houthi rebels and their allies, including supporters of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saudi Arabia has demonstrated in word and deed that it is fully committed to playing a leading role in helping bring stability back to a region that has been ravaged by political violence and terrorist activities since 2011.
Saudi Arabia also established an Islamic Military Coalition Against Terrorism in late 2015, which seeks to defeat terrorist groups such as Daesh by utilizing the varied capabilities of those who have suffered the most from terrorism: Muslim-majority countries.
Since his inauguration in January, Trump and his administration have lauded Saudi leadership in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The White House has also praised the multidimensional bilateral relationship, including economic cooperation, trade and investment. In that regard, Trump in Riyadh reminded Americans that the arms sales agreed to in the Saudi capital will create “thousands” of jobs in the defense industry in the US.
Saudi officials ensured that many of the agreements will also create jobs in the Kingdom, and that they will advance the transfer of technological knowhow. As far as the US and Saudi political leaderships are concerned, the weapons sales are a win-win for both sides.
But not everyone in the US Congress agrees with this assessment. Earlier this week, a measure introduced by Republican Sen. Rand Paul opposing the sale of over $500 million worth of precision-guided munition kits to the Kingdom was narrowly defeated by a vote of 47-53. Members against the sale said their opposition stems from concerns over how the Saudi military campaign in support of the Yemeni government has been conducted.
On the morning of the vote, a hearing in front of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs titled “Challenges and Opportunities for the US Saudi Relationship” ended with a heated exchange between committee member Ted Lieu and former US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feirstein over the Saudi war effort.
The exchange highlighted the wide disconnect between the impressions of some observers who mischaracterize the conflict as a Saudi war against Yemen, and those who understand that it is a Yemeni civil war with regional actors involved and no easy answers.
Saudi and US officials, and all interested parties who believe that US-Saudi relations have been mutually beneficial, must continue to correct misperceptions of casual observers, and to remind them that bilateral ties have not continued to strengthen and broaden over the past eight decades by happenstance.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, but does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.