Have Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia peaked?

Have Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia peaked?
Analysis: The outrage over weapons deals to serial human rights abusers may finally be making an impact, writes Paul Iddon.
6 min read
21 December, 2018
Weapons sales to Saudi Arabia have long been a source of global outrage [Getty]

Saudi Arabia has come under intense criticism and scrutiny since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, including severe criticism over Western arms deals made with the kingdom.

Members on both sides of the aisle in the US Senate introduced legislation in November to suspend arms sales to the kingdom over its conduct in Yemen. Since it began bombing the impoverished country in 2015, there have been several credible allegations that Riyadh has carried out war crimes in Yemen.

Thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed and millions affected by a humanitarian crisis since the Saudis began bombing.

Explaining why he decided to support measures against Riyadh, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham unequivocally declared it was because he was "p*ssed" about how the Trump administration was dealing with Saudi Arabia in light of its abuses.

This month, the Senate also passed a resolution calling on the Trump administration to end its support for the war in Yemen.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the US will cease arming or supporting Riyadh any time soon. Nevertheless, mounting criticism in Washington and other Western capitals may indicate that Western arms deals with Saudi Arabia may finally have reached their peak.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week that his government was looking into pulling Canada out of an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth C$14 billion for armoured vehicles.

Germany, Denmark and Finland also halted future arms deals with the kingdom.

In October, Amnesty International reported that it had evidence confirming that Riyadh dropped British-made bombs on civilian targets. This, Amnesty says, breaks the UK's "own laws and the global Arms Trade Treaty it once championed".

The Saudi military is heavily dependent on American and British support to operate the majority of weapons currently in its arsenal

One argument against hastily placing an arms embargo on Riyadh over such actions is that it will simply buy weapons systems from countries that will scrutinise it less. If they do so, the argument goes, then Western powers will have even less influence to exert over the kingdom's actions.

The Saudis have indeed sought a small number of their arms elsewhere. When the Americans didn't sell them drones, Riyadh bought Chinese-made ones, which were clear replicas of the kind of drones Washington had refused to sell them.

It's probably true that in the long-term a Western arms embargo on Riyadh will likely result in it seeking arms elsewhere. But in the short-term, the Saudi military is heavily dependent on American and British support to operate the majority of weapons currently in its arsenal.

Without this support, they would doubtlessly find it far more difficult to wage war in Yemen, or maintain a fleet of sophisticated American jet fighters, bombers and tanks, all of which require significant maintenance and supply of spare parts to operate, especially during military action.

Consequently, if a serious arms embargo were imposed on Saudi Arabia, it would likely take years, and billions of additional dollars, for Riyadh to supplement its military equipment through other sources.

To wage its air campaign on Yemen the Saudis rely overwhelmingly on American- and British-made weapon systems and munitions. Since the 1980s Riyadh has not only relied on Western-made weapon systems but also heavily on technical help and know-how. The Saudi air campaign is largely made possible by American mid-air refuelling, something Riyadh cannot adequately do itself.

This month, the US billed Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates $331 million for "overdue charges" for refuelling their planes, an apt example of how directly dependent these states are on American military support to wage war.

Saudi Arabia has been the recipient of record-breaking arms deals made by both the United States and the United Kingdom over the past four decades. 

In the 1970s, Iran, under its last shah, was the largest recipient of American arms in the Gulf region by far. Washington's sale of F-14 Tomcat air superiority fighters to Iran, the most sophisticated fighter the US had built at the time, constituted Washington's most exorbitant ever arms deal.

Iran was the only country the US ever sold F-14s to.

When the Shah fell and Tehran ceased being a close American ally in the region, Washington began selling more weapons systems to Riyadh in the 1980s, including a fleet of 62 F-15 Eagles. Earlier, when the deal was introduced, the Carter administration stressed the purely defensive nature of the warplanes. Consequently, the Saudi versions of the fighter jets were not capable of carrying bombs.

The Reagan administration's sale of five E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) radar aircraft in the 1980s deeply irked Israel, which feared that Saudi detection of its military aircraft operating in the region would undermine Tel Aviv's technological edge over its rivals.

Britain also undertook its largest arms deal ever with Saudi Arabia beginning in 1985. The so-called al-Yamamah deal saw Britain's BAE aerospace company furnish the Royal Saudi Air Force with a large fleet of Panavia Tornado fighter jets. In 2007, Britain also agreed to provide the Saudis with a fleet of Eurofighter Typhoon multirole jets. 

Since its inception, however, the £43 billion deal aroused controversy over allegations of bribery and corruption, which conclusively proved to be the case.

Despite the latest evidence of British bombs killing Yemeni civilians, Britain is unlikely to take any serious action to reprimand Riyadh

The US Department of Justice filed a damning indictment against BAE, to which it pleaded guilty, back in 2010 over al-Yamamah. In a statement, the DoJ said the British aerospace giant "used intermediaries and shell entities to conceal payments to certain advisers who were assisting in the… fighter deals".

"BAE agreed to transfer sums totalling more than £10m and more than $9m to a bank account in Switzerland controlled by an intermediary," the statement elaborated. "BAE was aware that there was a high probability that the intermediary would transfer part of these payments to the [Saudi] official."

Despite that historic deal and the latest evidence of British bombs killing Yemeni civilians, Britain is unlikely to take any serious action to reprimand Riyadh. The incumbent government of Theresa May in London is counting heavily on future arms deal with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. It has actively courted them for more exorbitant deals to shore-up Britain's post-Brexit economy and has also returned British forces to the region for the first time since its 1971 withdrawal.

The United States also made its largest arms deals ever with the Saudis this decade. In 2010, the Obama administration oversaw a record-breaking $60 billion deal with the kingdom, the biggest American arms deal in history, to sell it 84 advanced multirole Boeing F-15 Strike Eagle planes - a variant of which, called the F-15SA, was built especially for the kingdom.

President Donald Trump's more recently touted 2017 $110 billion arms deal is not, in reality, worth that much - since it lumps together potential deals alongside actual deals. Nevertheless, the Trump administration is pushing ahead to sell Riyadh 44 Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile systems in a deal worth $15 billion.

It lobbied hard to secure this deal after the Khashoggi killing in a clear bid to save at least part of this $110 billion deal in light of the growing opposition to such deals in Washington in recent months.

Such deals followed so closely by unprecedented criticism may indicate that while arms deals with Saudi Arabia may continue for the foreseeable future they may also have finally peaked.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon