Will the United States Congress block arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

Will the United States Congress block arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
Comment: The Trump administration has re-opened the door to unlimited supplies, making congressional action crucial, writes Imad K. Harb.
4 min read
24 Oct, 2017
Some analysts say the deal includes weapons previously promised by the Obama administration [AFP]
Saudi Arabia is one of the largest importers of American weapons. According to a recent authoritative study, since 2009, the US Department of State has approved a total of $120 billion in military sales to the kingdom.

Last May, President Donald Trump signed a $110 billion deal with Saudi King Salman bin Abdelaziz. One tranche of that deal is a $15 billion purchase of the highly advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system. The State Department notified Congress of the deal on 5 October.

The kingdom is also supposedly on track to acquire $350 billion worth of American military equipment over the next decade. 

But analysts in Washington have doubted the veracity of the $110 billion deal. One called it "fake news," saying it includes previously agreed on weapons systems promised by the Obama administration.

Others have suggested that the kingdom cannot in fact afford the weapons, saying that the figure announced was "definitely inflated".

But as things stand today, it is likely that Congress will continue to be a decisive factor in the kingdom's acquisitions. In fact, members of Congress have expressed reservations related to two specific concerns.

The Saudi-led war in Yemen

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen which began in March 2015 has caused a serious humanitarian calamity, prompting Congress to be more involved in how weapons get delivered to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-led coalition is accused of committing war crimes in the country and of preventing humanitarian supplies from reaching those who need them. Ten thousand civilians have been killed and 40,000 others injured, mainly in coalition operations.

Saudi Arabia seems to want to hedge its bets regarding arms supplies

What could have been an easily contained cholera epidemic has already killed 2,000, and infected over half a million others. In addition, more than 7 million Yemenis are in urgent need of food assistance.

A group of Democratic and Republican senators - led by Democrats Chris Murphy and Al Franken, and Republican Rand Paul - is leading an effort to cut off the supply of precision munitions to Saudi Arabia that are blamed for causing civilian casualties.

While a measure in the Senate last June failed to halt delivery of these munitions by a margin of 47-53, a similar one in May 2016 had lost 27-71. In other words, more senators are signing up to oppose selling these lethal bombs to Saudi Arabia.

Read more: The business of war: When starvation is cheaper than buying weapons

A similar measure was also started in the House of Representatives in 2016 and garnered wide support among Republican and Democratic members.

Last December, before leaving office, former president Barack Obama halted the delivery of some military equipment that was responsible for civilian casualties. But the Trump administration has re-opened the door to unlimited supplies, making congressional action crucial. 

The GCC crisis

The continuing GCC crisis that was precipitated by the pre-planned hacking of the Qatar News Agency last May, and the spreading of false news attributed to Qatar's ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has also caused much consternation among congressional leaders.

Expressing a widespread sentiment among members of Congress and beyond, the powerful Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker announced a halt to the review process for weapons delivery to all GCC states.

His reasoning centred around three interlinked concepts: First was the centrality of GCC unity for the American strategic posture in the Gulf. The second was his and other senators' insistence on maintaining al-Udeid military base in Qatar; a position promoted by the US Departments of State and Defense.

Finally, the third related to the risk the crisis posed to Qatar and other GCC states' role in the US-led coalition's fight against extremism.

These general concerns at work in Congress on its position on arms to Saudi Arabia are likely to remain active until the Yemeni and GCC crises find peaceful resolutions.

Other considerations

Three additional issues are also capable of impacting Congress' stance on arms exports to Saudi Arabia. The first is the kingdom's purported support for extremism and terrorism. In 2016, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) that targeted the kingdom.

A second issue relates to violations of human and civil rights, and arrests of activists. While members of Congress have always deferred to the sitting administration on such matters, criticisms of Saudi domestic security practices receive very harsh criticism on Capitol Hill.

A third issue is Congress' desire to maintain Israel's qualitative military advantage over its Arab neighbours

A third issue is Congress' desire to maintain Israel's qualitative military advantage over its Arab neighbours. But given the Israeli government's muted reaction to the $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, Congress is not now expected to raise much of an objection on those grounds.

Still, the arms deal that Saudi Arabia signed with Russia during King Salman's visit to Moscow in early October, suggests that the Saudi Kingdom is hedging its bets regarding arms supplies, letting the United States know that it might have other options. 

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab