Back in May 2017, during an official visit by Donald Trump to Riyadh, the United States and Saudi Arabia signed one of the largest agreements in the history of the American military-industrial complex to deliver to that country weapons worth 280 billion USD. At that time, the White House press secretary proclaimed that another nine contracts and a sales offer were being drafted for Washington to deliver weapons to the kingdom, noting that the aggregate income from these contracts could reach the sum of 350 billion USD over a ten-year period. Back then, Trump put his signature on the historic document, as though he had forgotten how he had earlier publicly called Saudi Arabia a sponsor of terrorism, leveling accusations that Hillary Clinton received financial support from the Saudis.
According to data from an April report put together by specialists at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, last year Saudi Arabia ranked fifth in terms of the scope of its weapons procurement, spending 62 billion USD on that. Purchasing armaments from Western countries for enormous sums – and primarily from Washington – is a factor important to Riyadh. And this is not just in terms of supplying the national defense industry, but is done as a kind of foreign policy lever, since the Saudis’ partners (and this chiefly means the US) respond by turning a blind eye to actions taken by Saudi Arabia, the human rights violations it has committed, and to its aggressive war in Yemen, which has wound up causing the death of thousands of civilians.
Because it is a monarchy rich in oil, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most important strategic partners for the United States on the market for weapons, and a major benefactor for American companies in the defense industry. These circumstances are just what afforded the kingdom protection from retaliatory sanctions following the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi regime, and the war in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia. President Donald Trump has often made references to the importance of the relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States, and repeatedly refuses to endorse serious economic or political sanctions in response to actions by Riyadh.
However, lately this arrangement, which is so beneficial for the kingdom and weapons dealers, has come under threat. Saudi Arabia, after losing a catastrophic amount of money against the backdrop of an oil war in which it suffered defeat, over the short term could stop procuring weapons in previous amounts. Because of that, on one hand the White House has ramped up its activity fulfilling the agreements already signed with the kingdom to sell and deliver American weaponry to it. And, on the other hand, it has increased pressure on Saudi Arabia to fulfill its commitments to buy weapons for many billions of dollars – and this despite the fact that Riyadh is forced to implement a strict policy of belt-tightening due to the oil crisis.
However, over the past few years selling armaments to Saudi Arabia has become more complex owing to another reason as well: the sanctions imposed due to the kingdom’s participation in the war in Yemen, even though US President Donald Trump repeatedly vetoed decisions made by some members of the US Congress to completely cut off weapons deliveries. He justified the steps he took by saying that the purchases by the Saudis assured strong bilateral relations, and were an aspect that provided thousands of employees at defense companies with work. In November 2018, commenting on his disagreements with demands made by members of the US congress to completely stop weapons shipments to Saudi Arabia, Donald Trump specifically stated: “I tell you what I don’t want to do… Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these companies…I don’t want to lose an order like that”.
It is true that Lockheed Martin, among the five most prominent representatives of the US military-industrial complex, has the most expansive range of weapons that it sells to Saudi Arabia, from missile to helicopters.
Raytheon remains a major supplier to Saudi Arabia, and this giant in the area of defense systems mostly sells air and missile defense systems.
Boeing, similar to Lockheed Martin, sells a wide range of armaments to Saudi Arabia, and is involved in delivering F-15 aircraft, Chinook and Apache helicopters, and a wide array of munitions for the Saudis. Boeing “probably has the highest sales in terms of monetary value”.
General Dynamics also signed a long-term contract with Saudi Arabia to deliver 100 Abrams tanks; these have been used in almost every large-scale conflict involving the US since the time it was created in 1980, and is the main combat tank for the United States Army and Marine Corps. The contract to deliver these tanks to Saudi Arabia is valued at 1.3 million USD. Even though it is designed to go to 2024, it is nonetheless quite likely that it will grow to 5.9 billion USD.
However, despite the restrictive demands put forth by legislators, the current US administration, with its close dependence on the US defense industry, does not intend to slash turnover for defense trade cooperation with Riyadh. Consequently, a few days ago Boeing signed a contract to deliver new anti-air and anti-ship missiles, as well as to do upgrading work on missiles that were acquired earlier. The total contract price when converted amounted to 1.85 billion euro.
Pursuant to the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, all major transactions involving the sales of American weaponry must be approved by Congress “if the President does not state that an emergency exists which requires the proposed export in the national security interests of the United States”. Taking into consideration that the current US administration is not complying with this law, Steven Linick, the Inspector General of the Department of State that was fired before, started an investigation. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to assist in conducting the investigation on arms sales from the United States to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan that amounted to 8.1 billion USD; to accomplish that without securing approval from the US Congress, in 2019 the White House introduced a state of emergency “to contain Iranian aggression”. However, members of Congress do not believe that the wording for a threat posed by Iran constitutes sufficient grounds for these kinds of actions.
Continuing its policy of pumping weapons into the Middle East and Saudi Arabia, the White House is using a crisis in relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran as a pretext to increase arms exports to the region. By doing so, it is only exacerbating relations with the legislative branch, which are already complicated enough without that – and is discrediting itself, given the demand from the international community to curb sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Vladimir Platov, Middle East expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.