Do U.S. Arms Transfers to Saudi Arabia Promote Stability?

Do U.S. Arms Transfers to Saudi Arabia Promote Stability?
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When President Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia meet at the White House on Friday, security issues will be high on the agenda.  As described by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, the meeting will focus on "ways to further strengthen the bilateral relationship, including our joint security and counterterrorism efforts."

The centerpiece of U.S.-Saudi security cooperation is the provision of tens of advanced U.S. weaponry and training to Riyadh in exchange for Saudi policies that promote U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond.  According to the Security Assistance Monitor, Saudi Arabia has received over $17 billion in U.S. weaponry since 2009, with tens of billions of additional transfers in the pipeline.  The most recent deal was an agreement late last month to provide $500 million in ammunition, mines and grenades to the Royal Saudi Land Forces for use in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.  And last year the Saudis renewed their contract with the U.S. firm Vinnell Arabia – a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman -- to train and modernize the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), the kingdom’s main internal security force.  

According to the State Department, the rationale for this flood of armaments is that the Saudi regime is “an important force for stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”  Recent events suggest otherwise, beginning with the kingdom’s disastrous intervention in Yemen.

The Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen has resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4,300 people, mostly civilians.  Earlier this month Amnesty International called for a war crimes investigation tied to Saudi bombing of civilian areas that had no obvious military targets nearby.  The Saudi-led intervention has also provoked a humanitarian catastrophe.  It includes a blockade of Yemen that has sparked shortages of food, water, and medical supplies for the vast majority of the nation’s population – more than 20 million people.  The situation is so bad that Peter Maurer, the head of the International Committees of the Red Cross, has said “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.” 

Meanwhile, as the Saudis focus their efforts on the Houthi rebels who overthrew the prior government in Yemen, the main beneficiary of the fighting has been Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been able to operate relatively freely as the war against the Houthis rages on.

Far from promoting stability, the Saudi incursion into Yemen has fueled extremism and undermined the potential for establishing a viable government there.  The Obama administration has been dragged into the fight on the grounds that it must stand by a key regional ally whose support it needs in the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda.  In this case at least, the provision of U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia has undermined U.S. interests, as well as the prospects for peace in the Arabian Peninsula and the broader Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its own population is also cause for concern.  The regime has arrested, imprisoned, and tortured peaceful demonstrators; attacked freedom of the press; sharply curtailed the rights of women; and engaged in barbaric practices like public beheadings of individuals convicted of crimes, in some cases even for nonviolent offenses.  Not only are these practices wrong on moral grounds, but they also undermine the long-term legitimacy of the regime.  Continued repression by the Saudi regime – aided by U.S. arms and training – is more likely to usher in an extremist government than foster a gradual transition to democracy – the only true path to stability in the kingdom.

Last but not least, the Saudi government has spent billions spreading an extreme version of Islam that has inspired a whole generation of committed terrorists; and it has failed to adequately crack down on wealthy Saudis who provide funding to al Qaeda and ISIS.  

All of the practices cited thus far raise questions about whether and how the comfortable U.S.-Saudi arms relationship should continue.  And while President Obama’s meeting with King Salman will be designed to better align U.S. and Saudi policies on ISIS, Syria, and the Iran nuclear agreement, the president should also put the issue of Saudi human rights abuses and Saudi misuse of U.S. weaponry firmly on the agenda.  Standing by while the Saudis conduct business as usual, using U.S arms to do so, is a surefire way to foster greater instability in a region already threatened by a rising tide of war and repression.

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