Since the late 1990s, the United States has been the world’s leading weapons exporter. The weapons exportation industry hauled in $55.6 billion in 2017, $18 billion of which came from Saudi Arabia. In May 2017, President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip while in office. Trump signed a new arms deal with Saudi Arabia that will allegedly generate more than $110 billion. The deal cuts regulations, reduces wait times and claims to expand job opportunities for American industries. However, even without that deal, Saudi Arabia would remain the largest consumer of US weapons exports. Under the Trump administration, the United States has sold $928 million in laser-guided missiles, $98 million in ammunition and $95 million in bomb systems.
Selling arms to Saudi Arabia has long been controversial because many view the sales as aiding Saudi Arabia in worsening the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have received additional media scrutiny due to the murder of dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government. While Trump has not been fazed by Khashoggi’s murder, calls for arms export restrictions have been growing. In recent years, numerous exporters have dramatically decreased their sales to Saudi Arabia. The United Kingdom transferred $843 million worth of arms in 2016, but only $438 million in 2017. French exports dropped from $174 million in 2015 to $27 million in 2017. These decreases have tightened the flow of weaponry, from missiles to bombs to firearms, into Saudi Arabia.
The US arms sales to Saudi Arabia are deeply troubling for three reasons: they exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, hurt the American domestic economy and are detrimental to American foreign policy. Shutting the door on Saudi arms sales will allow the United States to stop indirectly promoting conflict orchestrated by Saudi Arabia and to better improve its domestic economy. Ending arms sales will also reassert American authority in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, an allied state that benefits from US partnership without meaningful accountability.
Arms Sales and Conflict Escalation
Saudi Arabia’s military actions have provoked conflict throughout the Middle East. The Hoover Institute’s Toby Jones explains that Saudi Arabia has become increasingly violent and unpredictable under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who was appointed in 2017. Direct military support has empowered Saudi leaders to lash out recklessly without meaningful accountability, leading thousands of Yemenis, Bahrainis, Syrians and even Saudi citizens to starve and die in attacks. American arm sales embolden Saudi hawks to continue their hardcore military approaches. Since 2011, Saudi Arabia has intervened in the affairs of states like Tunisia, Syria and Qatar.
Weapons produced and provided by the US have facilitated the deaths of innocent civilians in Yemen. US bombs produced by Lockheed Martin killed forty children on a school bus in August 2018. A similar strike killed 155 people in a funeral hall, and 97 people were killed at a Yemeni market by a bomb from the United States. While US arm sales are not the sole cause of the geopolitical and humanitarian crisis in Yemen, arms sales certainly enable conflicts to persist and proliferate: recipients of major conventional weapons are 70 percent more likely to engage in conflict than non-recipients. The United States has an antecedent role in Yemen’s current situation through its Saudi arms sales and can take steps towards alleviating Yemenis’ suffering.
Ending US arms sales to Saudi Arabia will help resolve the conflict in Yemen in two ways. First, US arms often end up in the wrong hands, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. Nima Elbagir of CNN reports that Saudi Arabia has been transferring American weapons to Salafi militias and other factions to escalate the conflict. These groups cannot adequately retain the weapons that they receive. For example, Houthi and Iranian-backed forces have also wielded US weapons in Yemen. The Houthis are currently more militarily sophisticated and better able to strike beyond Yemen’s borders than they were at the start of the war. Ending arms sales will disarm groups on both sides and help stop large quantities of weapons from stoking the flames of conflict.
Second, ending arms sales will ground Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes. Other than proxy groups, Saudi Arabia’s main method to wage war and perpetrate genocide is by deploying its US-fueled air force.The United States continually refuels the coalition aircraft that is used to kill a large number of civilians in coalition airstrikes; US-made munitions have been found at numerous attack sites, ranging from hospitals to weddings. In Yemen alone, over half of civilian deaths have been caused by Saudi airstrikes that targeted hospitals, funerals, schools and refugee camps. The Saudis have blockaded food and supplies from entering Yemen in coordination with the United States as well.
Ending arms sales will limit Saudi Arabia’s capability to incite violence abroad and stifle civilian populations’ wellbeings. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s military technology is maintained and upgraded by the United States with almost no assistance from the Saudis. Shifting maintenance costs to Saudi Arabia will help check Saudi aggression.
The Economics of Arms Sales
Grand claims about the importance of arms sales to maintaining American jobs and boosting the domestic economy are often exaggerated so that private defense companies can keep deals that generate enormous profit. Private sector defense workers only make up about 0.5 percent of the total US labor force and almost none of them depend specifically on arms sales to Saudi Arabia for their livelihood. Even if the deals ended, companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing would only lose about 2 percent of revenue. In fact, these arms deals create significantly more job opportunities for Saudis than for Americans. Empirically, Trump’s plan will create nearly ten thousand jobs in Saudi ports but only five hundred US jobs overall.
US arms sales to Saudi Arabia have hurt the US economy by diverting funds away from better economic growth opportunities. Investments into military jobs are often less effective than federal spending on education, healthcare, or infrastructure. Professor Heidi Garrett-Peltier of Brown University sums it up: by increasing military spending, America pays an economic opportunity cost that sacrifices the chance to fund programs that are better at job creation. These sectors create many more jobs than defense spending does and can generate better value for the overall economy. If increasing job opportunities and expanding the American economy is the priority, then, military contracts are far from the most effective solution.
Defense contractors are economically-driven corporations that seek higher profits. To avoid the political backlash of Saudi arms sales in their pursuits, contractors tend to claim that they are both helping the American economy and assisting the US government’s Saudi relations. Lockheed Martin alone will acquire about $900 million from Saudi sales in 2020 and an additional $450 million contract if Saudi Arabia decides to deploy an American ballistic missile defense system. Contractors like Lockheed Martin are increasing revenue streams at the expense of millions of lives in Yemen. The United States should not continue to prioritize defense contractor business opportunities over its capability to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the continuously dire implications of Saudi Arabia weapons purchases.
Ending the arms sales will also lift the veil on the Trump Administration’s disingenuous economic justifications for politically expedient Saudi relations. The Trump Administration has long used economic arguments to cover for their political and military desires. However, the arms sales to Saudi Arabia transcend economics. By maintaining Saudi arms sales, the United States is declining to hold countries accountable in exchange for the comfortable benefits offered by the status quo. The administration has attempted to simplify the arms sales issue to make the controversy appear more palatable. In reality, the arms sales are diverting American dollars to a sector that is relatively ineffective at job development, implicitly condoning human rights abuses that stem from those sales and harming American foreign policy itself.
The Foreign Policy of Arms Sales
Many supporters of arms sales, including the current US government, are concerned about protecting US influence and stabilizing the Saudi-Iranian relationship. They argue that cutting arms sales would reduce the US’ presence, embolden Iran and allow the Yemen conflict to further spiral out of control. Iran is backing Houthi rebels that are fighting against Saudi Arabia. If the US scales back its commitments to Saudi Arabia, Iran could expand its regional influence and its purportedly violent tendencies. However, as mentioned earlier, it is important to note that US arms sales are themselves perpetuating the conflict by injecting weapons of war into Yemen. Saudi Arabia is the medium through which myriad parties acquire arms. Ending the arms sales will mitigate Saudi Arabia and Iran’s thirsts for power by constraining the conflict’s capacity for violence.
While the US government suggests that arms sales incline Saudi Arabia to cooperate with the US’ agenda, the reverse is true. Rather than the United States gaining leverage through arms sales, Saudi Arabia has gained more power instead. Patricia Sullivan of Foreign Policy Analysis writes that, empirically, states that receive military aid are less cooperative than states that do not. States that receive military aid are willing to take advantage of their leverage because the US often refrains from holding allied states completely accountable to their commitments or to American principles. Khashoggi’s murder casts a long shadow in that regard: Trump has chosen to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s blatant disregard for civil liberties in the professed service of protecting America’s economy. Though not anywhere near as powerful as the US, Saudi Arabia has escaped the Khashoggi situation with its US arms deals intact.
The United States continues to play a preeminent role in Saudi weapons acquisitions. European countries have reduced their arms sales in response to Khashoggi’s death while the United States has increased sales. There are multiple actors in the international game but the US has the biggest muscles to flex, economically and diplomatically speaking. Nearly all of Saudi Arabia’s weapons have American parts or are maintained by American technicians. Saudi Arabia cannot find an easy replacement for its US weapons imports: it would take decades for Saudi Arabia to implement different systems and the transition costs of such a switch would be monumental.
By ending arms sales, the United States can assert its sway over Saudi Arabia: if Saudi weapons and systems are so reliant on US assistance, perhaps the Saudis should be compelled to comply with new US terms; Such a move would help change the narrative that the US will never use its military aid leverage over other countries. If the United States suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, other major arms exporters might either take similar measures or continue to follow their own preexisting scalebacks.
End Saudi Arms Sales
The United States’ arms sales to Saudi Arabia are flawed in humanitarian, economic and political terms. Rather than search for innovative ways to justify protecting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United States can and should work to legitimately foster sustainable peace and stability in the Middle East. In short, the United States ought to reverse its wrongs by ending its arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Doing so will not only allow war-torn Yemen to begin to recover, but would also allow the United States to better revitalize its own economy, and reassert its military leverage and international authority to hold allied states like Saudi Arabia accountable for their agendas and actions.
The image featured with this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. The original was taken by Shealah Craighead (displayed online by Ninian Reid) and can be found here.
Sophia Lam is a third year chemistry and political science major from New York City. On campus, she’s a member of Phi Alpha Delta and a debate teacher at Debate It Forward. She’s previously worked as an intern at Boies Schiller and Flexner and at Pfizer Inc.