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Op-Ed: Why tough talk about the Saudis could still lead to big arm sales

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated power with ruthless authoritarian tactics.
(Mikhail Klimentyev / PBS)

In its final days, the Trump administration handed Saudi Arabia some parting gifts. It approved two new packages of arms sales, totaling more than $750 million in precision-guided bombs and other weapons to the kingdom. It also designated Yemen’s Houthi movement, which has been fighting a six-year-long war with the Saudis, a terrorist organization, barring aid to a starving nation.

In his first weeks in office, President Biden reversed both actions. On Thursday, in his first major foreign policy speech as president, Biden promised to stop American participation in “offensive operations” in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, including relevant weapons sales. This pledge would end U.S. support for a war that has killed an estimated 233,000 people, created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and exposed American officials to potential war crimes charges.

Biden has long talked tough about the Saudis, saying in a November 2019 campaign debate that he would make them into “the pariah that they are.” But directing U.S. policy toward the Saudi regime is never so straightforward.

For instance, in last week’s speech, Biden also promised to help Saudi Arabia “defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity.” That could leave open the door to more weapons sales if the Saudis manage to repackage arms deals as necessary for defense against the Houthi rebels, who have attacked Saudi territory with missiles and drones.

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An even bigger challenge for Biden is dealing with the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, and the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. While Biden has pledged to defend political dissidents, like Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, the test is whether that will translate into a new foreign policy.

A good first step is to release an unclassified report on Khashoggi’s assassination, as the new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, has promised to do. The Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the crown prince, known as MBS, ordered the killing, but President Trump never wavered in his defense of the prince and even issued an extraordinary statement casting doubt on the CIA’s conclusion.

By releasing the intelligence community’s report, Biden can undo two years of stonewalling by the Trump administration and restore some credibility. In turning a blind eye to Saudi abuses, Trump encouraged MBS and other autocrats to believe that the United States would cover for them as long as they continued to buy American weapons and kept oil prices stable.

Since rising to power with his father’s ascension to the Saudi throne in 2015, MBS has presided over a series of catastrophic policies that have destabilized the Middle East and harmed U.S. interests. He is the architect of the Yemen war, expecting a quick victory against the Houthis, who are allied with Iran. But in fact, Tehran has benefited from the conflict, tying up Saudi Arabia in a costly quagmire while increasing its support to the Houthi militia.

In 2017, MBS and his allies imposed a blockade against the kingdom’s smaller neighbor, Qatar, precipitating a crisis between two U.S. partners that only ended last month. In his drive to consolidate power, MBS has ordered the arrest of hundreds of activists, political opponents and some of the kingdom’s wealthiest businessmen. Many of these dissidents are still languishing in prison.

MBS’ rise was also facilitated by Western business leaders, politicians and journalists who had been seduced by the idea that he was a young reformer. On a tour of the United States a few months before Khashoggi’s murder, MBS was feted as an evangelist for technology and entrepreneurship, one who could modernize the conservative kingdom. Many of the business executives and politicians who sang his praises wanted investments from Saudi Arabia’s $400-billion sovereign wealth fund and were willing to overlook his brutal authoritarian instincts.

Saudi Arabia’s reliable purchasing of armaments has always been attractive to other governments. It became the world’s largest weapons importer from 2015 to 2019, an increase of 130% compared with the previous five-year period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That increase coincided with MBS’ ascendance and the start of Saudi intervention in Yemen in March 2015. Since 2009, the U.S. alone has reached agreements to sell nearly $139 billion in weapons to the kingdom, with about $76 billion in deals concluded so far.

These sales fueled an arms race in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and its main ally, the United Arab Emirates, devoting large portions of their GDP to military spending to confront their regional rival, Iran.

Today, two years after Khashoggi’s murder disrupted MBS’ international charm offensive, many American and Western business executives are once again vying for the prince’s favor. Last month, top Wall Street executives participated virtually in a major investment conference, nicknamed “Davos in the Desert,” in Riyadh, after snubbing the event in past years.

The Biden administration will be under pressure not to block opportunities for American companies seeking lucrative deals with Saudi leaders, after the world economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden has to resist the temptation to fall into the pattern of previous administrations: a transactional partnership with Saudi Arabia based on keeping oil prices stable, large arms deals and perceived security interests in the Middle East.

With his promise to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war, Biden shows he is willing to diverge from the Saudi agenda. The next step is to respond in a meaningful way to the government’s human rights violations and repression.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is a nonresident fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now.


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