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Essay: Termination of United States Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

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  • Published: 12 April 2023*
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Recent tensions within the relationship between the United States of America and Saudi Arabia have led to the political concept of halting military aid provisions, specifically arms to the Saudi Government. Heightened by the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, these talks have both escalated and prompted new muck-raking, elucidating the negative effect the sales were having on the world from an international standpoint, and the potential that ending sales could lead to have become more available than ever. Although a controversial topic, because of the rising conflict in the Yemen War – that is arguably attributable to the United States’ lust for profit, the growing importance of “soft power” in today’s international climate, a more domestic-centered oil focus, and a federal obligation to move towards a green-oriented future – the United States of America should halt its sales of Arms to Saudi Arabia. Diplomacy, self-sustainability, and ultimately morality ought to be valued over the delusion of profit that is shrouding a deeper-set issue: fear.

The United States’ History in Saudi Sales

Nearly a century of relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have been in the making. Brokering deals between these two countries has largely been contingent upon two sectors: arms and oil. The historical processes taken between both countries that determine where they are now have been lengthy, but are important to understand.


Legitimized by the Mutual Defense Assistance Act of 1949, signed, “To promote the foreign policy and provide for the defense and general welfare of the United States by furnishing military assistance to foreign nations,” the United States’ trade relations with Saudi Arabia quickly grew to be a relatively healthy international reliance (Mutual Defense, 1949). A perpetual exchange in arms for money bolstered other tradable sectors between the two nations, such as energy. The survival of the OPEC Oil Crisis of the 1970s, wherein several Middle Eastern countries withheld exporting their oil to the United States – including Saudi Arabia – and the persistence through the 9/11 attacks, where fifteen out of the nineteen assailants were Saudi citizens, was critical to reach the current status of the two nations.

Profit Projections

As Saudi Arabia imported their weapons mainly from the U.S., America in turn became most reliant on the Saudis for their oil. Deals solidified relations for many years. For example, most recently a deal signed between the oil-rich country and the States in May of 2017, an exchange championed by sitting president Donald Trump, which claimed to bring in incredibly profitable revenues, “expected to total some $350 billion over a decade. According to the arms researcher SIPRI, Saudi Arabia’s total arms imports were almost eighteen times greater in 2017 than they were a decade earlier.” (Alyas, 2018). Soon after signing, national predictions for the amount of income to the U.S. from immediate investments was said to be $110 billion; a substantial chunk of the projection. Trump has used these projections to defend any talk of stopping the sales of arms to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, however, years into the deal, signings have only amounted to $14.5 billion in returns to America instead of the projected $350 billion. (Diamond & Starr, 2018). As the number one buyer of U.S. arms, Saudi Arabia can seem to be an irreplaceable asset for oil, GDP growth, employment in the arms development sector, and foreign relations.

Escalation of the Yemen War

The arms supplied to Saudi Arabia have worsened the “civil war” in Yemen that has been deemed by some as merely a proxy war between the Saudis and Iranians. After a proposal of constitutional reform that split Yemen into north and south regions, the article “The war the world ignores” (2017) explains:
Houthi rebels…rejected it. The Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shiism (as do perhaps 40% of Yemenis), complained that, among other things, the constitution stuck them in a region with few resources and without access to the sea. (para. 5)

The alleged disenfranchisement of this region led to the overthrow of Yemen’s president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in 2015. Those responsible were the Houthi rebels, supported by the former authoritarian Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was immediately succeeded by Hadi. War broke out within Yemen, but was predicted to last mere weeks. As its neighbors to the north (Saudi Arabia), started watching the action unfold, suspicions were immediately raised about the ties between the Houthis and Iran. Iran, the Saudis’ greatest rival, and the rebels share ties through Shiism. Iran thus supports the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia nearly immediately championed the standing government, but again, predominantly for religious reasons. As one of the poorest middle-eastern country’s conflict drew two of the most powerful countries in the region, one of which provides defense as a middle-man from the United States, what was predicted to be a short conflict turned into a war of close to four years. Saudi Arabia, in advancement, blockaded Yemen’s main port where citizens –nearly eleven million of which are under 18 – get most of their food and medicine imported from. Bazzi (2018), explains:

The war has killed at least 10,000 Yemenis and left more than 22 million people – three-quarters of Yemen’s population – in need of humanitarian aid. At least 8 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine, and 1 million are infected with cholera. (para. 4)

Ultimately, what was meant to be a flex and factor of intimidation has led to a humanitarian crisis that has added to the thousands of civilians who have been killed in strikes, mainly Saudi-led with American weapons. As time goes on, it only gets worse. “Soon after Trump took office … his administration reversed a decision by former president Barack Obama to suspend the sale of over $500m in laser-guided bombs and other munitions to the Saudi military, over concerns about civilian deaths in Yemen” (Bazzi, 2018). Regardless of it being the choice of Saudi Arabia to use American supplies to the war, it still is up to America to stop furthering a humanitarian crisis sparked by religious intolerance and desire for profit.

Khashoggi Assassination

The focus of Saudi Arabia in the Trump administration’s Middle Eastern policies was incredibly close to snapping in October of 2018. On the second of that month, Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate building in Istanbul, the Capital of Turkey. He never came out. After publishing writings critical of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, a team sent from Riyadh dismembered Khashoggi in an operation that U.S. intelligences call “inconceivable that the crown prince had no connection to Khashoggi’s death” (Givetash, 2019). This outraged nearly all U.S. politicians, who called for dealings and reevaluations with the Crown Prince. However, one politician has tried to downplay this heinous act: Donald Trump. Wishing to preserve relations with Saudi Arabia, talks of reprimand with bin Salam have not happened and do not appear to be in the future. The death of an American resident should never be downplayed, but it has overshadowed and at the same time brought to light the American involvement through the Saudis in Yemen: many proponents of ending the war say that because of the death of one American journalist, the conflict in Yemen should be ended, and not primarily because of the thousands of deaths there. Soviet historian Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, in his book “Portrait of a Tyrant” attributes former Communist dictator Joseph Stalin to appropriately summarizing situations like these: “When one man dies it’s a tragedy. When thousands die it’s statistics.” (“Joseph Stalin,” 2019).

Ties to Resources

Saudi Arabia has been the top weapons buyer from the United States for several years. When asked about the halting of arms deals to the kingdom in an interview, President Trump replied stating “I tell you what I don’t want to do, Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these [companies]. I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that. There are other ways of punishing, to use a word that’s a pretty harsh word, but it’s true.” (Klug & Flaum, 2018). Largely, he directs attention to the profit projections of $110 billion from arms deals, but no reputable source confirms this. Concerns over oil have also erupted, and directly after the Khashoggi assassination, DiChristopher (2018) shows the Saudi government issued a statement that some took as a veiled message that threatened an embargo:

The question is whether Saudi Arabia — the world’s largest oil exporter, a close ally of President Donald Trump and the de facto leader of OPEC — would take that extraordinary step [of wielding crude as a weapon], one it has not taken since the Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974. (para. 2)

Whether or not Saudi Arabia would actually take that step, the evidence is inconclusive.

The Necessity of Stopping Arms Deals

When weighing things through an analysis of both potential costs and benefits of an action, a true conclusion of whether or not an action should occur presents itself. All arguments towards and against the termination of arms sales to the kingdom prove the moral, diplomatic, and ultimate obligation to pull out of arms supplies to Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Contributions to Famine and Bombing

Despite it being the Houthis who instigated the war, Saudi Arabia, in response, is the party accused frequently for crimes of war, and usually, rightly so. Reckless bombings and raids have been incompetent and careless. Organizations dedicated to promoting human rights say bombs have been aimed at schools, markets, mosques and hospitals. “A recent attack on a school bus in Yemen that killed dozens of children was carried out with a bomb the U.S. sold to Saudi Arabia.” (Ivanova, 2018). The blockade being employed by the Saudis has raised concerns over whether or not the kingdom is holding food, medicine, and other necessary items as a hostage against the Yemeni people. Conclusively, the article “The war the world ignores.” (2017) tells:

The longer the war goes on, the more Saudi Arabia’s Western allies are complicit in its actions. President Donald Trump has given Saudi Arabia carte blanche to act recklessly. He may think it is all part of confronting Iran; or he may want to support the liberalising reforms of the Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman; or he may hope to profit by selling the Saudis “lots of beautiful military equipment”. Whatever the case, he is damaging America’s interests. (para. 9)

The presence the United States brings to Yemen through Saudi Arabia is one of carelessness and more care for profit than for their people. By halting the sales, if the U.S. really cared about their image as a country, they would then be able to focus less on rash and thoughtless bombings and more on humanitarian aid and providing for those who have been impoverished by their own deals.

Negative Hegemonic Influence

Yemen’s war has established itself as one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. However, instead of America pushing towards the end of the conflict and helping the people, they profit off of fueling religious hatred and bigotry between countries. This puts America on a pedestal of power that is constructed upon fear and a detrimental hegemonic stance. Looking down on those who need help only worsens the problem, especially when the looking down is to lock a bombing target. The United States has enormous potential for good in this situation but instead chooses to capitalize on the status quo instead of changing and using its influence to change even Saudi Arabia’s goals and help those in destitute circumstances.

Worries of Pulling Out

Political arguments for staying with the Saudis and the arms deals are mainly championed by the President, and largely have no real implications, but still should be addressed.

Profits in Actuality

The argument the President of the U.S. uses to show the economic dependence the United States has on the deals made with the Saudis is contingent upon the signing of deals worth up to, as he has repeatedly stated for more than a year and a half, $110 billion. This truly is a facade for a deeper issue; there is no source that would back up his claims, including departments of the government. Saudi Arabia has no commitment amounting to near that amount. Riedel (2017) calls it “fake news”, stating:

There is no $110 billion deal. Instead, there are a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts. Many are offers that the defense industry thinks the Saudis will be interested in someday. So far nothing has been notified to the Senate for review. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the arms sales wing of the Pentagon, calls them “intended sales.” None of the deals identified so far are new, all began in the Obama administration. (para. 2)

The jobs he says that rely on this deal aren’t threatened; the money he says the U.S. is getting isn’t coming; the reasons he has for continuing are unfounded.

Russian Influence Empowered

Worries touted by those who wish to remain trading partners with the kingdom also can be directed towards what would happen when Saudi Arabia has no weapons from the U.S., and most likely, it is true that instead of reforming, they’d turn to Russia. This has raised concerns even in the present, as before signing some deals proposed in Trump’s 2017 plan, the oil-rich country talked to Russia to see if they had better options. Woody (2018) addresses whether or not they’ll take America’s deal:

More concerning for US officials is Saudi Arabia’s continued interest in the Russian-made advanced S-400 air-defense system. According to The Post, the Saudis have resisted US requests to disavow their interest buying the S-400 and have continued talks with Moscow (para. 10,11).

The potential shift towards Russia for an arms supply can be concerning, and some would argue that it would nullify the harms of United States’ arms being used in the Yemen conflict, as they’re getting arms regardless. This ignores two things: first, Russian weapons are far inferior to the United States’.

Konstantin Sivkov, a Russian weapons expert, from the article “Russian Army is no match for American military power” (2018) says that, in fact, the Russian Air Force technology and overall military is four times worse than the United States’ (para. 4).. So, this means that Russian weapons would not be nearly as good, but also that they’d be much less cost-effective. The crisis wouldn’t be stopped, but lessened substantially. Secondly, by focusing less on selling arms, the United States would be able to put more into its government programs that already exist that specifically help those impoverished in Yemen. Historically speaking, not only does increased humanitarian work lessen the effects of violence (shown even in Yemen), but also can deter violence in the first place. By providing more for the people of Yemen, the United States would be able to lessen the effects of the war and even slow it down, even in spite of Russian intervention.

Oil Crisis

Even though the United States currently imports more oil from the Saudis than anywhere else, regardless of the outcome of pulling out of arms deals, perhaps it wouldn’t be as bad as it seems. A long-term immediate halt of oil to America definitely could be disastrous short-term, but for the first time in 75 years, the U.S. has stopped its reliance on foreign oil. Blas (2018) says Trump himself is even branding the moment as “energy independence.” (para. 1) Even now, the United States has enough oil underground to pay off the debt nine times over (seven times now, with the increased debt): $150.5 trillion. The United States has oil that it could definitely use in the case of an oil embargo, and it may even push towards further research on greener energy sources. This is not only beneficial to the United States, but to the world as a whole.

Coalescence and Impact

For reasons explained above – and summarized below – that are beneficial to both the United States and to the people of Yemen, the U.S. needs to stop selling arms towards Saudi Arabia.

Short Term

The U.S. will become a more respectable global force immediately after halting the deals between the two currently symbiotic countries. They should then be able to move towards condemning both human rights violations and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and promoting humanitarian reform and the ending of violence. Instead of profiting off of the war in Yemen, the impacts will start coming to fruition: better quality of life for the Yemenis, better international positioning, and better morality within trading.

Long Term

In the long haul, pulling out will most likely bring out Russian influence, but will be nowhere near as effective as the status quo in furthering the Yemen War. The humanitarian aid will mitigate the harms of violence and lead to less violence overall. Hopefully, as it becomes less and less cost effective and the bigoted origins of the conflict may be brought to light, ultimately the conflict will end. This will lead to domestic energy independence within the United States and greater research in green energy, an important concern in a world that is on the brink of unnatural disaster. The ending of the era of supplying an authoritarian regime with arms capable of destruction to the degree of which it has decimated the people of Yemen would lead to a new beginning: one of peace, reliance, responsibility, and prosperity.


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