Client states rejoice: Arms spigot reopens for Saudi Arabia, UAE
The Biden administration approved new arms sales worth an estimated total of $5 billion to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) earlier this week.
In the latest sign that the administration is resuming business as usual with the two client governments, the State Department justified the potential sales of Patriot and THAAD missiles as necessary to assist in defending their countries against possible aerial attacks.
The notification of new arms sales came as the truce in Yemen was extended again for another two months in what has been the longest pause in hostilities since the beginning of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in March 2015. While the sales would technically be in line with the Biden administration’s commitment to sell only defensive weapons to Saudi coalition members, the U.S. should not be providing these governments with weapons of any kind at least until the war on Yemen has ended.
Any military support that helps Saudi Arabia and the UAE to continue their interventionist policies in Yemen is an unacceptable enabling of an unjust war and should be rejected by Congress.
The missiles in question are used for defensive purposes, but the potential sales are nonetheless taking place in the context of an aggressive war that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been waging against a neighboring country for more than seven years. They have been forced to guard against drone and missile attacks from Yemen because they had been conducting an indiscriminate bombing campaign that killed thousands of Yemeni civilians and because they continue to support proxy forces on the ground there. Aerial attacks on their territory are the consequences of their own actions.
Proceeding with these missile sales signals to both governments that they will pay no penalty for the war crimes they have committed with U.S.-made weapons in the past. Instead, their governments will conclude that the U.S. will continue to arm them no matter what they do if it can be spun as supporting their “self-defense.” The more support that these governments receive from the United States, the more reckless and irresponsible they have tended to be, and that makes any new arms sales potentially dangerous.
The latest arms sales were announced the same week that OPEC+ agreed to a minuscule increase in oil production of 100,000 barrels a day in what has been widely interpreted as a “rebuff” to Biden in the wake of his controversial visit to Saudi Arabia last month. As Raad Alkadiri of Eurasia Group put it, “That is so little as to be meaningless. From a physical standpoint, it is a marginal blip. As a political gesture, it is almost insulting.”
The tiny increase in production was not surprising, but it illustrates how little Biden had to show for his currying favor with the Saudi government. The bad bargain of the U.S.-Saudi relationship remains unchanged: the U.S. provides protection and weapons to guard against threats that Saudi actions have provoked and then the Saudis offer practically nothing in return.
The Associated Press report on the arms sales framed them as part of an effort to “counter Iran,” but with the exception of the Abqaiq strike in 2019 Saudi Arabia and the UAE have had no need to defend against direct Iranian attacks. The principal danger of aerial attacks against Saudi and Emirati territory has come from Yemen, and it has come from Yemen because these governments have been intervening in Yemen.
The provision of these missiles is more proof of the failure of the Saudi-led intervention, which has not only devastated Yemen, but has also undermined the security of the coalition states that have been attacking it. When it began, the Saudi government sold the war as a way to stabilize Yemen and bring security to the region, but it has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe for the former and instability and increased danger for the latter.
The surest way to protect these countries against further aerial attacks is for their governments to end their war and to stop interfering in Yemeni affairs.
The State Department’s explanation of these sales described Saudi Arabia and the UAE in very flattering but inaccurate terms, calling the UAE “a vital U.S. partner for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East” and referring to the Saudi government in similar terms. These lines are just so much official boilerplate, but they reflect our government’s mistaken belief that these two governments are working to stabilize and improve the region when the evidence of the last seven years proves just the opposite.
In addition to the latest missile sales, the Biden administration has also been working on the creation of a new mechanism for monitoring human rights abuses in Yemen after the Saudi government successfully lobbied to terminate the Group of Eminent Experts last year. Unfortunately, the new mechanism would reportedly be deeply compromised and biased in favor of the Saudi coalition and the recognized government of Yemen from the start.
In place of the independent group that the Saudi government quashed, the new committee would include representatives of the Yemeni government’s new presidential council. According to Abdulrasheed al-Faqih, a Yemeni human rights activist and co-founder of Mwatana for Human Rights, this would be like having the Russian government investigate itself when it is accused of war crimes.
Only a truly independent body that has no allegiance to any of the belligerents can conduct credible and thorough investigations into allegations of wrongdoing by all parties. The Saudi government has already shown that it will not tolerate a genuinely independent investigative body. The Biden administration is making a mistake if it backs the creation of a new mechanism that allows the Saudi coalition and the Yemeni government to escape accountability for their abuses.
Even before the president’s unfortunate meeting with Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah last month, the Biden administration had been cultivating warmer relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Despite a brief pause in arms sales in the first part of 2021, the U.S. has gone out of its way to show support for both governments, up to and including increased military deployments to defend their territory. The new arms sales are the latest in a series of gestures intended to placate these client states, but they are unlikely to stay satisfied for very long. Experience suggests that this will just whet their appetite for more demands in the future.
The weapons deals approved by the Biden administration are liable to encourage U.S. clients to become more aggressive because they will assume that they can protect themselves more effectively against drone and missile attacks. More arms sales to despotic governments will not produce a more peaceful and secure region in any case. If anything, they are much more likely to fuel a regional arms race and increase tensions with Iran, and that could pave the way to another destabilizing conflict.