After the alleged Oct. 2 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, a bipartisan group of U.S. politicians urged President Donald Trump to end U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Trump refused to take that action, citing the job-creating benefit of U.S.-Saudi arms deals.
Continuing arms sales with Saudi Arabia is a grave mistake. The Trump administration should suspend selling arms or making transfers to Saudi Arabia to protest the kingdom’s unacceptable actions in Yemen.
Though the United States and Saudi Arabia share foreign policy goals, like containing Iran and opposing Syrian leader Bashar Assad, both countries increasingly differ in their execution of these goals. Saudi Arabia’s expansionist foreign policy exacerbates instabilities and religious sectarianism, as is reflected in particular by its actions in Yemen.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia — along with a coalition of nine other countries — has intervened in Yemen to counter the Houthi takeover of the country in 2014. The Houthi are a largely Shiite minority in Yemen whose anti-government insurgency began in 2004 and gained national momentum in 2014 with the takeover.
More than 15,000 civilians have died in the Saudi-Houthi military conflict, according to Amnesty International. Saudi naval blockades off the coast of Yemen to restrict imports, coupled with a weak Yemeni currency, have led to massive starvation of civilians in the country. In October 2018, the United Nations estimated that 13 million people in Yemen face starvation — the worst famine situation in a century.
Among the 81 airstrikes in Yemen that violated the international humanitarian law according to U.K. newspaper The Independent, 23 were carried out by the Saudi-led coalition with U.S. manufactured arms, according to Human Rights Watch.
The United States is funding the most severe and destructive humanitarian crisis in the world: Our country loses legitimacy as an exemplar of human rights when it actively enables suffering in one of the poorest countries in the Arab world.
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia also exacerbate double standards in U.S. foreign policy. The United States applies harsh metrics to foreign policy opponents when determining their military legitimacy but maintains favorable attitudes toward its allies and friends.
By supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen while criticizing Russia’s support for the Assad regime’s campaign in Syria’s civil war, the United States is demonstrating incredible hypocrisy. Both nations’ actions are foreign assistance to dangerous regional actors in domestic conflicts: Double standards hurt U.S. credibility and undermine the country’s international image.
Continuing arms sales to Saudi Arabia also drags the United States into a dangerous quagmire wherein it is held responsible for the kingdom’s regional actions — especially its military interventions.
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have already led to anti-United States sentiments. In war-ridden Yemen, the slogan “USA Kills Yemeni People” appears on some billboards and walls.
Anti-Americanism in an unstable Yemen could be gravely dangerous to U.S. security. Political instability and terrorism are strongly correlated, according to research by then-University of Maryland doctoral candidate and current Stockton University associate professor Susan Fahey in her 2010 dissertation. In politically vulnerable Yemen, Houthi rebels and terrorist organizations manipulate anti-U.S. rhetoric to advance their causes.
Trump has repeatedly emphasized the importance of these arms deals for creating jobs. Yet, in reality, these deals have minimal effects on employment. Arms deals, compared to investment in education, health care and the green economy, are the least efficient way to create jobs, according to a 2011 study conducted by economics professor Robert Pollin and research fellow Heidi Garrett-Peltier of the University of Massachusetts. The study found that spending $1 billion on the military only generates 11,200 jobs, compared to 26,700 in education, 17,200 in health care and 16,800 for the green economy.
The United States currently uses arms sales as singularly-focused financial transactions. Instead, these deals should be used as an effective political instrument. The Trump administration should shift arms sales from unconditional transfers to conditional deals. Tying conditions to arms sales effectively conveys U.S. expectations of its allies and clients.
Canada is currently considering Bill C-47, which creates a framework to control arms brokers and requires the foreign minister to consider certain criteria before issuing export or brokering permits. The United States should follow a similar path in adopting an objective list of standards that countries must follow to gain export permits.
In the context of the Yemeni civil war, the United States should suspend arms sales to constrain Saudi Arabia’s action. Specifically, the United States should pressure the Saudis to immediately implement a ceasefire and set a negotiation timetable for Saudi Arabia to work out a political solution with Houthis in Yemen.
At the same time, a ceasefire would allow Yemeni civilians to gain access to humanitarian assistance. In so doing, United States could regain the moral high ground by properly responding to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Arms deals give the United States power; it should not squander this leverage.
Victoria Liu is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. Globetrotting From D.C. appears online every other Monday.