Want to pun­ish Saudi Ara­bia? Cut off its weapons sup­ply

Iran Daily - - International - By Jonathan D. Caver­ley*

More than a week af­ter Ja­mal Khashoggi, a Saudi Ara­bian journalist, com­men­ta­tor and in­tel­lec­tual dis­ap­peared in­side the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul, the United States is start­ing to re­al­ize it may be time to hold the govern­ment in Riyadh ac­count­able for its reck­less be­hav­ior and its vi­o­la­tions of hu­man rights.

On Oct. 10, Bob Corker and Bob Me­nen­dez, the top Repub­li­can and Demo­crat in the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, trig­gered the Global Mag­nit­sky Act, a bi­par­ti­san bill to pun­ish hu­man rights vi­o­la­tors, to force the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to in­ves­ti­gate and con­sider sanc­tions against Saudi Ara­bia. The cri­sis over Mr. Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance piles on to grow­ing — if be­lated — con­cern over Saudi Ara­bia’s dis­as­trous war in Ye­men, which has pro­duced lit­tle geopo­lit­i­cal gain and much hu­man suf­fer­ing.

If Amer­i­can of­fi­cials re­ally want to en­cour­age a change in Saudi pol­icy, they should be­gin by look­ing at Saudi Ara­bia’s largest im­ports from the United States: weaponry. Cut­ting off the flow of Amer­i­can arms to Saudi Ara­bia would be an ef­fec­tive way to put pres­sure on Riyadh with lit­tle cost to the Amer­i­can econ­omy or na­tional se­cu­rity.

Pres­i­dent Trump, how­ever, is skep­ti­cal. “I don’t like stop­ping mas­sive amounts of money that’s be­ing poured into our coun­try,” he said on Thurs­day. “They are spend­ing $110 bil­lion on mil­i­tary equip­ment and on things that cre­ate jobs for this coun­try.” This fig­ure is vastly in­flated, but there’s a rea­son Mr. Trump is in­clined to be­lieve it. While the amount of new deals ap­proved un­der Pres­i­dent Trump is closer to $20 bil­lion, the Saudi govern­ment has vis­i­bly linked it­self as the fore­most client of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ex­port push.

Peter Navarro, the White House’s di­rec­tor of trade and in­dus­trial pol­icy, has ar­gued that in­creased arms sales “will be an im­por­tant cat­a­lyst for strength­en­ing Amer­i­can in­dus­try; the stew­ard­ship of our na­tional se­cu­rity; and the strength­en­ing of our in­ter­na­tional part­ner­ships.” But the truth is that in the case of Saudi Ara­bia, the ben­e­fits on all three fronts are slight.

De­spite re­cent in­creases, Saudi arms or­ders re­main a man­age­ably small part of the United States’ ex­ports. Ac­cord­ing to the De­fense Se­cu­rity Co­op­er­a­tion Agency, in 2017, a near­record year for an­nual pur­chases, the United States de­liv­ered $5.5 bil­lion worth of arms, 20 per­cent of all for­eign mil­i­tary sales. That may sound like a lot, but the United States ex­ports only 25 to 30 per­cent of its de­fense in­dus­try pro­duc­tion, so ex­ports to Saudi Ara­bia clearly re­main a rel­a­tively small slice of the enor­mous de­fense in­dus­trial pie.

And con­trary to Pres­i­dent Trump’s state­ment, ex­ports to Saudi Ara­bia cre­ate rel­a­tively few Amer­i­can jobs. Based on Com­merce De­part­ment fig­ures, re­leas­ing the bil­lion dollars of mu­ni­tions cur­rently on hold in the Se­nate would “cre­ate or sus­tain” fewer than 4,000 jobs. Here’s a more spe­cific ex­am­ple: Pub­li­ciz­ing a re­cent $6 bil­lion he­li­copter deal with Saudi Ara­bia, Lock­heed Martin pre­dicted that it would “sup­port” 450 Amer­i­can jobs.

To date these sales have not “stew­arded our na­tional se­cu­rity.” Be­yond its tragic war in Ye­men, Saudi Ara­bia has block­aded Qatar, an ally that hosts the Mid­dle East’s largest Amer­i­can mil­i­tary base. And Saudi Ara­bia pro­vides lit­tle help when it comes to Wash­ing­ton’s real re­gional pri­or­i­ties, such as fighting the IS (Daesh) and sta­bi­liz­ing Iraq. The Pen­tagon’s Na­tional De­fense Strat­egy specif­i­cally de-em­pha­sizes the war on ter­ror to fo­cus on com­pe­ti­tion with China and Rus­sia.

Per­haps sell­ing weapons “strength­ens in­ter­na­tional part­ner­ships,” as Mr. Navarro put it, or at least dis­cour­ages Saudi Ara­bia from find­ing dif­fer­ent ones. Mr. Trump on Thurs­day cited “four or five al­ter­na­tives” to Amer­i­can weapons, and the need to avoid “let­ting Rus­sia have that money and let­ting China have that money.” This, how­ever, is un­likely even in the long term.

Saudi Ara­bia is in the mid­dle of a ma­jor war, and more than 60 per­cent of its arms de­liv­er­ies over the past five years came from the United States. The Saudi mil­i­tary re­lies not just on Amer­i­can tanks, planes and mis­siles but for a daily sup­ply of main­te­nance, train­ing and sup­port, such as in­tel­li­gence and re­fu­el­ing. In the longer term, al­most all of Saudi Ara­bia’s re­main­ing ex­ports come from Europe. To truly squeeze Saudi Ara­bia, a co­or­di­nated em­bargo would be nec­es­sary but rel­a­tively easy. Euro­pean gov­ern­ments al­ready feel strong do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal pres­sure not to ex­port to regimes like Saudi Ara­bia.

Trans­form­ing the Saudi mil­i­tary to em­ploy Rus­sian, much less Chi­nese, weapons would cost a for­tune even by [Per­sian Gulf] stan­dards, would re­quire years of re­train­ing and would greatly re­duce its mil­i­tary power for a gen­er­a­tion. China has not pro­duced, never mind ex­ported, the so­phis­ti­cated air­craft and mis­sile de­fense sys­tems Saudi Ara­bia wants.

Last month, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo cer­ti­fied that Saudi Ara­bia was min­i­miz­ing civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in the Ye­men air cam­paign ap­par­ently to avoid jeop­ar­diz­ing $2 bil­lion in weapons sales. That small num­ber does not show how pow­er­ful the Saudis are so much as how cheaply the United States can be bought. Given these sales’ low do­mes­tic eco­nomic im­pact and the enor­mous costs of go­ing else­where for Saudi Ara­bia, the United States has the pre­pon­der­ance of in­flu­ence in this arms trade re­la­tion­ship. It should act ac­cord­ingly.

* Jonathan D. Caver­ley (@jcaver­ley) is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the United States Naval War Col­lege and a re­search sci­en­tist at M.I.T.

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