Mil­i­tary part­ner­ship: What’s at stake as the cri­sis in­ten­si­fies.

King­dom’s strength has not matched its buy­ing power

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MISSY RYAN missy.ryan@wash­post.com Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung con­trib­uted to this re­port.

In­ter­na­tional con­cern over Saudi Ara­bia’s sus­pected role in the dis­ap­pear­ance of a prom­i­nent Saudi jour­nal­ist has threat­ened to dis­rupt one of the United States’ most im­por­tant se­cu­rity part­ner­ships.

Re­ports that Ja­mal Khashoggi, a Washington Post colum­nist and critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, was killed in the Saudi Con­sulate in Is­tan­bul this month have sparked a wave of crit­i­cism of the king­dom and ques­tions about whether Pres­i­dent Trump and his top aides have em­bold­ened the young royal.

While the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­acted cau­tiously to re­ports that Saudi Ara­bia is re­spon­si­ble for Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance, law­mak­ers have de­manded a strong U.S. re­sponse, po­ten­tially in­clud­ing steps to cur­tail arms sales or af­fect other as­pects of U.S. de­fense ties with the king­dom.

On Fri­day, Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein (D-Calif.) called for a broad halt to mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion if Saudi re­spon­si­bil­ity is es­tab­lished, adding her voice to a grow­ing ros­ter of law­mak­ers link­ing se­cu­rity ties to Khashoggi’s fate.

“Saudi Ara­bia was once one of our clos­est al­lies in the Mid­dle East,” Fe­in­stein said in a state­ment. “I think now is the time to reeval­u­ate that re­la­tion­ship.”

Some law­mak­ers have called for sanc­tions or sus­pen­sion of mil­i­tary aid to the king­dom’s war in neigh­bor­ing Ye­men. Oth­ers have said there may be “hell to pay,” as Sen. Lind­sey O. Gra­ham (R-S.C.) put it this week, if the king­dom is found re­spon­si­ble.

But Trump, who has made the Saudi monar­chy his premier Arab ally, waved off those de­mands, telling re­porters that cut­ting off sales to the world’s largest buyer of U.S. weaponry “would not be ac­cept­able to me.”

“If we don’t sell it to them, they’ll say, ‘ Well, thank you very much. We’ll buy it from Rus­sia.’ Or ‘ Thank you very much. We’ll buy it from China,’ ” Trump said. “That doesn’t help us — not when it comes to jobs and not when it comes to our com­pa­nies los­ing out on that work.”

The pres­i­dent’s com­ments may say as much about his trans­ac­tional view of for­eign re­la­tion­ships, el­e­vat­ing eco­nomic con­cerns over hu­man rights, as they do about the cen­tral­ity of arms sales to the two coun­tries’ de­fense re­la­tion­ship.

For decades Saudi Ara­bia has been an im­por­tant Amer­i­can mil­i­tary part­ner in the Arab world, where its sta­tus as the home to Is­lam’s holi­est sites boosts its lead­er­ship cre­den­tials. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks in the United States, the king­dom has played a crit­i­cal role in U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­forts, sup­ply­ing the gov­ern­ment with in­tel­li­gence about ex­trem­ist threats.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly, Saudi Ara­bia has used petrodol­lars to build up the Arab world’s most so­phis­ti­cated mil­i­tary ar­se­nal. With one of the world’s largest mil­i­tary bud­gets, the king­dom boasts a large fleet of F-15 and Tor­nado fighter jets, Apache he­li­copters and other ad­vanced air­craft.

About $14.5 bil­lion in ma­jor sales have been con­cluded with Saudi Ara­bia since Trump be­came pres­i­dent, but much or all of that was ini­ti­ated be­fore he took of­fice.

The po­ten­tial for a shut-off to the lu­cra­tive arms pipe­line has alarmed the de­fense in­dus­try.

The sales are even more sig­nif­i­cant for the ad­min­is­tra­tion be­cause, un­like Is­rael and Egypt, Saudi Ara­bia uses its own money rather than U.S. aid to fi­nance arms pur­chases.

Al­though Congress has the power to broadly halt arms sales or sus­pend mil­i­tary aid, law­mak­ers have so far de­clined to do so. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, frus­trated by Saudi at­tacks on civil­ian sites in Ye­men, tem­po­rar­ily halted sales of pre­ci­sion mu­ni­tions in 2016, but Trump re­versed that move af­ter tak­ing of­fice.

For Saudi Ara­bia, the race to arm it­self has been aimed not just at boost­ing its fight­ing power but also deep­en­ing po­lit­i­cal ties with pro­ducer na­tions like the United States. The fa­vor those sales have cur­ried was vis­i­ble in Trump’s Oval Of­fice com­ments this week.

But an­a­lysts and for­mer of­fi­cials said the cul­ti­va­tion of Saudi Ara­bia as the top U.S. arms cus­tomer had not yet turned the king­dom into Washington’s es­sen­tial mil­i­tary part­ner in the Arab world.

“In terms of the mil­i­tary or se­cu­rity ben­e­fit we get, there’s no au­to­matic trans­la­tion from those weapons into an op­er­a­tional ca­pac­ity un­for­tu­nately,” said Andrew Miller, deputy di­rec­tor for pol­icy at the Project on Mid­dle East Democ­racy. “There would need to be more of an em­pha­sis on train­ing and less of an em­pha­sis on the sys­tems them­selves.”

Saudi Ara­bia’s mil­i­tary per­for­mance has been hob­bled by a num­ber of is­sues, an­a­lysts said, in­clud­ing short­com­ings in lo­gis­tics and main­te­nance, a weak non­com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer corps and a sys­tem for mil­i­tary ap­point­ments based on con­nec­tions rather than merit.

Saudi Ara­bia has re­quested less hands-on train­ing from the U.S. mil­i­tary than some other Arab na­tions. It also re­lies on out­side help to main­tain much of its high-tech weaponry.

“The bang they get for that large buck is ex­tremely low,” said Thomas Juneau, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Ot­tawa and a for­mer an­a­lyst at Canada’s De­part­ment of Na­tional De­fense. “It’s es­pe­cially shock­ing given how much money they spend and the fact they have some of the most ad­vanced sys­tems in the world.”

Bruce Riedel, a for­mer CIA and White House of­fi­cial, said U.S. and Saudi in­tel­li­gence co­op­er­a­tion had long been more re­li­ably ben­e­fi­cial for the United States than the two coun­try’s mil­i­tary al­liance. For years, Saudi of­fi­cials have fed their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts in­for­ma­tion about plots against the United States or Is­lamist groups. But Riedel said the qual­ity of that in­tel­li­gence has de­te­ri­o­rated since Mo­hammed took over as the coun­try’s de facto ruler and pushed out the for­mer in­tel­li­gence chief.

Brian Kat­ulis, a se­nior fel­low at the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress think tank, said re­cent events in Is­tan­bul brought to a head ques­tions about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to des­ig­nate the king­dom as its pri­mary part­ner in the Arab world.

“If your whole Mid­dle East strat­egy is premised on the idea that we’ve got to work di­rectly through Riyadh, but Riyadh has shown it­self to be such a flawed part­ner, it raises ques­tions about what we’re do­ing,” he said.

RAMAZAN TURGUT/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES

Saudi troops in­spect F-15SA fighter jets or­dered from the United States in 2012. About $14.5 bil­lion in ma­jor mil­i­tary sales have been con­cluded with Saudi Ara­bia since Don­ald Trump be­came pres­i­dent, but much or all of that was ini­ti­ated be­fore he took of­fice.

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