U.S. Eyes Resuming Saudi Arms Sales

April 2017

By Jeff Abramson

Yemenis gather on September 22 amid the rubble of buildings destroyed during Saudi-led air strikes on the rebel-held Yemeni port city of Hodeida the previous day. (Photo credit: String/AFP/Getty Images)Amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the Trump administration may be ready to send weapons to Saudi Arabia that the Obama administration had put on hold due to concerns about civilian casualties from the Saudi-led military operations in the Yemeni civil war.

On March 8, The Washington Post reported that the State Department had approved selling precision-guided munitions worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the Saudis but was awaiting authorization from the White House to proceed. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with President Donald Trump at the White House on March 14, after which there was no immediate comment on the weapons deal. State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined on March 15 to comment on the prospective sale, citing departmental policy not to “confirm or deny arms transfers until they’re formally notified to Congress.”

The sale may run into headwinds in Congress due to Saudi military conduct and the increasingly dire impact of the Yemeni war on civilians. In December, President Barack Obama suspended such sales to Riyadh as the Saudi-led military coalition fought in Yemen on behalf of former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was driven from power in early 2015 by rebel Houthi forces. (See ACT, January/February 2017.) Over the past two years, Yemen has become a humanitarian crisis, with almost 19 million people—two-thirds of the population—needing assistance and more than 7 million “who are hungry and do not know where their next meal will come from,” said Stephen O’Brien, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, at a special UN Security Council meeting March 10. “That is three million people more than in January.”

Fighting over the port of Hodeida, where the majority of humanitarian supplies would normally enter the country, is particularly controversial. Aid groups such as Save the Children charged in March that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners were preventing deliveries of food and medical supplies to the port, where ship-unloading cranes were destroyed by a coalition airstrike and aid groups said they were subsequently barred from delivering new cranes.

The situation was the focus of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing March 9, at which Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) criticized Saudi actions, including the recent use of cluster munitions that have killed and injured civilians. Murphy and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) drafted legislation last year to suspend certain munitions sales until the U.S. president certifies that the Saudis show commitment to fighting terrorism and to protecting civilians in Yemen. Paul described as “questionable” Saudi commitment to strictly targeting combatants and legitimate military targets. The two senators also led efforts that won the support of 27 senators in a vote against a $1.1 billion tank deal to Riyadh in September 2016, and they are expected to lead opposition to the prospective new sale. (See ACT, October 2016.)

In the House, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) led 53 members in signing a March 13 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, urging him to use “diplomatic clout” to open the port of Hodeida. Lieu and Conyers were among a bipartisan group of 64 House members who had asked Obama to withdraw the tank deal last year.

Once notified of a potential arms sale, Congress may block it if both houses pass a resolution of disapproval. Such strong opposition is rare because notifications happen only after interagency approval and consultations with congressional leaders. Precision-guided munitions have drawn extra scrutiny in part because they are not considered defensive weapons. In response to a $1.3 billion notification in November 2015 involving such weapons, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) invoked a new authority that requires the State Department to notify Congress at least 30 days prior to the delivery of an arms shipment. (See ACT, March 2016.)

In describing potential weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia in 2015, Dafna Rand, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Obama administration, testified on March 9 that the hope had been that the Saudi-led coalition would use the precision-guided munitions for better targeting. Rand concluded, however, that “what we’ve seen since is not an improvement in the targeting and the issue itself is the target selection.