It’s time to stop US arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Campaigners from Amnesty International carrying a batch of five giant dummy missiles to Downing Street in London, to highlight the UK government’s refusal to halt exports of UK-manufactured arms to Saudi Arabia, despite the clear risk that they could be used to commit war crimes in Yemen.

The war in Yemen is America’s war. Saudi Arabia has spent a fortune buying arms from America to prosecute a war that has killed almost a quarter of a million people — the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe in our lifetime. Two American administrations have enabled the war. It’s long past time to stop.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the preeminent think tank tracking arms sales, Saudi Arabia was the world’s largest arms importer from 2015 to 2019, the first five years of the Yemen war. Its imports of major arms increased by 130% compared with the previous five-year period. Despite the wide-ranging concerns in the U.S. and the United Kingdom about Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, both Washington and London continued to export arms to Saudi Arabia from 2015 to 2019. A total of 73% of Saudi Arabia’s arms imports came from the U.S., and 13% from the U.K.

In the five years before the war, U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia amounted to $3 billion; between 2015 and 2020, the U.S. agreed to sell over $64.1 billion worth of weapons to Riyadh, averaging $10.7 billion per year. Sales to other belligerents in the war, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), also rose exponentially.

Barack Obama could have stopped the war at its start in 2015 by cutting off military, diplomatic, and intelligence support for the Saudi-led coalition that imposed a blockade on Yemen and began deadly air strikes on civilian targets. The administration’s regional military commander, now Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, reportedly advised against supporting the Saudi campaign and predicted it would be a failure. The Senate confirmation process for Austin gave insufficient attention to the issue. It would be useful to know more about the debate inside the Obama administration during the start of the war. Who were the proponents of backing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi? Who were the doubters?

The Trump administration was totally enthusiastic about the war. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was convinced the Saudis could win and that it would be a great defeat for the Iranians, who backed the rebel Houthi Zaydi Shias. He led an effort to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization in the last week of the administration.

Iran is the big winner in the war. The Houthis have moved closer to Iran as the war progressed, and Iran has significantly more clout in Sana’a today than six years ago. Its provision of missile and drone technology has enabled the Houthis to strike Riyadh and other Saudi targets. Iran’s militia allies in Iraq may now also be launching attacks on Riyadh. Last month, a pro-Iranian Iraqi group claimed credit for attacking Riyadh with drones, an important escalation in the sectarian violence in the region. The war costs Saudi Arabia a fortune, it is likely that Iran will encourage the Houthis to keep fighting.

Italy has now taken the lead in taking concrete steps to stop the war, by cutting off all military sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The two are the 10th and 11th-largest buyers of Italian arms. Rome has blocked the transfer of more than 12,000 missiles to the Saudis. It is a commendable step, and others should follow.

As a candidate, Joe Biden promised to end American support for the Saudi war. His administration has halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE — at least temporarily, for review — including the $35 billion deal to sell Abu Dhabi F-35 fighter jets. It has also frozen the foreign terrorist organization designation for the moment. These are the right choices and should become permanent.

Today, President Biden announced an end to support for “offensive” operations by the Saudis. We will need to see how this is transferred into concrete policy. Does it mean an end to the blockade, which is the most important element in the malnourishment of Yemenis? It continues support for Saudi air defenses against missiles and drones, but does it halt support for air strikes on missile batteries? Time works against the Yemeni people, every 10 minutes a Yemeni child under the age of five dies due to the blockade. An urgent international effort, with a new United Nations Security Council resolution, is necessary, and Biden’s appointment of a special envoy for Yemen with long experience in the region, Tim Lenderking, is a good step.  It is time to stop the carnage in Yemen and stop fueling the arms race in the Middle East.