Eighteen months ago, Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia and said he had concluded $110 billion dollars in arms sales with the kingdom. It was fake news then and it’s still fake news today. The Saudis have not concluded a single major arms deal with Washington on Trump’s watch. Nonetheless, the U.S. arms relationship with the kingdom is the most important leverage Washington has as it contemplates reacting to the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Follow the money
In June 2017, after the president’s visit to Riyadh—his first official foreign travel—we published a Brookings blog post detailing that his claims to have sold $110 billion in weapons were spurious. Other media outlets subsequently came to the same conclusion. When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman visited the White House this year, the president indirectly confirmed that non-deal by chiding the prince for spending only “peanuts” on arms from America.
The Saudis have continued to buy spare parts, munitions, and technical support for the enormous amount of American equipment they have bought from previous administrations. The Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) is entirely dependent on American and British support for its air fleet of F15 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, and Tornado aircraft. If either Washington or London halts the flow of logistics, the RSAF will be grounded. The Saudi army and the Saudi Arabian National Guard are similarly dependent on foreigners (the Saudi Arabian National Guard is heavily dependent on Canada). The same is also true for the Saudis allies like Bahrain.
Under President Obama, Saudi Arabia spent well over $110 billion in U.S. weapons, including for aircraft, helicopters, and air defense missiles. These deals were the largest in American history. Saudi commentators routinely decried Obama for failing to protect Saudi interests, but the kingdom loved his arms deals.
But the kingdom has not bought any new arms platform during the Trump administration. Only one has even been seriously discussed: A $15 billion deal for THAAD, terminal high altitude area defense missiles, has gotten the most attention and preliminary approval from Congress, but the Saudis let pass a September deadline for the deal with Lockheed Martin. The Saudis certainly need more air defenses with the pro-Iran Zaydi Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen firing ballistic missiles at Saudi cities.
Shaking the arms relationship is by far the most important way to clip his wings.
The three and a half year-old Saudi war in Yemen is hugely expensive. There are no public figures from the Saudi government about the war’s costs, but a conservative estimate would be at least $50 billion per year. Maintenance costs for aircraft and warships go up dramatically when they are constantly in combat operations. The Royal Saudi Navy has been blockading Yemen for over 40 months. The RSAF has conducted thousands of air strikes. The war is draining the kingdom’s coffers. And responsibility for the war is on Mohammed bin Salman, who as defense minister has driven Riyadh into this quagmire. Shaking the arms relationship is by far the most important way to clip his wings.
Congress now has the power to make a serious decision, halting arms sales and the logistics train for the kingdom in the wake of the reported murder of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul Turkey last week. The outrageous attack on Jamal deserves serious reaction, and given Trump’s dereliction of duty on the matter, it is up to Congress to act. The president may try to override a Senate arms stand-down but it would be a painful setback for the prince.
Jamal’s last opinion piece before his death was about the war in Yemen. He called for an immediate Saudi ceasefire and blamed the war on Mohammed bin Salman. At stake, Jamal argued, is Saudi “dignity” and its role as a leader in the Islamic world. It has rightly been seen as an ineffectual bully. Saudi Arabia’s war is alienating people around the world. Across the Muslim world, the Saudi brand has been damaged. Khashoggi compared Mohammed bin Salman to Syrian President Bashar Assad as a war criminal. His death only further darkens Mohammed bin Salman’s standing. Much of the world is likely to treat him and his henchmen as pariahs.
The prince’s goal in Istanbul was to intimidate any opposition or criticism no matter how peaceful. The more blatant and gruesome the intimidation, the more likely it will chill dissent. But it will also polarize the country and encourage the deep conspiracies that could violently and suddenly change the kingdom in very unexpected ways. These are very dangerous waters for the House of Saud.