U.S.-Saudi Arms Deal Narrowly Escapes Bipartisan Opposition

A bid to prevent Trump from selling more than $500 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia needed just a few more votes to pass.

President Trump walks with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to deliver remarks to the Arab Islamic American Summit on May 21, 2017.
President Trump walks with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to deliver remarks to the Arab Islamic American Summit on May 21, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters )

Following a bipartisan bid to prevent the sale of more than $500 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, the Senate voted Tuesday to uphold a previous deal struck by the Trump administration. During a May visit to Saudi Arabia, President Trump approved a $110 billion arms package to supply the nation with numerous defense items—including tanks, fighter planes, combat ships, and precision-guided bombs—over the next ten years. Last week, the U.S. State Department cleared a portion of the deal that included $1.4 billion in military training and equipment. With these sales, the administration hopes to create U.S. jobs while improving Saudi Arabia’s ability to challenge regional adversaries like Iran.

Saudi Arabia is currently leading a war on Yemen that began in 2015 when the Houthis, a Shiite militant group presumably aided by Iran, wrested control of the Yemeni government from the former Saudi-backed president. Considering the move to be a coup d'état, Saudi Arabia proceeded to carry out airstrikes in the region that have since killed thousands of civilians. The nation’s naval blockade has also left two thirds of Yemen’s population—around 18.8 million people—without vital humanitarian aid, and has deprived more than 7 million people of sufficient food and water. In October 2016, the Obama administration temporarily halted the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia after the nation bombed a funeral hall in Yemen, killing more than 140 people. “They’re not picking the right targets,” an administration official told Reuters at the time.

“The Saudis will tell you they need these precision-guided missiles to more effectively target Houthi military assets inside Yemen,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a democrat, on a press call last week. “The fact is, they have deliberately targeted humanitarian and civilian assets within Yemen.” He added that Saudi Arabia is “purposefully trying to create a humanitarian nightmare” by attempting to “starve the Yemenis to the negotiating table.”

Both Murphy and conservative Senator Rand Paul spearheaded this month’s bid to prevent the $500 million arms deal, championing its opposition from the very beginning, when support seemed unlikely. While Murphy has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian abuses in Yemen, Paul has also expressed concern over claims that Saudi Arabia imprisons, tortures, and beheads its political opponents. “This barbaric nation should not be getting our weapons,” Paul said Tuesday, calling Saudi Arabia the “number one exporter of Jihadist philosophy.”

Others have claimed that arming Saudi Arabia is one of the best methods of combatting extremism and achieving regional stability. “If you don’t think containing Iran and keeping them from toppling Yemen, Iraq, Syria, [and] Lebanon is not in our national interest, you’re making a huge mistake,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who favors the arms deal.

Still, Tuesday’s bid to block the munitions package yielded a surprising level of support. “Today’s vote total would’ve been unthinkable not long ago, but Congress is finally taking notice that Saudi Arabia is using U.S. munitions to deliberately hit civilian targets inside Yemen,” Murphy said. In September 2016, both Murphy and Paul sponsored a similar opposition, attempting to block the sale of $1.15 billion worth of American-made tanks and weapons to Saudi Arabia. The resolution failed, with 71 senators voting to support the arms deal and just 27 voting against. By contrast, Tuesday’s bid was rejected by a much closer margin: 53-47.

As it turns out, the narrow vote may have less to do with newfound humanitarian concerns and more to do with political maneuvering. On Tuesday, Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the U.S. Foreign Relations Committee, implied that certain senators wanted to block the arms deal in an effort to embarrass—or, at the very least, undermine—the president. “I’m afraid this vote is somewhat about some members wanting to get a piece of President Trump’s hide,” Corker said. Though their efforts may not have been successful, they represent the volatile state of political dealmaking under the current administration.