Potential Changes in the United States’ Relationship with Saudi Arabia: Better Late than Never

By Ciara Chow (PO ’22)

Nearly four years after the onset of the civil war in Yemen, the United Nations continues to warn the world of the increasingly horrific situation. Most recent estimates expect 14 million people in Yemen to soon be completely dependent on humanitarian aid. In addition, the war is responsible for 6,660 civilian deaths. International pressure has been building for the United States to condemn Saudi Arabia for their involvement in the war, as Saudi Arabia has supported Yemen government’s in their fight against the Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran. Despite President Trump’s hesitance, Congress appears to be working to shift the United States’ stance on its relationship with Saudi Arabia in light of the war in Yemen and the Khashoggi assassination.

Since March 2015, Saudis have blockaded Yemen’s major port in response to claims that Iran was providing weapons to Houthis. This blockade caused famine in Yemen that has only worsened recently. In addition to the deaths from famine, Yemenis are also suffering casualties from Saudi airstrikes. The United States produces and sells much of the military equipment used by the Saudis in Yemen, making the American-Saudi relationship a highly contentious topic.

The assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul prompted further criticism of the United States’ arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Now that Trump has agreed that the Saudis were responsible for the incident, even calling it the “worst cover-up ever,” many public figures in the media and government are demanding that America must finally force Saudi Arabia to face consequences for their crimes. The United Nations has criticized the American-Saudi relationship for years, given the country’s record of human rights abuses and involvement in Yemen. The Khashoggi assassination is reinvigorating this debate regarding America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia.

However, Trump is hesitant to take firm action against Mohammad Bin Salman’s regime due to the domestic economic benefit of the arms deal. Trump has touted his $110 billion weapons sale to Mohammad Bin Salman as a major job creator for the American economy. In Trump’s response to the Khashoggi assassination, he reminded reporters, “I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States.” Though the impact on the American economy does complicate the decision to sanction or otherwise punish Saudi Arabia, the truth of the deal makes it less complicated. Saudi Arabia only purchased $14.5 billion in weapons so far from America and merely promised to spend the remaining $95.5 billion. Moreover, Americans employed by private sector defense manufacturing accounts for only 0.5% of the labor force. Of this .05%, the vast majority of which produce equipment that is sold directly to the US military. Therefore, the weapons deal with Saudi Arabia affects employment in America far less than Trump implies.

Congress has been eager to retaliate against Saudi Arabia. Senator Bob Corker has called for the need for sanctions against Saudi Arabia and five Republican senators wrote to President Trump arguing that the United States should suspend their nuclear talks with Mohammad Bin Salman. The criticisms have been bipartisan, with California Representative Senator Adam Schiff demanding, “We ought to suspend military sales, we ought to suspend certain security assistance, and we ought to impose sanctions on any of those that were directly involved in this murder.” With midterm elections approaching, some representatives with constituents employed by the defense industry may be hesitant to take a strong stance. However, the overall trend in Congress is increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia and potential sanctions or changing of arms deals seems imminent.

The mounting pressure from Congress has forced the Trump administration to demonstrate concern about the war in Yemen. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have both publicly proposed cease-fires in recent days, but only on the condition that the Houthi rebels surrender first, indicating their Saudi biases.

Congress ultimately wields the influence to change America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Khashoggi assassination brought attention to the issue of Saudi Arabia once again, and the possibility of suspending Saudi arms sales is increasingly likely. This sentiment in Congress signals the potential for an end to violence in Yemen. However, the United States has suffered criticism from the international community for enabling the crisis in Yemen for years. By severing the Saudi arms deal, America could indeed make a statement about their stance on the civil war in Yemen. Unfortunately, that statement may be coming too late for many of the 28 million Yemenis living in a warzone.


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