A new report from Sweden-based Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released on March 9, found that the U.S. is a top exporter of arms to conflict zones, and half of the U.S. arms deliveries have gone to the Middle East. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar, constituted 56 percent of all U.S. arms sales to the region in 2019.
Overall, global arms sales have increased between 2015 and 2019 due to high demand for weapons in various conflict zones. However, the majority of U.S. arms were exported to Saudi Arabia, which is now the world’s number one importer of military arsenal. As America’s strategically important ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is a top client of major U.S. defense firms. The UAE is the second largest importer of U.S. weapons in the Middle East. Collectively, Saudi Arabia and the UAE account for close to 30 percent of U.S. arms trade worldwide.
The rise in arms sales to the Middle East is alarming given the escalation of tensions and armed conflicts in the region.
The rise in arms sales to the Middle East is alarming, particularly given the escalation of tensions and armed conflicts in the region in recent years. According to SIPRI, there is a notable difference between motivations to buy weapons in the past and now. If they were used by military forces for defensive purposes in the past, these days they are tools of power projection and influence.
This is clearly evidenced by Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s involvements in the war in Yemen — the poorest country in the Middle East and North Africa, ranking 168th out of 177 states in the human development index — and the UAE’s active backing of warlord Khalifa Haftar as the country struggles with a democratic transition following the fall of Gaddafi’s regime in the Libyan conflict.
U.S. President Donald Trump has been eager to sell arms to Saudi Arabia since he took office in 2017. During an official visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to the U.S. in 2018, President Trump talked at length about revenues and job creation from arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Even after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – the U.S. spy agency –reportedly determined that MbS was personally behind the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, President Trump insisted on continuing the U.S. partnership with the Kingdom, citing profitable arms sales deals.
U.S. President Donald Trump has been eager to sell arms to Saudi Arabia since he took office in 2017.
In fact, President Trump made sales of heavy weaponry a critical part of his relationship with the Arabian Gulf states and rejected any congressional effort to stop the arms trade. He vetoed a bipartisan congressional resolution to end U.S. involvement in the Yemeni war last August, thereby signaling his continued support to the Saudi-led offensive in that country. In fact, despite congressional opposition to arms transfers to Saudi Arabia due to human rights violations and war crimes, the Trump administration sold more weapons and armored vehicles to the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen last November.
Although the Saudi-UAE-led coalition initially was joined by Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, and Senegal (Qatar was expelled later), it is really a Saudi-UAE joint venture. Saudi Arabia and UAE backed forces began attacking Iran-supported Houthi rebels in the country in 2015 and killed tens of thousands of civilians. The war and humanitarian crisis have been worsened by the influx of American weaponry.
There is yet no end in sight to the war as it escalated this winter after a relative lull since the Houthis claimed responsibility for a missile attack on a Saudi oil processing facility in Abqaiq last September. The dismal conditions in Yemen are bound to get worse with the global onslaught of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) even as a unilateral two-week ceasefire called by the Saudi-UAE led coalition fighting in Yemen has come into effect on March 9, 2020
Another disturbing aspect of massive exports of American, as well as European-made, heavy weaponry to Saudi Arabia and the UAE is that they are often ending up in the wrong hands. Using Western weapons as a tool to appease, support, and get tribes and militant groups in Yemen to their sides, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have left a huge arsenal of military equipment in the devastated country, which is illegal under end-user requirements of arms manufacturers that ban handover of any weapon to third parties.
Saudi and Emirati weapon transfers to militants in Yemen present a threat to the stability of the Middle East.
Saudi and Emirati weapon transfers to militants with links to Al Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS), and Salafi elements in the war-torn country present an existential threat to the stability of the Middle East and beyond. U.S.-made arms are highly prized in Yemen’s vibrant weapons markets, where anything from American rifles to tanks can be found. Houthis with access to American weapons are able to reverse-engineer them to produce their own weapons. The U.S. government is making its citizens less safe by inadvertently arming terrorists in Yemen.
Apart from the Saudi-UAE-led coalition and Houthis, chief beneficiaries of the arms sales to Middle Eastern conflict zones are weapons manufacturers, such as General Dynamics, Raytheon, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, which collected millions in arms deals with Saudi Arabia under explicit approval of the U.S. Department of State.
According to SIPRI, arms sales to conflict hot spots in the Middle East are likely to remain high in the future. In particular, U.S. arms transfers to Middle Eastern countries are unlikely to diminish, especially given the heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. stands firm in its support of anti-Iranian allies in the region. Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the Trump administration’s approval of sale of arms worth $8 billion USD to Saudi Arabia as necessary because Iran’s “activity poses a fundamental threat to the stability of the Middle East and to American security at home and abroad.”
The Trump administration is misguided in its belief that more arms in the Middle East will deter Iran.
The Trump administration is misguided in its belief that more arms in the region will deter Iran. So far, this approach has not only emboldened Iran, but it also helped arm America’s enemies, as evidenced by discarded U.S. military equipment that ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Iran-linked militia groups in Yemen. The current U.S. administration appears to be unmoved by this revelation. It is determined to prolong atrocities and continue profiting from Middle Eastern wars, in which it otherwise has little interest or stake.