Washington’s relations with the countries in the Arabian Gulf are complicated, but its relationship with Saudi Arabia, in particular, is markedly more intricate. While the relationship between the two countries is not a relationship of equals, both countries rely on each other to some degree, and both are loath to admit it. However, U.S.-Saudi relations have shifted under the Trump administration and the de facto leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
Business as Usual for U.S.-Saudi Relations?
Although it seems that Saudi Arabia has effectively been able to buy both President Trump’s silence and support with multi-billion dollar arms deals thus far, recent statements from the U.S. president have indicated that Washington may not be catering to Riyadh’s every whim.
In early October, President Trump told King Salman that “he would not last in power ‘for two weeks’ without the backing of the U.S. military.” At a rally in West Virginia, President Trump asked rhetorically why the U.S. continues to subsidize the militaries of wealthy nations such as Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea. His confident assurance that these countries should be paying the U.S. for protection shows that issues of diplomacy and human rights are mere cold business transactions to the American Commander-in-Chief.
Nevertheless, military protection is not the only form of U.S. defense that Riyadh risks losing if it continues to act recklessly on a national, regional, and international level. The kingdom could lose the impunity that it enjoys thanks to American support. Can Saudi Arabia afford to jeopardize itself in this manner, especially with its increasingly problematic human rights track record and the ongoing investigation into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi?
The U.S. has been supporting and protecting the Saudi-UAE-led coalition since the beginning of its military intervention in Yemen three and a half years ago.
The U.S. has been supporting and protecting the Saudi-UAE-led coalition since the beginning of its military intervention in Yemen three and a half years ago. Despite the devastating loss of human life caused by coalition airstrikes, the administration continues to support the Saudi-UAE-led military intervention and claims that U.S. supervision of these airstrikes is reducing the likelihood of “mistakes”—this notwithstanding the Senate’s recent vote under the War Powers Resolution to curb presidential power to wage this war.
United Nations (UN) experts published a report in September that accused all parties to the conflict in Yemen of being responsible for human rights violations that could potentially amount to war crimes. Notwithstanding these findings, the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, and other countries continue to sell weapons to Yemen’s warring parties.
“There is extensive evidence that irresponsible arms flows to the [Saudi Arabia-UAE-led] coalition have resulted in enormous harm to Yemeni civilians. But this has not deterred the USA, the UK and other states, including France, Spain, and Italy, from continuing transfers of billions of dollars worth of such arms,” Amnesty International reported.
In addition to killing thousands of innocent Yemeni civilians, these arms sales also make a mockery of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a multilateral treaty that seeks to reduce human suffering and safeguard global peace by regulating the international trade of conventional weapons. Since coming into force on December 24, 2014, 96 states have ratified the treaty and another 130 have signed it without ratifying it. While the U.S. is a signatory of the treaty, the US Senate has yet to ratify it. Saudi Arabia has yet to do either.
President Trump’s consistent disregard of human rights concerns in his foreign policy decisions has, in the view of many, enabled the rise of the Saudi kingdom’s tyrannical crown prince. Ironically, however, the U.S. president’s enthusiasm for strengthening relations with Riyadh has not prevented him from taking every opportunity to exploit Saudi Arabia’s weaknesses publically, extort lower oil prices from the kingdom, and coerce its leadership to pay for Washington’s silence.
Global Apathy to Suffering in Yemen
The Yemeni people have tried to appeal to the international community to intervene in the conflict in Yemen for years with little success.
The Yemeni people have tried to appeal to the international community to intervene in the conflict in Yemen for years with little success. Despite the words of the UN Secretary General himself and numerous reports published by international organizations describing the war in Yemen as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” the response from the international community has been sparse. Why are the cries of the Yemeni people falling on deaf ears?
The answer may lie in the multi-billion dollar arms and trade deals that many countries already have and continue to sign with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Since the beginning of the Saudi-UAE-led military intervention in Yemen in 2015, the West has provided political and logistical support, intelligence, and weapons to fuel the war.
Since assuming control of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense and thus the de facto rule of Saudi Arabia in 2015, MbS has bolstered the kingdom’s relationships with countries such as the U.S., Britain, and France through long-term arms deals. Currently, Saudi Arabia is the top arms importer in the Arab region. Despite strong opposition by several international human rights organizations and activists in the West, most of the proposed arms deals have progressed without impediment.
Arms sales to the Middle East, Asia, and Oceania (comprised of Australia and the nearby islands in the Pacific Ocean) have increased dramatically in the past ten years. “Saudi Arabia was the world’s second-largest arms importer, with arms imports increasing by 225 percent [between 2013 and 2017], compared with 2008 to 2012.” The kingdom is followed by Egypt and the UAE, according to a report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
World superpowers’ perspectives of the conflict in Yemen directly correlate with the volume of weapons they export to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The most steadfast supporters of the Saudi-UAE-driven war appear to be the countries that benefit most from the arms sales and subsidies they receive from the two countries.
“In 2013 to 2017, 61 percent of [Saudi] arms imports came from the USA and 23 percent from the UK. Deliveries during this period included 78 combat aircrafts, 72 combat helicopters, 328 tanks, and about 4,000 other armored vehicles,” according to the report. U.S. arms exports to Saudi Arabia alone reached more than $43 billion between 2015 and 2017.
Recently, Riyadh has consistently tried to use generous military and trade deals to buy the world’s silence—the most notorious perhaps being the deal that President Trump signed with King Salman in mid-May 2017. This deal included several military, defense, and commercial cooperation agreements; described as “the deal of the century,” the agreements are valued at a total of $460 billion.
In October 2016, Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science told CNN that the value of Saudi Arabia’s assets in America ranged between $700 billion and $1 trillion. The UAE is not that far behind. The UAE Minister of Economy disclosed in June 2018 that the total value of Emirati investments in the U.S. amounted to roughly $100 billion.
At the end of March 2016, Saudi Arabia was ranked the number one investor in U.S. bonds in the Arabian Gulf, with an estimated investment of $116.8 billion.
However, at the end of March 2016, Saudi Arabia was ranked the number one investor in U.S. bonds in the Arabian Gulf, with an estimated investment of $116.8 billion. In May of the same year, the U.S. Treasury revealed the list of the largest foreign U.S. bondholders, which included Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain. At the time, these countries collectively owned $231.1 billion worth of U.S. bonds. Earlier this year, MbS unveiled a $200 billion investment plan for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
The Wall Street Journal obtained a leaked document in September that included a statement made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirming the Saudi-UAE coalition’s “keenness to protect civilians in Yemen,” after learning that failing to do so could disrupt a $2 billion arms deal that Washington signed with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Impact of Khashoggi Murder on Trump’s Foreign Policy
In addition to offering Washington lucrative military deals and generous investments, Riyadh has also indirectly contributed to augmenting President Trump’s personal fortune, a reality that further fuels the claims that the U.S. leader is putting his personal interests before those of the American people.
MbS’ visit to New York City in March 2018, for example, involved a five-day stay that apparently “was enough to boost [the Trump International Hotel’s] revenue for the entire quarter,” wrote Prince A. Sanders, the general manager of the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan, in a letter to investors. The letter, obtained by The Washington Post, also claimed that “[a]fter two years of decline, revenue from room rentals went up 13 percent in the first three months of 2018” as a result of the crown prince’s visit.
The ongoing investigation into the murder of Khashoggi has become a litmus test for President Trump’s loyalty to Saudi Arabia. The most salient question here is whether the president will stand up for American values or act instead to preserve his relationship with Riyadh. The international community has yet to receive a clear answer, and indeed it is in President Trump’s interest to keep Saudi Arabia and the world guessing.
Just two weeks after expressing his “love” for Saudi King Salman, while simultaneously demanding that the Saudi royal “pay” for U.S. protection, President Trump expressed concern about the Khashoggi case and implied that MbS was most likely involved in the murder. Yet, in response to the U.S.’s top intelligence agency, the CIA’s, report concluding with “medium to high confidence” that the Crown Prince himself had directed and monitored the assassination, President Trump said, “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”
Nevertheless, the change in President Trump’s relationship with Riyadh demonstrates that even he understands that there may be a limit to how “loyal” he can be to a foreign power. But substantial revenues are clearly seductive for the businessman. “I would not be in favor of stopping a country [from] spending $110 billion, which is an all-time record, and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money,” President Trump said in a statement to reporters in late October, in a clear display of apathy for human rights in the face of substantial financial gain.
Washington is engaged in expanding its imperial hegemony. Instead of intervening and resolving some of the world’s most contentious conflicts, it is both instigating and exacerbating them in an effort to pursue its own agenda. Meanwhile, the war in Yemen continues with 24 million people now in need of humanitarian assistance.