The Growing Risk of Saudi Arms Trade

The Growing Risk of Saudi Arms Trade

Saudia Arabia is undergoing a difficult public relations crises after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, affecting its arms trade with allies. People have been a lot more critical of the Saudi regime, which also includes its role in the Yemeni civil war. The issue is also bringing along strikes and protests. This may lead Saudi Arabia to act in a more aggressive way using rhetoric against Iran to shore up support.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is struggling to maintain continued support for its participation in Yemen. Some governments continue to offer incessant support, while others questioning the country’s aims and actively seek to reduce or cease all support. Further, with images and statistics exposing Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, citizens across the world have become a lot more engaged in opposing their government’s support for Saudi Arabia’s role. The United States, France, Italy, and Iran are key players in this issue for various reasons. The article will explore this further.

Saudi Arabia and the United States

President Trump and his administration have continued to provide unrelenting support to Saudi Arabia. He failed to take action during the Khashoggi crisis and is refusing to question the Saudi participation in Yemen.

The US Congress began to break with its traditional positioned of unyielding support for Saudi Arabia with the Khashoggi crisis after the silence from the White House on the issue. In October 2018, in a rare moment of unity, Congress demanded the White House to conduct an investigation as to who killed the journalist and threatened to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia independent of the President. They also voted to end American military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. This break set the stage for growing tensions between Congress and the President on Saudi weapons trade.

In November 2018, senators presented legislation imposing sanctions and restricting weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and other entities identified as responsible for Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemeni civil war. Though this brought more tension between Congress and the White House, the latter eagerly sought to circumvent this legislation. Therefore, on May 24, the administration announced it would bypass Congress to complete a $2 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia by declaring an emergency, “in the national security interests of the United States.” Secretary of State Pompeo stated that the national security interest in question relates to the perceived threat Iran presents to Saudi Arabia in Yemen, as well as in the overall Trump Administration agenda.

Senators from both parties have been critical of President Trump’s decision, including Senator Lindsey Graham, citing the Khashoggi death and other disruptive aspects. Senator Bob Menendez published a statement criticizing the administration’s decision to invoke the emergency provision. He later stated he’d also “pursue all appropriate legislative and other means to nullify” the sale by the White House.

The role of France

France is also a key player in this debate because it is the world’s third-largest arms exporter, with Saudi Arabia as a key client. A whopping 60% of its weapons sales in 2017 went to the Middle East alone, a total of €3.92 billion.

Despite continued government policy stating that all French weapons are only used for defensive purposes by Saudi Arabia, the reality is different. A leaked confidential report revealed in April stated French weapons systems are being used by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the civil war for logistical assistance and in offensives.

The report took French civil society by storm, forcing the public to call their government’s position into question on all accounts. An investigation was launched after several days of tension. It was to identify who accessed the data and how it was done as a form of controlling the crisis that emerged for an already unsteady Macron Administration.

On May 8, French Defense Minister Laurence Parly, confirmed that despite complaints against selling French arms to Saudi Arabia, it will move ahead with loading a Saudi cargo ship with French weapons. Parly was insisting the traditional government stance that weapons are for defensive purposes only.

Despite this, protests unfolded at the port in Le Havre, where the Saudi ship Bahri Yanbu was to pick up a shipment. People turned out as individuals and others representing political parties. They were all united to show their disagreement of French weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. In their opposition, protestors cited the concern that these weapons may be used to commit war crimes.

The Christians for the Abolition of Torture, a Paris-based rights group, filed suit on May 28 against the French government in order to block the loading of munitions onto Saudi ships in Marseille. On the same date, at the Port of Marseille Fos, dockworkers declared their refusal to load any cargo ships with any weapons intended for any war whatsoever. The ship left an English port and did not dock in France to load the shipment.

Italy and Germany: Actions towards Saudi Arabia

In another example of protest against King Salman’s war, on May 20, Italian unions refused to load electricity generators onto a Saudi ship which had weapons on board in a protest against the war in Yemen. In a statement, union workers stated, “[w]e will not be complicit in what is happening in Yemen.” Rights groups supporting the union workers stated that weapons sold to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen contravene a U.N. treaty because of the risk that they may be used against civilians.

With the Khashoggi crisis in October 2018, German economics minister Peter Altmaier announced the country would categorically halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia after declaring that the government’s explanations for the killing were not satisfactory. He also encouraged fellow European states to follow suit, primarily targeting the United Kingdom and France in his appeal.

Saudi Arabia’s public relations work

High-level members of the ruling family have taken this opportunity to push their anti-Iran agenda in order to demand more support against the ‘common enemy’ in their backyard. They have taken every opportunity to castigate Iran, alienate it and show that only Saudi violence is the way to challenge them. As the Yemeni civil war is the most direct battleground for the two players’ competition for regional hegemony, access to weapons and munitions from other states is key for Saudi Arabia. Advertising an image of an uncontrollable and violent Iran would work towards such a message. What the Kingdom has not done, however, is discuss its involvement in the civil war with the aim of reducing the attention from the civil war.

At an emergency Gulf Cooperation Council meeting on May 29, scheduled due to the perceived growth of an Iranian threat, Saudi King Salman called for an international stance against Iran for what it sees as threatening behaviour. King Salman added that Iran’s intention to develop its nuclear arsenal and interference in other regional affairs is outright defiance of UN charters.

In addition, at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit meeting on May 30, King Salman condemned Iran’s recent behaviour as terrorist activity, using its strongest language yet. First, it attributed an attack on 4 oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates to Iran, and secondly, a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline.

With increased social and political tensions in a variety of countries concerning Saudi Arabia, maintaining strong military ties and weapons sales has become a point of weakness in foreign policy agendas. Though in some countries either the people or government officials have called a stop to the sales, there are other more powerful figures calling the shots and approving transactions. The escalation with Iran inside and away from Yemen will dictate how future weapons sales turn out, though it does not appear as though Saudi Arabia’s image will recover anytime soon.

About Author

Gabriela Billini

Gabriela Billini is a risk analyst for a multinational crisis consulting firm. She has received a Master of Arts in International Security from Sciences Po Paris with focuses on the Middle East and diplomacy and a Bachelor of Arts from New York University in International Politics. Gabriela’s geographic areas of research interests are the Persian Gulf and Europe, and thematic subjects such as major shifts in geopolitical relations, as well as security policy. She previously interned at Horizon Intelligence, UNESCO, the UNPD, and the U.S. Department of State.