Why are the arms sales to Saudi Arabia controversial?
The Heat

It was back in 2017 when U.S. President Donald Trump announced a 110-billion-U.S.-dollar arms package to Saudi Arabia.

Then this May, Trump announced an 8-billion-U.S.-dollar arms deal – without Congressional approval – to send weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. In a sharp and bipartisan rebuke, the U.S. Senate voted last week to block that sale.

Ian Black, a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics' Middle East Center, thinks the arms sales issue is largely driven by the conflict in Yemen. He said the public opinion with political weight in the U.S. and UK is starting to question the support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. "The conflict in Yemen has gradually attracted more and more attention. It has been defined as the world's largest humanitarian crisis," said Black.

Reem Daffa, the vice president and executive director of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, thinks the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi won't affect the arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration realizes that the assassination is not a national security issue. She believes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should not be punished for what some individuals have done.

Banafsheh Keynoush, an international geopolitical consultant and the author of "Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foe," said Iran does pose a challenge to the U.S. or Saudi Arabia. The biggest challenge is their inability to understand how to deal with Iran. With regards to Saudi Arabia, keeping Iran as a threat renders other regional problems. Moreover, there is a strong strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. regardless of who is the U.S. president.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz at Al Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2019. /VCG Photo

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz at Al Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2019. /VCG Photo

Keynoush contended that the humanitarian cost of the war in Yemen is damning for the entire international community.  Saudi Arabia is fearful that if Iran gains a foothold in the southern Arabian Peninsula, there will be no other way to stop its gradual forward movement deeper into the peninsula. "The humanitarian cost of the war should be viewed as a side effect of a larger geopolitical rivalry. Unfortunately, the U.S. seems to lack foresight and a clear policy on how to resolve the issue," said Keynoush.

Mohsen Milani, the executive director of the University of South Florida's Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies, considers this is an attempt by the U.S. to arm Saudi Arabia. "As long as there is an international embargo against Iran buying any modern weapons, Tehran, of course, does not welcome this," he said. This is why Iran has tried to build its missile program as the only way it can develop an effective deterrence in the past three decades. Iran opposed these sales to Saudi Arabia and welcomes the U.S. Senate decision to create some obstacles for Saudi Arabia.

Milani also pointed out that at least 54 U.S. senators, including seven Republican senators, have voted against the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. This means the historical bipartisan support that Saudi Arabia has enjoyed has somehow weakened. "I still believe Saudi Arabia is an important and reliable ally of the U.S., but this support has somehow been diminished," said Milani.

Black agreed with Milani that the evidence of declining support is quite clear. The influence of Iran has grown in the Middle East in recent years, particularly through its role of backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has extremely impacted Saudi Arabia. However, Daffa doesn't think the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is waning. For instance, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has visited Saudi Arabia and mentioned the U.S. would protect their interests in the Middle East. The U.S. also needs Saudi Arabia in a global alliance.

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