US arms deals with Saudi Arabia and UAE
The United States has struck at least $68.2bn worth of deals for firearms, bombs, weapons systems, and military training with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since the start of their war in Yemen – billions more than previously reported – according to data collected by an American think tank.
That colossal sum includes, for the first time, both commercial and governmental arms deals and indicates that US involvement in the disastrous war may be greater than suspected. In fact, the weapons expenditure could have funded the United Nations’ 2019 humanitarian appeal for Yemen – which totalled $4bn – 17 times over.
According to the data collected by arms trade watchdog Security Assistance Monitor (SAM) and reported in the Middle East Eye for the first time, American companies have made deals worth at least $14bn with the Emiratis and Saudis since March 2015, when the coalition intervened in the conflict.
Government sales tend to be for major systems, like combat aircraft, tanks, bombs, and ships, some of which are more likely than others to be used in Yemen – partly because it can take years to finalise such deals, which frequently grab headlines. But it’s the smaller weapons like firearms and bombs sold in commercial sales that experts say are disproportionately likely to be used in the conflict and inflict significant damage.
New details about the arms deals come amid a continued push in the US Congress to end Washington’s involvement in the war in Yemen, which has displaced millions and led to widespread disease and malnutrition. In February, the Senate passed a bill to withdraw US military support for the coalition and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives voted 247-175 in favour of the resolution on Thursday. US President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the effort, however.
Some of the deals were struck just days after US-made weapons were shown to have been used by the Saudi-led coalition in air strikes that killed civilians, including school children on a field trip, guests attending a wedding, and an entire family, excluding a five-year-old girl, at their Sanaa home.
“It's hard to imagine a more dramatic example of the negative consequences of US arms sales,” said William Hartung, director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy. “They're supporting regimes that are murdering civilians and causing a humanitarian catastrophe… This is a stain on the United States.”
The weapons in the deals range from missile defence systems to grenade launchers to firearms, but most were offered in deals by US arms manufacturers to the Saudi and Emirati governments.
And that’s why, until now, the total figures used by journalists and researchers for approved US deals have been deceptively low: unlike government deals, data on commercial deals is difficult to obtain, with bare-bone details only made public long after Congress is notified, sometimes even 18 months later, said Christina Arabia, the director of SAM, which collected the data used in this story and is the only organisation which tracks both types of sales.
Without US weapons, experts say the coalition fighting in would be largely unable to wage its war. As of 2017, three out of every five weapons imported by the coalition was US-made, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) . The Saudi-led coalition is responsible for 4,764 reported civilian deaths since 2016, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).
The main reason the total worth of US arms deals to the Saudi-led coalition has been publicly undervalued, said Arabia, is the convoluted and opaque way commercial deals are tracked and reported.
The US government publishes details about arms deals concluded with other governments – through the “Foreign Military Sales” programme – whenever the administration gives its approval. But tracking deals between commercial US arms manufacturers and foreign governments – ‘Direct Commercial Sales’ – is tricky.
'There’s some information about the type of weapon in one committee report. Then another committee report will say the country name, and then I have to contact another committee to get the dollar amount of the sale' said Christina Arabia, Security Assistance Monitor. Some deals are listed as going to multiple countries, hiding the true recipients of the weapons or any dollar amount. Other agreements don’t give specific weapon types, only rough categories like "firearms and ammunition".
The US state department recently listed an arms export deal to Saudi Arabia – for work related to the Patriot air defence system – as being worth “$50 million or more”. SAM data shows it was in fact worth over $195.5m.
The result of this murky reporting? The public is left in the dark about where, how many and to whom US arms are sold, said Arabia. Combining figures from both the government and commercial deals she has tracked, Arabia’s totals show that the US has agreed on over $54.1bn in weapons and training with the Saudis and more than $14bn with the UAE since the coalition’s intervention in the war.
While the state department attests to the accuracy of her numbers, Arabia suspects she may still be billions of dollars too low.
It is now clear, using SAM’s data, that the US has approved arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE just days after the coalition were shown to have used US bombs to kill civilians in Yemen and also after the brutal killing of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Saudis and Emiratis led a coalition of Arab countries into the Yemeni civil war in March 2015 to quell a Houthi uprising. The Saudis say the Houthis are a proxy for Iran, while analysts say the UAE seems to be attempting to crush opposition groups and gain territory in Yemen, particularly along the Red Sea.
Just before Obama left office, his administration, which authorised $117bn in arms deals to the Saudis in eight years, halted the sale of precision-guided munitions due to human rights concerns over attacks carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. But in May 2017, while in Saudi Arabia on his first overseas visit as president, Trump announced he would overturn that suspension.
Moreover, while US government and commercial arms deals to countries in the Saudi-led coalition total tens of billions of dollars, many US-made weapons also make their way into the hands of warring parties in Yemen through unofficial channels. A journalist – who asked to remain anonymous because of safety concerns – said it is common to see US firearms and grenades in Yemeni weapons markets, and that they can be found in both the north and the south. Also the Saudi-led coalition appears to be diverting American-made armoured vehicles to local militias, a violation of arms agreements.
Beyond the weapons, training and technical help, the full extent of American involvement in Yemen – in the war and in counter-terrorism – is impossible to measure. The US has provided the coalition with intelligence support and military advice, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
But amid ongoing pressure to end all assistance to the Saudi-led coalition, the Trump administration has insisted Yemenis would be worse off – and the civilian casualty count much higher – without its involvement in the war. Senior Trump administration officials have also insisted that they are making sure the weapons are not being used to commit human rights violations.
The sheer amount of weapons and training the US provides to the coalition means that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are heavily reliant on the US for their war effort in Yemen. This is especially true of the Saudis. “It would take decades,” wrote Hartung in a report, “for the kingdom to wean itself from dependence on US equipment, training and support.” The US also supplies the lion’s share of weapons used by the UAE and has trained thousands of their soldiers.
A withdrawal of all channels of military support to Saudi Arabia and the UAE “would cripple their ability to wage war in Yemen [and] particularly the indiscriminate air war”.