The news of the disappearance and killing of The Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi has put a spotlight on the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially the close security ties between the two countries. President Donald Trump remains reluctant to address arms sales in response to the crisis. He has contended that terminating those sales would hurt the U.S. economy.[i]
Congress, however, is not buying the president’s argument and may seek to force his hand, if nothing else by seeking to delay or slow down the approval process for weapons.[ii]
A final decision from the U.S. depends on reconciling a schism between the White House and many members of Congress on the matter, particularly over whether to link Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the writer’s killing. President Trump has so far avoided doing so, but a number of U.S. lawmakers have been critical of the Crown Prince over the last few weeks, pointing to his consolidation of power as an indicator that he would almost certainly have been aware of the operation. It also depends on whether pressure on Saudi Arabia over the incident will be sustained.
There are several diverging viewpoints on which course of action is preferable for the U.S. to take. Jonathan Caverley, writing in The New York Times, pushed for the U.S. to utilize its leverage in arms deals to pressure Riyadh, noting that “the United States has the preponderance of influence in this arms trade relationship,” not Saudi Arabia.[iii] He pointed out that the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s military equipment comes from the U.S. (followed by Europe) and that non-Western suppliers like Russia and China do not have the type of systems Saudi Arabia seeks; nor would switching Saudi force structures to Russian manufacture be an easy undertaking for the Saudi government.
It would be expensive, take significant amounts of time, and require a restructuring of Saudi Arabia’s security outlook, all to import systems whose quality and usefulness Saudi Arabia is already skeptical of. These are strong points, but it is worth pointing out that a significant or total shutdown of U.S. arms cooperation with Saudi Arabia would come with its own set of risks.
The most immediate consequence would be jeopardizing American ties with Riyadh, a country that remains influential in the world especially because of its ability to act as a swing oil producer. Opponents of Saudi Arabia in general see no issue with downgrading U.S.-Saudi relations, and perhaps in time the U.S. might view its security interests as diverging from requiring Washington to work with governments like Saudi Arabia’s.
But if the Trump administration’s goal in the present is to isolate Iran and concretely address its nuclear and missile programs as well as foreign policy in the region, coordination of efforts with Saudi Arabia will prove essential. Critics of the Crown Prince regularly paint him as reckless, which, if an accurate depiction, should prompt consideration of whether reducing America’s ability to influence Saudi policy choices is the wisest course of action for Washington to take.
Depending on how severely the U.S. was to act, cutting defense cooperation could produce the opposite effect than intended with respect to Saudi policies: Saudi Arabia could well double-down, or in any case refuse to budge, rather than concede to Washington. Should the U.S. cut only a few deals, or refuse to sell a few systems, the pressure will be so miniscule as to hardly register in Riyadh.
A more aggressive approach, however, would not be guaranteed to produce a better effect on Saudi policy. A useful comparison may be the U.S. response to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s overthrow of Egypt’s previous government and the subsequent massacre of protestors in Rabaa. The U.S. criticized the government of President Sisi and cut a significant amount of arms cooperation pending improvement toward a more democratic system.
Two years later, the U.S. rescinded the policy, having made little to no progress.[iv] Bahrain hardly moved on its domestic policies despite the U.S. temporarily enacting a hold on the sale of F-16s to the country until it improved its human rights record.
Perhaps extending these bans or making them bite harder would have the intended effect, but solely using coercive measures to target governments based on their domestic policies, however repulsive those policies may be, is not likely to produce positive change, particularly if those policies are related to what the government conceptualizes as maintenance of regime security.
Talk by prominent U.S. lawmakers that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has “got to go” while the U.S. is considering implementing these sorts of coercive measures adds to the risk that Saudi Arabia might perceive the U.S. actions as hostile,[v] even if privately some members of the royal court agree with the criticism of the Crown Prince or see him as having gone too far in stamping out rivals.
Supporters of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, such as President Trump himself, have emphasized the economic benefit to the U.S. There has been important pushback on this viewpoint, however. Saudi Arabia is one of the largest arms importers in the world, with the U.S. the largest supplier, but the impact on the American economy is often exaggerated,[vi] and Saudi Arabia certainly would not like to undertake an arms procurement program to replace American-made systems.
Nevertheless, besides receiving payment for weapons systems, arms exports do provide jobs to American workers and reduce the unit cost of systems that the U.S. is putting into service with its own military. The exact number of jobs that arms exports support can be debated and may be much lower than President Trump contends, but a reduction in sales to Saudi Arabia would likely impact at least some American jobs. In general, the fact that jobs might be lost as the result of some policy decision is not in and of itself a compelling enough rationale to avoid using pressure on Washington’s arms clients, but the expected loss of jobs should be a reason for pause if the expected benefit of an embargo is unlikely to be realized.
Moreover, regularly resorting to playing hardball with arms equipment can convince importers that a degree of diversification is in order if the supplier is unreliable, hurting the supplier’s sales position and defense sector – more so if the supplier is seen as making arms sales only to use them years or decades later to coerce the importer over domestic policy. States do not tend to approve of external criticism, regardless of whether on a moral basis their policies might call for such criticism. It is true that the junior partner in an alliance does not have a habit of bandwagoning,[vii] but when it does break with its ally, it can do so in spectacular fashion.
Iran – whose contemporary policies have been slow to change even when faced with a global arms embargo – was, under the Shah, one of the U.S.’s most significant arms recipients, as seen by the fact that many of those arms remain in service. The country will not be coming back to American defense firms for new supplies any time soon, however. The circumstances that led to the decline in U.S.-Iran relations of course differ dramatically from the challenges facing U.S.-Saudi relations, but the episode demonstrates the extent to which a government might resist arms (and other) pressure from a supplier when the seller and buyer no longer see eye-to-eye on security matters.
It is not a guarantee that other parties, namely the European Union, will ultimately get on board with an arms embargo, meaning that Saudi Arabia can expect to have options even within Western circles for buying arms. A number of European states have cut arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the last few years for varying reasons, stemming from the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen or concern over Saudi Arabia’s domestic human rights record, both of which have received intense criticism from rights activists. The disappearance of Khashoggi and the sensational details surrounding his alleged killing have renewed and energized European opponents of the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.[viii]
Big European suppliers have generally avoided bailing on Saudi Arabia just yet, with the apparent exception of Germany. The country’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced on October 21 that Berlin would be suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s killing. Germany had, up until this point, been continuing “limited” arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as Chancellor Merkel described them, despite a domestic political commitment not to.[ix] Last month, Spain seemingly announced the cancellation of the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, and then quickly backtracked over fears that pulling the sale would impact a much larger defense deal between the two countries.[x]
Across the Atlantic, the Canadian government made no move to terminate the sale of armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia even after the kingdom rather publicly snubbed the Canadian government in August of this year. It may not follow the U.S. if it did cut off Saudi Arabia – France has been perfectly willing to fill the void of American sales to Egypt,[xi] for example – which would undermine the effectiveness of a U.S. arms embargo, too.
The U.S. has at various times blocked the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia,[xii] but nevertheless Spain ultimately did not follow suit. There is plenty that the American market offers that cannot be matched by European industry, but even so, the European defense industry is advanced and able to supply Saudi Arabia with a range of systems for its security forces.
Nevertheless, even President Trump conceded that “very severe” consequences may be in order should it turn out that Khashoggi was killed by Saudi Arabia.[xiii] The kingdom confirmed Khashoggi’s killing, blaming his attackers in the Saudi consulate as being out of line. President Trump is now in need of a response because, even if he prefers not to act, Congress is likely to force one. Cutting arms sales to Saudi Arabia in part or (less likely) in their entirety may in time turn out to be one of those consequences. Doing so will certainly send a message to Riyadh, but perhaps not the one that Washington intends and without the results that Washington expects.