Comments come amid a growing chorus of calls for Washington to cut arms sales to the kingdom over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi
United States President Donald Trump for the first time issued a scathing condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen. The leader accused Riyadh of “misusing” American arms, which he said was the underlying cause of the “horrific” aerial bombing of a school bus by Saudi-led forces in August. At least 51 people were killed in the strike, including 40 Yemeni children mostly under the age of eleven.
“It’s horrible what happened,” President Trump said in an interview with Axios on Sunday, adding that “these people [Saudis] don’t know how to deal with weapons.” Responding to whether the U.S. would therefore end arms sales to the conservative Muslim kingdom, the president reiterated that, “I do not want our weapons to fall into the hands of those who do not know how to use them.”
The rare rebuke of a longtime American ally comes amid growing domestic and international calls for Washington to sanction Riyadh following the grisly murder on October 2 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The House of Saud initially denied any involvement but has since accepted responsibility for the assassination while still trying to shield Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman from the fall-out.
On Monday, the United States condemned Khashoggi’s “premeditated killing.”
“By Trump admitting what happened in Yemen, he is actually showing that he is the worst because he has been covering up Saudi crimes,” Oraib Rintawi, a Jordanian political analyst, contended to The Media Line. He further suggested that the U.S. leader was attempting to absolve himself of responsibility for what is happening in Yemen while attempting to “contain” growing American anger towards Saudi Arabia.
“There is a real strong U.S. media campaign against the kingdom,” Rintawi noted, “and part of it consists of blaming the administration.” This is especially critical, he concluded, given the U.S. mid-term elections will be held on Tuesday.
“Following the disappearance of the Saudi journalist, the American media attacked Trump and portrayed him as being guilty of covering up bin Salman’s actions in Yemen and Turkey,” Asaad al-Owiwi, a Palestinian political analyst, conveyed to The Media Line. “The public campaign also implied that Trump’s [unwavering] support for the crown prince had encouraged him to reach this point of brutality.”
Al-Owiwi stressed that Trump currently is on the defensive because people are aware that “the president knows exactly what is happening in Yemen, as U.S intelligence is the strongest in the world.” Overall, he attributed President Trump’s past actions to a desire to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia, which is both a major American trade and investment partner and the centerpiece of the White House’s foreign policy goal of curbing Iranian expansionism.
In this respect, during his first trip abroad as president in May 2017 Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman signed a series of letters of intent for the kingdom to buy U.S. arms totaling $110 billion immediately and $350 billion over a decade. The deals include weapons ranging from tanks and combat ships to missile defense systems and cyber-security technology. At the time, the move was described as a “historic” moment in the bilateral relationship and viewed as a measure to counter-balance Iran’s influence in the region.
Over the past year, senior Trump administration officials have conducted shuttle diplomacy between Middle East capitals, laying the foundation for a new strategic alliance against Shiite Tehran made up of Sunni countries. The so-called “Arab NATO” has yet to materialize, however, this week the armies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait are taking part in the 16-day “The Shield of the Arabs 1” drills in Egypt.