US Senate Preparing Last-ditch Attempt to Block Arms to Gulf Allies
Democrat-led effort seeks to override veto by President Trump, who is determined to see sales through despite concerns weapons will be used in Yemen
The US Senate will soon be voting on whether to override President Donald Trump’s veto of three resolutions approved by the House of Representatives to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
However, the vote, slated to be held before Congress adjourns for recess on August 2, is not expected to garner the necessary two-thirds majority required to override the veto. Instead, it is expected to run along party lines, with only a few Republicans – who hold 53 seats in the 100-member Senate – in favor of halting the nearly two dozen deals worth an estimated $8 billion.
The measures would block the sale of precision-guided munitions and related equipment by the US defense contractor Raytheon.
The three resolutions “would weaken America’s global competitiveness and damage the important relationships we share with our allies and partners,” President Trump said in letters to the Senate.
But supporters say they fear the weapons could be used against civilians in the Yemen conflict. They accuse the president of turning a blind eye to alleged Saudi war crimes throughout that country’s civil war, and for not coming down hard enough on Riyadh in the wake of last year’s killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate.
In order to maintain close bilateral relations with the House of Saud – a key ally in the White House’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran – some legislators also believe the American leader has ignored congressional review processes, exploiting his executive power by declaring an “emergency” over tensions with the Islamic Republic of Iran to justify his moves.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the administration was responding to an emergency caused by Saudi Arabia’s arch-foe, Iran.
It is the third time that President Trump has used his veto power since taking office against what one analyst said the president views as “unwarranted legislative intrusions on the prerogative of the president to conduct foreign policy.”
President Trump “supports the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen as part of the regional efforts to roll back Iran’s influence, and he values the broader relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Also, he’s a big fan of selling US goods and services to other countries,” Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line.
Ibish said that while an arms sale would help the Saudi war effort, it would not change the “fundamental political, military or strategic equation in Yemen.”
Riyadh maintains it wants to diversify its oil-dependent energy sector, but the House of Saud has also made clear that it will take steps to match the nuclear capabilities of Iran.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) delivered a scathing condemnation to Riyadh last month, saying he hoped his vote against the sales would “send a signal to Saudi Arabia that if you act the way you’re acting, there is no space for a strategic relationship.”
Onur Erim, president of Dragoman Strategies, a Turkish think tank, told The Media Line that President Trump has “ignored the US legislative branch and dismissed gross human rights violations by Saudi Arabia… giving more and more encouragement to tyrants around the world.
Erim added that the US president apparently “entertains his relationship with [Saudi Arabia] as a special one.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a Democratic presidential hopeful, took to Twitter to lash out at the president: “The president’s veto enables the sale of $8.1 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia’s brutal dictators. It will deepen and prolong the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen. It infringes on Congress’ authority over matters of war.”
Ibish said that President Trump’s use of his veto power was indicative of his strong relationship with both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. However, the two countries will need to work on repairing their relations with Democrats and those who voted to block the weapons sales.
“It’s good they have close relations with Trump, but they’re in danger of being too closely associated with him in the minds of other Americans. Their partnership must be with the whole country and not just the Trump family and administration,” Ibish told The Media Line.
Matthew James Bryza, a former US diplomat whose last posting was as ambassador to Azerbaijan, told The Media Line in a written statement that President Trump “has staked his Middle East policy (such as it is) on Saudi Arabia, and by extension, with Riyadh’s key partner in the war in Yemen, [the] UAE. So President Trump will obviously resist any congressional actions that Riyadh might view as ‘anti-Saudi.’”
Bryza continued by saying: “This attitude of the US president has been shamefully evident in his opposition to any congressional efforts to penalize Saudi Arabia for the barbaric murder/dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi. A second key factor, which also drives President Trump toward [Saudi Arabia’s] top leaders is his desire to apply maximum pressure against Iran.”
Robert Riggs, an associate professor of religion and politics at Connecticut’s University of Bridgeport, told The Media Line that the Trump veto was meant to keep America’s Gulf allies from going elsewhere for weapons.
“His rationale was that if the US does not provide weapons sales opportunities to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, [the countries] would go elsewhere (such as Russia) to purchase competing weapons, and the US would lose the money from those purchases as well as leverage over its allies in the region.”
According to Riggs, it appears that “regardless of how they behave,” the “primary concern” of the White House right now is to maintain a “positive trade balance” with US allies.
“Unlike past administrations that tied US aid and weapons sales to democratic progress and [the] preservation of human rights, the Trump Administration seems to be taking a more cynical approach that purely looks at the economic bottom line.”
The political confrontation in Washington comes amid growing fears on Capitol Hill that Saudi Arabia has accelerated its ballistic missile program with the help of China, a move that could be a prelude to Riyadh’s eventual development of nuclear weapons. This is compounded by reports that the White House is planning to share nuclear technology with the Saudis and build reactors throughout the kingdom.
In February, Democratic lawmakers launched an investigation into whether the White House’s weapons initiative would violate US laws barring the transfer of sensitive technologies that can be used to develop nuclear arms.