More than a week after Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist, commentator and intellectual disappeared inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the United States is starting to realize it may be time to hold the government in Riyadh accountable for its reckless behavior and its violations of human rights.
On Oct. 10, Bob Corker and Bob Menendez, the top Republican and Democrat in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, triggered the Global Magnitsky Act, a bipartisan bill to punish human rights violators, to force the Trump administration to investigate and consider sanctions against Saudi Arabia. The crisis over Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance piles on to growing — if belated — concern over Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen, which has produced little geopolitical gain and much human suffering.
If American officials really want to encourage a change in Saudi policy, they should begin by looking at Saudi Arabia’s largest imports from the United States: weaponry. Cutting off the flow of American arms to Saudi Arabia would be an effective way to put pressure on Riyadh with little cost to the American economy or national security.
President Trump, however, is skeptical. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country,” he said on Thursday. “They are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country.” This figure is vastly inflated, but there’s a reason Mr. Trump is inclined to believe it. While the amount of new deals approved under President Trump is closer to $20 billion, the Saudi government has visibly linked itself as the foremost client of the administration’s export push.
Peter Navarro, the White House’s director of trade and industrial policy, has argued that increased arms sales “will be an important catalyst for strengthening American industry; the stewardship of our national security; and the strengthening of our international partnerships.” But the truth is that in the case of Saudi Arabia, the benefits on all three fronts are slight.
Despite recent increases, Saudi arms orders remain a manageably small part of the United States’ exports. According to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, in 2017, a near-record year for annual purchases, the United States delivered $5.5 billion worth of arms, 20 percent of all foreign military sales. That may sound like a lot, but the United States exports only 25 to 30 percent of its defense industry production, so exports to Saudi Arabia clearly remain a relatively small slice of the enormous defense industrial pie.
And contrary to President Trump’s statement, exports to Saudi Arabia create relatively few American jobs. Based on Commerce Department figures, releasing the billion dollars of munitions currently on hold in the Senate would “create or sustain” fewer than 4,000 jobs. Here’s a more specific example: Publicizing a recent $6 billion helicopter deal with Saudi Arabia, Lockheed Martin predicted that it would “support” 450 American jobs.
To date these sales have not “stewarded our national security.” Beyond its tragic war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has blockaded Qatar, an ally that hosts the Middle East’s largest American military base. And Saudi Arabia provides little help when it comes to Washington’s real regional priorities, such as fighting the Islamic State and stabilizing Iraq. The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy specifically de-emphasizes the war on terror to focus on competition with China and Russia.
Perhaps selling weapons “strengthens international partnerships,” as Mr. Navarro put it, or at least discourages Saudi Arabia from finding different ones. Mr. Trump on Thursday cited “four or five alternatives” to American weapons, and the need to avoid “letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money.” This, however, is unlikely even in the long term.
Saudi Arabia is in the middle of a major war, and more than 60 percent of its arms deliveries over the past five years came from the United States. The Saudi military relies not just on American tanks, planes and missiles but for a daily supply of maintenance, training and support, such as intelligence and refueling. In the longer term, almost all of Saudi Arabia’s remaining exports come from Europe. To truly squeeze Saudi Arabia, a coordinated embargo — much like the one now in place against Russia — would be necessary but relatively easy. European governments already feel strong domestic political pressure not to export to regimes like Saudi Arabia.
Transforming the Saudi military to employ Russian, much less Chinese, weapons would cost a fortune even by Gulf standards, would require years of retraining and would greatly reduce its military power for a generation. Russia cannot produce next-generation fighter aircraft, tanks and infantry fighting vehicles for its own armed forces, much less for the export market. China has not produced, never mind exported, the sophisticated aircraft and missile defense systems Saudi Arabia wants.
Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified that Saudi Arabia was minimizing civilian casualties in the Yemen air campaign apparently to avoid jeopardizing $2 billion in weapons sales. That small number does not show how powerful the Saudis are so much as how cheaply the United States can be bought. Given these sales’ low domestic economic impact and the enormous costs of going elsewhere for Saudi Arabia, the United States has the preponderance of influence in this arms trade relationship. It should act accordingly.
Jonathan D. Caverley is an associate professor at the United States Naval War College and a research scientist at M.I.T.