The (Possibly Illegal) Art of a $100 Billion Saudi Arms Deal

Trump desperately wants a win in Riyadh, but Washington could make that impossible.

President Donald Trump with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the White House in March 2017.Evan Vucci/AP


As Donald Trump heads to Riyadh today on his first international trip as president, he brings with him a gift: a massive arms deal reportedly worth more than $100 billion for Saudi Arabia. According to Reuters, the deal is specifically being developed to coincide with the visit, where he will meet with Saudi leaders and discuss the war in Yemen. And its success seems to be crucial to the president, whose son-in-law Jared Kushner has personally intervened in the deal’s development. According to the New York Times, earlier this month, in the middle of a meeting with high-level Saudi delegates, Kushner greased the gears by calling Lockheed Martin chief Marilyn A. Hewson and asking her to cut the price on a sophisticated missile defense system. Other details of the package, though, have been somewhat shrouded in mystery—Congress, which will have to approve any new arms deal, has to yet to be notified of specific offerings—but it is said to include planes, armored vehicles, warships, and, perhaps most notably, precision-guided bombs.

“Lifting the suspension on precision-guided munitions is a big deal. It’s a huge impact if it reinforces the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen.”

It’s that last detail in particular that is making many in Washington sweat. The Obama administration inked arms deals with the kingdom worth more than $100 billion over two terms, but it changed course in its last months. As Mother Jones has regularly reported, the Saudi-led war against the Houthi armed group in Yemen has been fueled in part by American weapons, intelligence, and aerial refueling, and it has repeatedly hit civilian targets, including schools, marketplaces, weddings, hospitals, and places of worship. Civilian deaths are estimated to have reached 10,000, with 40,000 injured. In response, the Obama White House suspended a sale of precision-guided bombs to the country in December.

But now, despite the kingdom’s track record, President Trump is aiming to revive the deal. “Lifting the suspension on precision-guided munitions is a big deal,” says William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. “It’s a huge impact if it reinforces the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, and also the signal that it’s okay with us. It’s saying, ‘Have at it. Do what you want.'”

Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the DC-based Arms Control Association adds, “Obama’s record [on arms sales] wasn’t stellar in any way, but in this instance on precision-guided munitions he finally got a bit of spine and said we need to put a pause on this, because the United States is functionally contributing to this humanitarian disaster. Trump is ready to jettison any human rights concerns,” he says, noting that the administration has all but explicitly stated as much. Of course the White House has already excised “human rights” from the top of its agenda; Secretary of State Rex  Tillerson has announced plans to cut 2,300 diplomatic and civil service jobs and, in a speech to State Department employees outlining the administration’s “America First” strategy, Tillerson argued that pushing US values on other countries, such as protecting human rights, “creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”

Following that logic, this arms package might just exemplify the elusive “America First” doctrine. “It’s good for the American economy,” a White House official told Reuters of the deal, suggesting that it would result in jobs in the defense sector. According to analysis by Abramson, Trump’s first 100 days in office resulted in $6 billion worth of notified arms sales—eight times that of Obama’s, whose first 100 days totaled $713 million.

“It seems like part of this is: Trump just likes big numbers. It’s like when he claims credit for jobs he didn’t really help create.”

But Trump may come against more opposition to the deal than he anticipates. Last year, expressing outrage over Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) won the support of 27 legislators to vote against a billion-dollar deal to supply Saudi Arabia with Abrams tanks. The deal still went through, but their opposition marked a shift in how lawmakers viewed arms deals to the kingdom and was the first time that Congress publicly debated the wisdom of the United States’ role in the war in Yemen. At the time Murphy said, “There is a US imprint on every civilian death inside Yemen, which is radicalizing the people of Yemen against the United States.” The two senators also drafted legislation that would suspend certain types of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia until the country could demonstrate that it would protect civilians. This April, they reintroduced a similar bill, this one aimed specifically at air-to-ground munitions. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn), a co-sponsor, said the billwould help protect innocent civilians and hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its actions… We need to stand up for our values and ensure that the U.S. no longer turns a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of children, women, and men in Yemen.” Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have continued to highlight the need to address the Yemen war through humanitarian means, as well as limiting US support.

Even if Congress doesn’t put up a fight, which seems unlikely, Trump’s new deal may fall prey to other obstacles. Earlier this week, the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights released their expert opinion on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and concluded that future sales may not pass legal muster. “In the face of persistent reports of wrongdoing, Saudi Arabia has failed to rebut allegations or provide detailed evidence of compliance with binding obligations arising from international humanitarian law,” the report states. “Under these circumstances, further sales under both the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act are prohibited until the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes effective measures to ensure compliance with international law and the president submits relevant certifications to the Congress.”

Furthermore, Hartung isn’t convinced a deal of such tremendous proportions can realistically come to fruition unless it incorporates deals previously made under the Obama administration—especially considering that it won’t include big ticket items like the F-35 fighter jet, an offer that would make Israel deeply uncomfortable. “Where are they gonna get $100 billion worth of stuff to sell?” Hartung asks. “I don’t see where it is going to come from—are we going to ship our whole Navy over there? Under Obama, under Foreign Military Sales, they offered $115 billion in weapons over his two terms. This would be a one-shot deal that would be almost equal to that, and the Obama numbers were a record,” he says. “It seems like part of this is: Trump just likes big numbers. It’s like when he claims credit for jobs he didn’t really help create.”

If it’s for optics, there’s one clear benefit. “Even if it doesn’t happen, it’s got the short-term benefit of Trump showing that he cares about the Saudis,” says Hartung, suggesting that it possibly could be political theater as the two countries mend ties and as the US tries to project hard power in the region.

Of course, what Trump often fails to realize is that optics go both ways. In addition to what human rights groups have called indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, on multiple occasions, the Saudi coalition has blocked humanitarian aid from entering Yemen, contributing to the growing catastrophe that’s left millions on the brink of starvation and millions more who have been forced to flee their homes. “It appears that war crimes are being committed in Yemen, and if the United States is supporting that war, in a way it is also culpable for those war crimes,” says Abramson. “Most Americans don’t want their country to be engaged in war crimes. That’s another reason why we really need to pay attention to this.”