The U.S. defense industry has sold at least $33 billion worth of weapons to its Persian Gulf allies over the past year as dual bombing campaigns against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Houthi rebels in Yemen have depleted stores of aerial bombs and other munitions. But as civilian casualties mount in Yemen in particular, a bipartisan duo in the U.S. Senate is working to tighten the free-flow of weapons and cash between the U.S. and one of its most important Gulf allies.
Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced legislation on Wednesday that would restrict the sale of U.S. aerial bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia unless certain conditions are met. Those conditions stem from repeated allegations that Saudi aircraft indiscriminately strike ground targets without regard for civilian casualties. The Saudi Royal Air Force has waged an intense bombing campaign against an Iran-backed Houthi rebellion that has embroiled Yemen in civil war since March of last year.
“Saudi Arabia is an important partner, but we must acknowledge when a friend’s actions aren’t in our national interest,” Sen. Murphy said in a written statement. “I have yet to see evidence that the civil war we’re supplying and supporting in Yemen advances our national security.”
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Just last week Human Rights Watch alleged that the Saudi-led coalition—which also includes other U.S. Gulf allies Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—struck a market with U.S.-supplied bombs, killing at least 119 people. Witnesses reported that just 10 of those killed in the market were actually Houthi fighters.
Civilian deaths in Yemen have topped 3,200 as of March 17, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. The UN’s human rights chief as also says the Saudi-led coalition has caused twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces fighting in Yemen, with air strikes accounting for the vast majority of those deaths.
As a result, the Dutch parliament has voted to halt all arms trading with Saudi Arabia. The British parliament is under pressure to do the same, and Canada’s defense minister is facing significant backlash for green-lighting a $15 billion deal to sell vehicles and other weapons to the Saudi regime earlier this year.
The U.S. is easily Saudi Arabia’s most important supplier of aerial weapons, responsible for keeping the kingdom supplied with precision guided munitions and “dumb” bombs alike. In response to the uptick in demand for such weapons, Lockheed Martin (LMT) recently quadrupled production of Paveway II laser-guided bombs (a Saudi Royal Air Force favorite). Companies like Raytheon (RTN), Boeing (BA), and General Dynamics (GD) also benefit from the boost in overseas weapons sales that has accompanied the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
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Sens. Murphy and Paul’s joint resolution seeks to either slow the flow of these air-to-ground weapons to Saudi Arabia or force the kingdom to check its allegedly reckless deployment of them. If signed into law, the legislation would require Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners to take demonstrable precautions that would reduce the risk to civilian lives and infrastructure. The resolution also calls on those countries to prove they are not providing funding for proxy groups designated as foreign terrorists, take more measures to target those groups that are designated as foreign terrorists, and facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid into Yemen.
For a U.S. defense industry that has been able to largely offset slowing U.S. defense spending with foreign military sales, restricting the flow of weapons to a free-spending customer like Saudi Arabia would prove an unwelcome development. Others in Washington will likely see the legislation as a counterproductive measure that would militarily weaken America’s strongest ally in the Gulf region–one that President Obama will personally visit next week in an effort to strengthen bilateral relations.
Sen. Murphy sees it as a matter of national security in itself. Not only is the fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen distracting our allies from the more important fight against the Islamic State, he writes in his statement, but American support for a campaign that is translating into vast humanitarian suffering isn’t helping the U.S. win hearts and minds.
“As the humanitarian crisis continues to deteriorate, anti-American sentiment is spiraling as the local population blames the U.S. for the thousands of civilian deaths resulting from the Saudis’ bombing campaign,” he writes. “This will come back to haunt us.”