A thorough review of the relationships with our Near-East partners has been long overdue, and for that reason, it’s prudent to pause arm sales so the new administration has time to formulate a comprehensive Middle East strategy. Indeed, this pause in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ought to be extended until each countries’ respective military operations in Yemen are limited to joint counter-terrorism efforts against AQAP and ISIS. In this review we must consider the three elements implicit in any arms deal: the strategic, economic, and risk factors. Yet, because of the uncertain nature and long-term consequences of arms deals, we must also admit a high level of ignorance and acknowledge the qualitative rather than quantitative nature of this discussion as a whole. One’s perception of the relative importance of any of these factors varies, and I argue that we must avoid an unequal weighting of one factor significantly over the others, as we’ve seen done by the Trump Administration in their emphasis on economic gain, or by the Obama Administration as they initially weighed the strategic advantage of a Saudi arms deal while in a concurrent negotiation for the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015.
Let us first begin with a discussion of the economic factors, as they are the most straightforward to understand. Put simply, the United States spends an enormous amount of money on its defense industry, much of which is also focused on procuring arms for their sale to other nations. This is seen as a means of providing American jobs, as well as reducing the unit cost of our weapons and munitions. However, given the inefficiencies of government spending, and the historically disastrous planning of the F-35 fighter jets that are at the crux of the UAE deal, one could argue that the economic benefits neutralize themselves when it comes to the bottom line for American taxpayers. Especially in the case of the paused arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the economic consideration is not nearly as significant as the Trump Administration originally marketed it to be.
The strategic factors in an arms deal are perhaps the most volatile since they largely depend on one’s perception of geopolitical dynamics. I see the main consideration here as being the effect of these arms deals on the Yemeni Civil War, where the Saudi-UAE Coalition directly supports the UN-recognized Yemeni government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels sitting on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. It is unlikely that the Saudi Arabian government will negotiate a deal that allows the Houthi government to remain comfortably on their border as a hostile asset of Iran since this compromises the security of Saudi Arabia who sees Iran as its primary adversary in the region. So given that the U.S. accounts for the majority of Saudi Arabia’s arms imports, if we cease to fuel their Yemen campaign it is likely that the Gulf State will turn to other suppliers, most worrisome being the world’s second-largest arms exporter, Russia, who has already demonstrated great interest in selling to the Saudis, as well as helping them accomplish their goal of localizing over 50% of defense spending by 2030. The same concern can be extended to the UAE, who already signed an agreement stating their intent to purchase Russian Su-35 jets, quite likely leveraging this into the current deal for U.S. F-35 jets. If we choose to view arms deals as a means of forming relations with countries, it’s clear to see that a dismissal of these arms agreements would result in a deterioration of our relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the latter having just normalized relations with Israel, our closest ally in the region.
Now we turn to the risk factors associated with this arms deal, which in light of these parties’ participation in the Yemeni Civil War primarily becomes the consideration of risking further humanitarian disaster in the region. It’s important to recognize that both sides of the conflict have committed gross violations of human rights and that our contribution to these violations is in no way insignificant. And despite the perception that conservatives are more concerned with bottom lines than human lives, we’re indeed compelled to consider the humanitarian consequences of any arms deal according to the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy updated by the Trump Administration in 2018. Between the over 100,000 lives lost (including thousands of civilians), the onset of the largest cholera epidemic ever recorded (severely worsened by the conflict), and the severe risk of widespread famine that sees 80% of the countries denizens relying on humanitarian aid, it’s clear that the abuse of human rights has been too long ignored and discounted by the previous two administrations when evaluating arms deals to participatory nations.
After weighing the strategic, economic, and risk factors of these arms deals, I draw a conclusion that I don’t believe is the only rational one but nonetheless comes from a comprehensive review of the relevant considerations. That is, the pause in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE ought to be extended or permanent until the military operations of these respective countries in Yemen are limited to joint counter-terrorism efforts against AQAP (Al Quaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIS, which the UAE has largely begun doing. Viewing from the right side of the field, I see the threat to Yemen’s humanitarian efforts to be too great in the status quo for the continuation of these arms sales, with any strategic advantage nullified by the risk of fomenting further vitriol against the U.S. through our involvement.