Saudi Arabia is in the hot seat after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi finally bringing the war in Yemen front and center. With the political foment endangering further weapon sales to the Saudi Kingdom, some defense companies have already opened manufacturing facilities in Saudi Arabia.
The conflict in Yemen, which pits Iranian backed rebels against a Saudi Arabian lead coalition with U.S. backing, has been largely ignored by the U.S. mass media. Since the conflict began in 2015, it has been overshadowed by domestic U.S. political concerns. MSNBC broadcast a full year without mentioning the war, and a 60 Minutes segment didn’t even mention the U.S.’s military role in the conflict.
However, the apparent murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi has suddenly sharpened media criticism of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and brought slowly building critique of the war in Yemen to a boil.
Weapons of War
The war in Yemen began to emerge from the journalistic wilderness in August of this year. CNN reported that a bombing in the country, one that struck a school bus and killed 40 children, utilized a U.S. manufactured bomb. CNN confirmed that the bomb used in the attack was a laser-guided MK82 bomb, manufactured by top U.S. defense contractor, Lockheed Martin. For years, it had been unclear if weapons from the U.S. were being used in the conflict, and the CNN report spurred discourse over U.S. involvement in the war.
Human rights concerns over this technology are ongoing. Following a Saudi-led bombing of a funeral in Yemen in October of 2016, the Obama administration imposed limits on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. That put a stop to sophisticated weapon shipments there.
“We’ve decided not to move forward with some foreign military sales cases for air-dropped munitions, PGMs [precision-guided munitions],” an Obama official explained.
The Trump administration, however, revoked these limits. In his first visit to a foreign nation as president in 2017, Trump signed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The largest portion of the deal, $28 billion, was weapons manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
With growing media and public pressure, the U.S. Congress may view the prospect of aiding and providing weapons to the Saudi military in a different light. This would be bad news for the Saudis, and good news for the Iranians, yet one actor may have insulated itself from the U.S. legislature.
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman is moving forward with a defense spending bonanza. Saudi Vision 2030 is his national plan to improve politics, economy, and society. Tantalizingly for weapons manufacturers, the Saudis are looking to reduce weapons imports and manufacture “50 percent of military equipment” domestically. US defense companies are scrambling to get a piece of this action.
In March, the Saudis contracted Lockheed Martin to assist in developing cyber security infrastructure. Saudi Arabia also granted Lockheed Martin a $500 million contract to design Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) Navy. That sale is just the beginning of the KSA’s $22 billion plan to upgrade its navy.
“There has been a change since the Trump visit. The business environment has picked up and has been a lot more cordial. It was a big thing for Trump to have his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia,” said Alan Chinoda, Chief Executive for Lockheed Martin Saudi Arabia.
Lockheed Martin also formed a joint venture with the KSA called Rotary Aircraft Manufacturing Saudi Arabia, which will lead to more than 600 technology jobs in Saudi Arabia for manufacturing sophisticated helicopters. Meanwhile, about 500 employees will lose their jobs when the Black Hawk helicopter factory closes in the U.S. The factory is owned by Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorsky Aircraft, in Jupiter, Florida.
Sikorsky’s president said the factory closed to “adjust to lower U.S. government aircraft demand.” Yet, the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) financed 36 Black Hawks, the FY 2018 NDAA financed 56 and the FY 2019 financed 68. Rotary Aircraft Manufacturing Saudi Arabia plans to produce 150 Black Hawks.
Growing Discontent in the Legislature
“I’ve been their (Saudi Arabia’s) biggest defender on the floor of the United States Senate. This guy (Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman) is a wrecking ball,” said U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham in a television interview on October 16. “He had this guy (Khashoggi) murdered in a consulate in Turkey. I feel used and abused. I was on the floor every time defending Saudi Arabia because they’re a good ally. There’s a difference between a country and an individual. To me, MBS as a figure is toxic and can never be a world leader on the world stage.”
The loss of Graham is a blow for the Saudis. Graham sits on the Senate subcommittee overseeing the foreign affairs budget, is a major national figure, and has served to stop legislation hostile to the Saudis and the war in Yemen. It comes in addition to an ever-more-tenuous position for Saudi interests in the U.S. Senate.
The FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual spending bill, set aside $700 billion for the Pentagon and military spending this year, a hike of over $100 billion from the previous year. The legislation included a provision requiring the Secretary of State to verify that US forces are working to end the civil war and protect civilian interests in Yemen. Nevertheless, this bill allows abrogation of this limitation if the Secretary of State issues a waiver for “security reasons” and a justification to Congress. Secretary Mike Pompeo began early coordinating with the Saudis to conduct such an investigation.
Pompeo ended up certifying that the coalition was taking sufficient steps to protect civilians, after consulting with the State Department’s legislative affairs team. The Bureau of Legislative Affairs is headed by Charles Faulkner, who went to the State Department after four years as a lobbyist for the defense industry. Faulkner’s team argued that a “lack of certification will negatively impact pending arms transfers.”
According to the President’s signing statement on the NDAA, its rules around Yemen were not “consistent with the President’s exclusive constitutional authorities as Commander in Chief and as the sole representative of the Nation in foreign affairs.” Signing statements are used by presidents to describe their interpretation of the bill they are signing into law.
Evidence of worsening conditions since Yemen slipped into famine in 2016 drove Bernie Sanders and other concerned senators to attempt the creation of a joint resolution to direct the “removal of hostilities in or affecting” Yemen. However, a vote of 55 – 44 tabled the motion. Because 5 Republicans abstained, 10 Democratic senators defected to stop the bill. This featured even more defections from the Democratic side than the previous summer’s vote on a similar piece of legislation.
According to an upcoming report by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, registered foreign agents working for Saudi Arabia contacted congressional representatives, the White House, the media, and members of prominent think-tanks more than 2,500 times in 2017. Simultaneously, they contributed $400,000 to senators’ and house representatives’ finances.
Deals in the here and now
It is not just future arms deals that are endangered by the diplomatic spat. The $110 billion deal brokered by President Trump is still up in the air.
“There is no $110 billion deal. Instead, there are a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts,” said Bruce Riedel, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, explaining how there was less than meets the eye to Trump’s arms deal.
For example, one of the largest ‘agreements’ in the deal was for $15bn in Lockheed Martin’s THAAD missile defense system, which included a Sept. 30, 2018 deadline to finalize the deal. The Saudis allowed that date to pass without action, raising concerns that the Saudis are going to choose the Russian S-400 missile defense system.
These soft-deals could be in trouble if the diplomatic spat continues, and international investment in the Kingdom may be in trouble. A showpiece conference in Saudi Arabia last week, billed as “Davos in the desert,” saw a litany of withdrawals, with senior executives from JP Morgan, Blackrock, Blackstone, Ford, MasterCard and Google cancelling their attendance from the conference.
[Title image: A Yemeni girl demonstration in the capital Sanaa on Aug. 12, 2018, against an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition, which hit a bus killing dozens of children in the northern Houthi stronghold of Saada. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)]
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