Untangling At Last: Policymakers Take Aim at Ending Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has a big problem on its hands this week. Despite funneling significant resources into lobbying efforts and U.S. congressional campaigns, the kingdom has found itself in a pickle that it cannot seem to easily extricate itself from: the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. 

For years, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has drawn significant criticism for its strategy and tactics. The Saudi naval blockade has the kingdom’s smaller neighbor grappling with a devastating famine and a dearth of medical supplies and humanitarian aid. The Saudi air campaign has also proven deeply problematic—either from poor aim or amoral choices of target. 

International critiques seemed to reach a crescendo last month after the Saudis mistakenly bombed a school bus full of children, killing 26 and injuring 19 Yemeni kids. European nations issued statements that they would halt weapons shipments to the kingdom for the foreseeable future because of the incident, but many of those nations (including Spain and Germany) did an abrupt U-turn later in the month and proceeded with the sales. 

Some American policymakers have also tried to halt weapon sales to the nation over the past two years. There have been two outright votes on the matter led by bipartisan, bicameral coalitions, but both measures were narrowly defeated.

Saudi Arabia’s role in Khashoggi’s disappearance has created a pivotal moment for the effort led by some in Congress to untangle the United States from Saudi crimes. Make no mistake, this change is not out of the blue—it’s reaching critical mass. The champions of previous amendments, including Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Chris Murphy, and Sen. Mike Lee, now have powerful policymaker allies that had been previously opposed to their efforts.  

But it should never have taken the disappearance of a Washington Post journalist to reach critical mass. Saudi Arabia has a staggering history of involvement in human rights concerns in Yemen that should have provided enough momentum to stop and question the current scope of defense exports flowing into the country. The evidence that, at the very least, selling weapons to the country was a risky endeavor has been clear for years.

On the Risk Assessment Index, a comprehensive estimate meant to objectively measure the risks of negative consequences flowing from American arms sales to particular countries, Saudi Arabia scored a 12 on a scale of 5 (lowest risk) to 15 (highest risk). The overall measure was created from making one unique composite score for each nation from the Fragile State Index, Freedom House Index, U.S. State Department’s Political Terror Scale, Global Terrorism Index, and the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Database. A full breakdown of the index and its implications can be found in my and Trevor Thrall’s recent paper, “Risky Business.”

While President Trump may tout the economic benefits of weapons exports, Congress has a responsibility to also consider the foreign policy implications of continuing U.S. support. As I wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal,

The U.S. makes arms-sales decisions under legislative restrictions… The 1976 Arms Export Control Act creates a directive to ensure that American-made weapons don’t spark arms races, support terrorism, or enable human-rights violations abroad. These aren’t “worries” or “aversions.” It’s the law.

The signs have been clear for a while. The smartest move for policymakers would be to at least halt deliveries to the kingdom until Khashoggi’s disappearance can be thoroughly investigated, and to use that time to seriously evaluate the trade-offs that come from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia.