Pentagon says Riyadh is too important to whip, rolls out $15bn THAAD arms deal instead
The most-recent major US-Saudi arms deal was rolled out on Wednesday. Riyadh is seeking to get THAAD air defense missile systems, and the terms of the purchase were quietly formalized this week, the State Department announced. Under the $15 billion contract, Riyadh will receive 44 THAAD launchers, missiles and related equipment.
The news of a yet another lucrative contract came the very same day Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rushed to defend the kingdom against the mounting anger in the Senate over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the bloody war in Yemen. Speaking at a closed-door briefing, they explained that Saudi Arabia is simply too important to scrap existing bonds.
The Pentagon's chief called Riyadh "fundamental" to regional and Israeli security, as well as crucial for the US' own interests.
"We are seldom free to work with unblemished partners," Mattis bluntly admitted. He went on to argue that the ties with the kingdom "cannot be dismissed" even as Washington condemned Khashoggi's death.
The officials also came out of their way to shield Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, against the allegations that he might have been in on the plan to kill Khashoggi all along.
"We have no smoking gun the Crown Prince was involved, not the intelligence community or anyone else. There is no smoking gun," Mattis told reporters. Pompeo agreed with him, claiming there is "no direct reporting" connecting MBS with the order to kill the journalist.
Their statements seemed to run contrary to the CIA. According to media reports, intelligence officials, in fact, have believed "for weeks" that there is no way that Jamal Khashoggi's murder could have happened without the Crown Prince's approval.
Earlier, President Donald Trump went even further, suggesting that "maybe" MBS "had knowledge" of Khashoggi's killing. But that still doesn't change much. As Trump poignantly explained, it would we "foolish" to ditch the $450 billion of investments the Saudis promised the US. He singled out the $110 billion of existing arms contacts Washington can't afford to lose, especially to rivals Russia and China. The president also praised the Arab kingdom as the centerpiece in the fight against arch-nemesis, Iran.
Washington's steadfast defense and loyalty to Saudi Arabia is nothing new. Over the years, numerous rights groups have been begging the White House to stop aiding Riyadh, citing its abysmal track record on human rights. Before the Khashoggi case shocked the world and launched the Saudis in a PR nightmare, there was the dissident Raif Badawi. The creator of the blog 'Free Saudi Liberals' was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for criticizing the government. Human rights campaigners called on the kingdom's Western allies, including the US, to pressure it into releasing Badawi. Washington's efforts to have the dissident freed went little beyond the generic statements of "concern."
In the case of Khashoggi, the US sanctioned 17 Saudi officials but fell short of targeting the country's leadership. The criticism of the nation's ruling royal family is largely absent from the rhetoric coming from the White House. And when it does, it gets sandbagged with praise of the kingdom's strategic role in the region. The US, nevertheless, stays true to the long-standing tradition of backing its principal ally in the Middle East. It does so despite multiple allegations and reports of human rights abuses by Riyadh.
Similarly, little to no action was taken to address the harrowing reports on the kingdom's role in the bloody conflict in Yemen. The US-made weapons and military gear is frequently used during the Saudi-led bombing campaign which regularly claims lives of civilians, the rights groups warm. Yet, Riyadh's status as a close and valuable ally effectively deterred politicians in Washington from attacking the Gulf nation.
Only on Wednesday did the US senators vote to launch debates whether the state should stop supporting the Saudi war in Yemen. Several lawmakers earlier penned a letter urging Trump to investigate the role of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi's death.
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