$115bn in US arms for Saudis should leverage reduction of civilian casualties in Yemen – think tank

© Chris Wilkins
The US has offered Saudi Arabia $115 billion worth of arms during Barack Obama’s two terms as president, an anti-war think tank counted, arguing that this should give Washington enough leverage to pressure Riyadh to prevent civilian casualties in Yemen.

Weapons have been sold to Saudi Arabia in 42 separate deals since 2009, William Hartung of the US-based Center for International Policy, a non-profit group that has been advocating demilitarization since 1975, reported on Wednesday.

The sum of $115 billion was arrived at based on data on arms sales deals published by the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. The figure is greater than that for any previous US administration over more than seven decades of US-Saudi alliance.

The latest example of arms trade between Washington and Riyadh is a deal for 153 Abrams tanks and other military equipment, which is worth an estimated $1.15 billion and was approved by the White House in August. Twenty of those tanks are meant to replace armor lost by Saudi Arabia in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The war, which has claimed at least 10,000 lives, started in March of 2015 when Saudi Arabia sent troops to Yemen to reinstall its ousted Sunni president to power. According to a UN tally, 3,799 of the victims have been civilians, the majority of whom were killed in airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

During 17 months of intervention, Saudi warplanes have been reported bombing schools, hospitals, marketplaces, and other non-military targets. Leading rights groups say such indiscriminate attacks should be considered war crimes.

“It’s time for the Obama administration to use the best leverage it has – Saudi Arabia’s dependence on US weapons and support – to wage the war in Yemen in the first place,” Hartung told Reuters.

“Pulling back the current offer of battle tanks or freezing some of the tens of billions in weapons and services in the pipeline would send a strong signal to the Saudi leadership that they need stop their indiscriminate bombing campaign and take real steps to prevent civilian casualties,” he said.

Some US lawmakers made similar calls after the tank deal was announced last month. A bipartisan letter signed by 64 representatives said the sale must be delayed, while condemning the civilian casualties in Yemen.

“The Saudi military’s operational conduct in Yemen and the killing of civilians with US-made weapons have harmed our national security interests, and I will continue to oppose any arms sale that contributes to its operations in that arena,” said Ted Lieu, who has led the effort to freeze the deal.

Similar resistance has arisen in the UK, where the continued sale of British arms to Saudi Arabia is being criticized by Labour MPs, while PM Theresa May’s cabinet has advocated continued cooperation with Riyadh.

“Actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe,” the prime minister said in response to opposition criticism.

The spat broke out after a Parliamentary committee charged with scrutinizing the UK’s arms exports found that it was likely that British weapons had been used in committing violations of international law.